Freneau, Philip

views updated May 23 2018

Philip Freneau

Born January 2, 1752 (New York, New York)

Died December 19, 1832 (Monmouth County, New Jersey)

Poet, editor

Philip Freneau was a major early American poet who used his wit and literary skills to advance America's political goals at the end of the eighteenth century. His talent and dedication to the revolutionary cause earned him the title "poet of the American Revolution." Many other authors from his time wrote for the cultured, wealthy citizens of the nation, but Freneau was different; he identified with the common people. Freneau devoted his life to public service, pouring his energy into propaganda (information distributed for the purpose of promoting a viewpoint) for American independence and full democracy (a government ruled through majority decisions made by the people).

"Of liberty and life; sweet liberty, Without whose aid the noblest genius fails."

Freneau also advocated the idea of naturalism (the belief in a natural order to the world that can be explained through the sciences). Many people still believed in supernatural forces, such as witches and demons, which were largely out of their control and often caused evil in the world. Therefore, Freneau's work brought fresh interest and attention to the study of nature. He also worked for social change away from the large governments ruled by the wealthy and monarchies because he believed that people had lived in natural simplicity in ancient times doing good with their lives for their fellow humans before the coming of large complex societies. Freneau's life alternated between periods of zealous political activity and attempts to escape to the peace and solitude he found necessary as a poet. He pioneered certain forms of poetry that emphasized imagination and emotions called the Romanticism Movement. He is also widely regarded as the "Father of American Literature."

A French heritage

Philip Freneau was born Philip Morin Fresneau on January 2, 1752, in New York City. He altered the spelling of his family name by dropping the "s." His father was Pierre Fresneau, a wine merchant and land speculator who was fluent in several languages besides his native French. Philip's mother was Agnes Watson, the daughter of a prosperous New Jersey planter of Scottish descent. Philip, the eldest of five children born to the Fresneaus, was born during a severe New York winter. By spring, a smallpox epidemic prompted Pierre to move his family to the countryside of Monmouth County, New Jersey, near Agnes's family. There, Pierre and Agnes built a plantation they called "Mount Pleasant."

Pierre traveled extensively, and when he returned from his voyages, he would tell his children stories of far-off and exotic lands. He also traveled on horseback through nearly all of the American colonies, accumulating property including timberlands, sawmills, and farmlands. The Fresneau family had a large library in their home, and Philip received his early education from his mother. Agnes surrounded her children with books, works of art, and many interesting and cultured visitors and tutors. Following family tradition, Philip also spent some time at a boarding school in New York. At the age of fifteen, Philip was sent to the Mattisonia Grammar School in Manalapan, New Jersey, in order to prepare for college.

The death of Pierre Fresneau in October 1767 plunged the family into a period of economic uncertainty. Portions of the family estate were auctioned off in order to pay debts Pierre had accumulated through his purchases. Despite the financial turmoil, plans for Philip's education were not altered. Freneau had been an excellent student. His preparation was so thorough that he received a letter of acceptance to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He satisfied all the requirements expected of a freshman and was allowed to enter the sophomore class in the fall of 1768. The college president, John Witherspoon (1723–1794; see entry in volume 2), was so impressed that he sent a letter of congratulations to Philip's mother. One year after his father's death, sixteen-year-old Philip traveled the forty miles to the College of New Jersey to fulfill Pierre Fresneau's plan that his oldest son should be a clergyman.

At Princeton

While in college, Freneau read Latin and Greek and studied mathematics and philosophy. Mornings began in the chapel with prayers. At five o'clock each evening, the collegians gathered in the main hall to deliver and listen to speeches. Freneau also took part in the extracurricular activities at college. For example, after the evening meal, students often gathered in local taverns to dance or play cards and dice. However, when the curfew bell rang at nine, each student returned to his quarters to prepare for the next day's classes.

At Princeton, Freneau received more than an education in the classics and philosophy; he learned about the life and politics of other colonies from fellow students. His roommate at Princeton was Virginian James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), a future U.S. president. He also developed close friendships with William Bradford Jr. (1755–1795), who later became U.S. attorney general, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816; see entry in volume 1), a future Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.

Princeton happened to be on the postal road between Philadelphia and New York, so the local news shop received the latest political pamphlets. Freneau and his classmates purchased, read, and studied these pamphlets and then rigorously debated the new ideas they found in them. As time went by, Freneau became more and more interested in the development of the American nation. Political concerns led Freneau and his friends to revive the "Plain Dealing Club," a Whig literary club at Princeton. Whig was a British political label for those who opposed a strong British monarchy. Together, Freneau and Brackenridge wrote Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia in 1770. It was a political satire (parody) of eighteenth-century America. It is believed to be the first work of American prose fiction.

The Rising Glory of America was another work on which Freneau and Brackenridge collaborated. It is a patriotic poem proclaiming the virtues of a new nation progressing toward its freedom. As noted in The Works of Philip Freneau, Brackenridge recited the poem at the graduation ceremony of the Princeton class of 1771:

A WASHINGTON among our sons of fame
We boast conspicuous as the morning star
Among the inferior lights—
To distant wilds Virginia sent him forth—
With her brave sons he gallantly oppos'd
The bold invaders of his country's rights....
And fairer prospects from the future draw—
Here independent power shall hold her sway,
And public virtue warm the patriot breast:
No traces shall remain of tyranny,
And laws, a pattern to the world beside,
Be here enacted first....

