Defoe’s assaults upon the High-Church Tories were neither interdicted nor resented by the Government, though he lay in prison at their mercy. Throughout the winter of 1703-4 the extreme members of the Ministry, though they had still a majority in the House of Commons, felt the Queen’s coldness increase. Their former high place in her regard and their continued hold upon Parliament tempted them to assume airs of independence which gave deeper offence than her unruffled courtesy led either them or their rivals to suspect. At last the crisis came. The Earl of Nottingham took the rash step of threatening to resign unless the Whig Dukes of Somerset and Devonshire were dismissed from the Cabinet. To his surprise and chagrin, his resignation was accepted (1704), and two more of his party were dismissed from office at the same time.
The successor of Nottingham was Robert Harley, afterwards created Earl of Oxford and Mortimer. He gave evidence late in life of his love for literature by forming the collection of manuscripts known as the Harleian, and we know from Swift that he was deeply impressed with the importance of having allies in the Press. He entered upon office in May, 1704, and one of his first acts was to convey to Defoe the message, “Pray, ask that gentleman what I can do for him.” Defoe replied by likening himself to the blind man in the parable, and paraphrasing his prayer, “Lord, that I may receive my sight!” He would not seem to have obtained his liberty immediately, but, through Harley’s influence, he was set free towards the end of July or the beginning of August. The Queen also, he afterwards said, “was pleased particularly to inquire into his circumstances and family, and by Lord Treasurer Godolphin to send a considerable supply to his wife and family, and to send him to the prison money to pay his fine and the expenses of his discharge.”
On what condition was Defoe released? On condition, according to the Elegy on the Author of the True-Born Englishman, which he published immediately after his discharge, that he should keep silence for seven years, or at least “not write what some people might not like.” To the public he represented himself as a martyr grudgingly released by the Government, and restrained from attacking them only by his own bond and the fear of legal penalties.
“Memento Mori here I stand,
With silent lips but speaking hand;
A walking shadow of a Poet,
But bound to hold my tongue and never show it.
A monument of injury,
A sacrifice to legal t(yrann)y.”
“For shame, gentlemen,” he humorously cries to his enemies, “do not strike a dead man; beware, scribblers, of fathering your pasquinades against authority upon me; for seven years the True-Born Englishman is tied under sureties and penalties not to write.”
“To seven long years of silence
Perhaps by then I may forget to speak.”