Freneau, Philip Morin

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Freneau, Philip Morin

FRENEAU, PHILIP MORIN. (1752–1832). Poet, mariner, journalist. New Jersey. Born on 2 January 1752 in New York City, Freneau graduated from Princeton in 1771. His first major poem, "The Rising Glory of America," was read at the graduation ceremony. At the outbreak of the Revolution he penned several pamphlets and patriotic poems, as well as eight political satires within a period of a few months, among them "General Gage's Soliloquy" and "General Gage's Confession." After teaching school, studying law, and some excursions into journalism, he became secretary to a prominent planter on Santa Cruz in the Danish West Indies. During his two years there, Freneau became an opponent of slavery and wrote what are considered his most significant poems: "Santa Cruz," "The Jamaica Funeral," and "The House of Night." These poems placed Freneau among the pioneers of the romantic movement in poetry.

Returning to America in July 1778, Freneau enlisted as a private in the New Jersey militia's first regiment, gaining promotion to sergeant. He built and commanded the privateer Aurora in 1779. After several escapes from British cruisers, he was captured on 25 May 1780 and imprisoned aboard the Scorpion in the Hudson. After six weeks of horrendous ill treatment, he was released. His experiences inspired two poems, "The Hessian Doctor" and "The British Prison-Ship: A Poem, in Four Cantos." During the three years after his release in 1781 he was employed in the Philadelphia Post Office, where he had the leisure to turn out a steady stream of poetry for the Freeman's Journal, which he occasionally co-edited. In nearly a hundred poems he blasted the Loyalists, satirized the British, and glorified the Patriots.

In 1784 Freneau returned to sea as the captain of a brig, surviving shipwrecks and hurricanes, and writing magnificent poems about these experiences. In 1790 he married and became editor of the New York Daily Advertiser. The following year, at the insistence of his college roommate, James Madison, he became editor of the National Gazette in Philadelphia. In both efforts he was highly successful; his passionately democratic journalism was lauded by Thomas Jefferson, who credited him with saving the country from monarchy, but bitterly criticized by George Washington, who called him "that rascal Freneau." On 26 October 1793 the National Gazette was suspended for lack of funds and because of the yellow fever epidemic. Freneau edited three more papers over the next three years before quitting journalism and returning to the sea as captain of the John. Like most poets, Freneau spent most of his life on the border of poverty. On 19 December 1832 he died in a snowstorm while trying to find his way home from the country store.

SEE ALSO Naval Operations, Strategic Overview.


Axelrad, Jacob. Philip Freneau: Champion of Democracy. Austin, Tex: University of Texas Press, 1967.

Freneau's Papers. Rutgers University Library, and Princeton University Library, New Brunswick and Princeton, N.J.

Pattee, Fred L. The Poems of Philip Freneau. 3 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Library, 1902–1907.

Leary, Lewis. That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1941.

                                revised by Michael Bellesiles