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Morality and Conduct Books

Defoe’s works on moral reform are part of a larger tradition in the eighteenth century of reformation. In response to a shift in social values at the beginning of William and Mary’s reign, the Society for the Reformation of Manners was created in 1691 to monitor and suppress immorality and profanity. Many groups were formed in communities within London and beyond (Defoe was a member for a time), and their work was carried out through activities ranging from preaching and distributing tracts to hiring locals to act as informers.

Many of Defoe’s ideas on moral and social reform go hand in hand with education. Without education, how can children be raised well? How can a gentleman truly be a gentleman? How can men and women marry wisely? One of the hallmarks of Defoe’s writings on these subjects is his use of stories and dialogues to get his point across. He can use an account of a hurricane or fictitious conversations between a father and his children to entertain his readers while also instructing them.


The Storm Title Page
The Storm: or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. London: Printed for G. Sawbridge in Little Britain, and Sold by J. Nutt near Stationers-Hall. MDCCIV.

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While the title suggests that this will be a journalistic account of the disasters occasioned by the storm, this work is really a sermon. For, Defoe says, “I cannot doubt but the Atheist’s hard’ned Soul trembl’d a little as well as his House, and he felt some Nature asking him some little Questions; as these—Am not I mistaken? Certainly there is some such thing as a God – What can all this be? What is the Matter in the World?” (ix). He believes, however, that a plain account of the horrible events will do more good than any sermon could.

The storm in question is the hurricane that landed in England in November 1704. Defoe reports that the weather had “blown exceeding hard” for two weeks before the fatal 26th of November, when the mercury sank so slow that it made him “suppose the Tube had been handled and disturb’d by the Children” (25). He includes reports written by people around the country, who give details of the desolation in all quarters, including a chart of the ships of the Royal Navy that were lost on the night of 26 November (not to mention the hundreds of merchant and fishing vessels lost).

The Family Instructor Title Page
The Family Instructor, in Three Parts. I. Relating to Fathers and Children. II. To Masters and Servants. III. To Husbands and Wives. The Tenth Edition. Corrected by the Author. London: Printed for N.L. and sold by J. Batley, at the Dove in Pater-noster-row. 1725.

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Although conduct books were quite popular in the eighteenth century, Defoe was the first to couch the advice within a fictional series of dialogues that take place within a single family. In part I, the parents realize that they have neglected the religious education of their children. When they try to rectify their mistake, their eldest son and daughter quarrel and rebel against the new discipline. The daughter ultimately comes around, but the son dies impenitent and alone. Part II also involves religious instruction, but between a master and servant. Part III deals with the subject of marriage and finding a religious spouse.

This work, first published in 1715, went through at least seventeen British editions in the 18th century, of which this is the tenth.

The Family Instructor Title Page
The Family Instructor. Vol. II. In Two Parts. I. Relating to Family Breaches, and their Obstructing Religious Duties. II. To the great Mistake of Mixing the Passions in the Managing and Correcting of Children. With a great Variety of Cases Relating to Setting Ill Examples to Children and Servants. Vol. II. The Second Edition. London: Printed for Eman. Matthews, at the Bible in Pater-Noster-Row. 1720.

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This second volume (first published in 1718) uses the same structure as the first to show how anger can interfere with the religious education of children. As with the first volume, this work had many later editions. This is the second.


Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed Title Page
A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. Shewing I. The Nature of Matrimony, its Sacred Original, and the true Meaning of its Institution. II. The gross Abuse of Matrimonial Chastity, from the wrong Notions which have possessed the World, degenerating even to Whoredom. III. The Diabolical Practice of attempting to prevent Childbearing by Physical Preparations. IV. The fatal Consequences of clandestine or forced Marriages, thro’ the Persuasion, Interest, or Influence of Parents and Relations, to wed the Person they have no Love for, but oftentimes an Aversion to. V. Of unequal Matches, as to the Disproportion of Age; and how such, many ways, occasion a Matrimonial Whoredom. VI. How married Persons may be guilty of Conjugal Lewdness, and that a Man may, in effect, make a Whore of his own Wife. Also many other Particulars of Family Concern. London; Printed for T. Warner, at the Black Boy in Pater-Noster-Row. MDCCXXVII.

