The "Essay upon Projects" was written during the years immediately following two of Defoe's serious brushed with the law. In 1692, #17,000 in debt, he was declared bankrupt. After a brief imprisonment and during the time he subsequently spent hiding from authorities and creditors, he began work on various "projects" which he thought would make England a better nation and, were they approved and acted upon by the government, bring him fame and fortune. Composed piecemeal, the "Essay" offers a wide ranging series of proposals for radical social reform, while attempting to gain some dignity for what Defoe called, in another context, the despicable art of projecting. Among Defoe's schemes, predictable enough, was a project for the reform of his nation's bankruptcy laws, a project over which Defoe, in his own words, "waxed hot". Five years after he began it, Defoe published the work. By 1697, he had righted himself publicly and financially, having served as Accomptant to the Commissioners of the Glass Duty in King William's government and having profited from his brick and tile factory in Tilbury.
The work represents new beginnings for Defoe as a political and literary figure, new assertions of principles, new ventures on public terrain. At its most utopian, it was an effort at charting a new future for England - a combination of social engineering and economic scheming. It is a commonplace to say of science fiction that while purporting to be about other worlds and often about future time, it is invariable about our present life on earth. Similarly, it may be said of "An Essay upon Projects" that although Defoe's work treated future projects and possibilities, they were very much rooted in the events of the recent past and the present. Read against the swarm of proposals published during the 1690s (usually in pamphlet form), the text seems thoroughly rooted in the efforts at attempting to solve the economic problems of the late-17th century. On the other hand, Defoe enjoyed assuming the role of a prophet, and if some of his schemes seemed to foreshadow his future developments, whether in his time or ours, he would hardly have been reluctant to take credit for his ingenuity and farsightedness.