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First published under the title Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom and reissued with a new, more polite, title later the same year. It is a treatise on the marriage state and the many ways one can abuse it, including the different types of sexual immorality one can practice even if married. Defoe argues that marrying for anything other than love (such as for money, status, or simply sexual desire) is “matrimonial whoredom.”

The work is in many respects a defense of the rights of women. Defoe recognizes that a woman, in marrying, is trading her freedom for “Family Cares, the trouble of looking after a Household, the hazard of being subject to the Humours and Passions of a churlish Man, and particularly of being disappointed, and matching with a Tyrant, and a Family-Brute; with still the more apparent hazard of being ruined in Fortune by his Disasters if a Tradesman, by his Immoralities if a Gentleman, and by his Vices if a Rake” (129). By choosing wisely, she will have a better chance of not regretting the giving up of her liberty.


Religious Courtship Title Page
Religious Courtship: being Historical Discourses, on the Necessity of Marrying Religious Husbands and Wives only. As also of Husbands and Wives being of the Same Opinions in Religion with one another. With an Appendix of the Necessity of taking none but Religious Servants, and a Proposal for the Better Managing of Servants. London: Printed for E. Matthews, at the Bible, and A. Bettesworth, at the Red-Lyon in Pater-noster-Row; J. Brotherton, and W. Meadows, in Cornhil. MDCCXXII.

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Written almost entirely as a dialogue between three sisters and their other family members on the importance of having a spouse with the same religious beliefs so as to avoid clashes and disappointment later on.

At the time of writing this book, Defoe had three marriageable daughters still at home, so the subject was certainly close to his heart.


The New Family Instructor Title Page
The New Family Instructor; Containing, a Brief and Clear Defence of the Christian Religion in General, against the Errors of the Atheists, Jews, Deists & Sceptics: and of the Protestant Religion in Particular, against the Superstitions of the Church of Rome. In familiar Discourses between a Father and his Children. In Two Parts. London: Printed for C. Rivington, in St. Paul’s Church-yard; and T. Warner, in Pater-noster Row. 1732.

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As the subtitle indicates, the main thrust of the work is against the various heresies. Part I is devoted entirely to arguments against Popery, presented as a story of a son who, while traveling through Popish countries, becomes converted to Catholicism. The father confirms the rest of his children in the Protestant faith to ensure none of them stray in the same manner. At last the son sees the errors of the Catholic Church and “laught Popery out of Doors” (250).

In Part II the children are so inspired by the clear, persuasive instruction given by their father in his effort to show his son the error of his ways that they entreat him again to teach them what he can of other learned things. The discussion leads toward the various heresies that had been “unhappily reviv’d” (253) in recent times as well as toward the errors of Judaism and of skeptics. The work concludes with a poem written by the father in blank verse “after the manner of Mr. Milton” called “Trinity: or, the Divinity of the Son” (369).


Compleat English Gentleman Title Page
The Compleat English Gentleman. Containing Usefull Observacions on the General Neglect of the Education of English Gentlemen with the Reasons and Remedies; The Apparent Difference between a Well Born and A Well Bred Gentleman; Instructions how Gentlemen may Recover the Defficiency of their Latin, and be Men of Learning tho’ without the Pedantry of the Schools. London: Published by David Nutt. MDCCXC.

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One of Defoe’s last works, it was never fully published. There is a proof sheet of sixteen pages containing the beginning of the work, but that is all. It was fully edited and published for the first time in 1890 from the author’s manuscript, which is held by the British Library.

Defoe here argues that gentility has nothing to do with heredity and everything to do with education, and he sets out a plan by which gentlemen by birth might become true gentlemen by learning.


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