Freneau now had his degree, but he still needed to find a way to make a living. Because his father was no longer alive, Freneau had to act as the head of his family and earn some income to support the household. He took a teaching job in Long Island, but after two short weeks, Freneau decided he hated it. In 1772, Freneau applied to do a postgraduate study in theology. He studied for two years but ultimately decided that theology was not the right choice for him. Throughout the years, he continued to write poetry, and eventually he published a collection titled The American Village. In this work, he contrasted American rural life with the decaying village life of Britain.

The poet of liberty

Freneau received fresh inspiration as America's relationship with Britain deteriorated in 1775. That year, he penned several satires aimed at British invaders and Loyalists (American colonists who supported British rule). American Liberty was a collection of patriotic poems published in July; it was followed immediately by "General Gage's Soliloquy" and "General Gage's Confession," two works that ridiculed Thomas Gage (1719–1787), a British military leader who enforced the unpopular British tax laws that led to the American Revolution (1775–83). Freneau did not mock the British or even the monarchy so much as he did the individuals and royal advisers whom he accused of corrupting the English political system. He was an impassioned Patriot (one who supported independence for the American colonies), and his writings consistently encouraged the defense of the colonies. This established his reputation as the "poet of the American Revolution." He had finally found his true calling in literature.

Freneau believed that his main function in life was to write poetry, not to fight as a soldier. He had a deep desire to escape the war and the inevitable social turmoil that came with it. As America was declaring its independence in 1776, Freneau accepted a position as secretary to a prominent planter and set sail for the Caribbean island of Santa Cruz. The job also offered Freneau the opportunity to attain some financial stability and eliminate his debts.

Freneau spent the next two years writing about the beauties of nature on the island and learning the art of navigation. He experimented with different styles of writing in "The Beauties of Santa Cruz." Although the island surroundings inspired Freneau, he was disgusted by the cruelty of slaveowners in the Caribbean. The condition of the slaves on the sugar plantation left Freneau depressed and unhappy with his island paradise. He wrote of his experiences and expressed his feelings in "The Jamaica Funeral" and "The House of Night."

In 1778, Freneau decided it was time to escape the island and return to his mother's home at Mount Pleasant. He enlisted in the First Regiment of the New Jersey militia and won a promotion to the rank of sergeant for his service as a scout. Despite the duties of war, Freneau found time to publish American Independence, a passionate criticism of British rule. Days after the pamphlet was published, Freneau took on new work in addition to his militia duties. He became a coastal privateer (operator of a privately owned ship commissioned to fight or harass the enemy), a lucrative career choice. He sailed the Atlantic and the Caribbean aboard the ship Indian River and later the John Couster.

In May 1780, Freneau was the third mate for the ship Aurora when it was captured by a British ship. Freneau and his fellow crewmen were confined on the prison ship Scorpion, which was anchored in New York Harbor. The men were treated cruelly, and Freneau became very ill with fever. He was transferred to the Hunter, a hospital ship where the conditions were not much better. When he was released six weeks later, Freneau was bitter about the brutal treatment he had received. He wrote about his experiences in captivity in a poem titled "The British Prison Ship," published in 1781. Freneau's life as a soldier was over, and he returned home to New Jersey to regain his health.

In April 1781, Freneau moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a writer and occasional coeditor of the Freeman's Journal. Between 1781 and 1784, over one hundred of his poems and essays appeared in the journal. Freneau often wrote his poems in immediate response to events in history, but his writing also promoted the concern of the common people. He advanced the view that the American Revolution took place in order to make the nation a classless society, free from the abuse of the wealthy privileged. Newspapers from New York to South Carolina reprinted many of Freneau's essays. However, with the end of the war, his inspiration once again faded, and his contributions became scarce.

The National Gazette

Economic uncertainty once again left Freneau searching for work. He took a job as a postal clerk; the job allowed him time to write but did not stir his imagination. In 1784, Freneau returned to the sea, this time as the captain of his own ship in the Caribbean. His romantic adventures provided him with plenty of material, and he wrote extensively, including the poem "The Wild Honeysuckle." By 1790, Freneau was known as a skillful sea captain and a fiery author, but he remained broke. At the age of thirty-eight, he decided it was time to settle down. He returned to Monmouth County and married Eleanor Forman, the daughter of a wealthy New Jersey farmer, on April 15. Philip and Eleanor had four children. Freneau accepted a job as editor of the Daily Advertiser in New York City and enjoyed a modest amount of fame with two collections of his poetry in print.

Freneau was offered a position as translator for the U.S. State Department by his longtime friend Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1), who was then serving as secretary of state. Freneau hesitated about accepting a government job, because the income was insufficient, and he made no reply. In the meantime, Jefferson met with U.S. representative James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2) of Virginia about the need for a strong newspaper to represent Jefferson's ideas and counter the powerful Gazette of the United States, a newspaper that supported the notions of government of Jefferson political foe Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755–1804; see entry in volume 1). Jefferson and Madison decided that Freneau would be the perfect editor for the new paper. Madison traveled to New Jersey to visit his former roommate and convince him to join the fight. The call of politics was powerful, and Freneau agreed to take on the job. In the summer of 1791, he moved his family to Philadelphia, the nation's capital city at that time, to found the National Gazette.

The first edition of the National Gazette was released on October 31, 1791. It came out on Mondays and Thursdays. Freneau's newspaper attacked the domestic and foreign policies of Hamilton and President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) and defended those of Jefferson. This caused the president to refer to him as "that rascal Freneau," in a Cabinet meeting. The National Gazette was a success and soon had subscribers throughout the country. However, a yellow fever plague struck Philadelphia in the fall of 1793, and more than half of the city's population fled to the countryside. Without income from local subscribers, Freneau was forced to close down the newspaper after only two short years of publication.

Captain Freneau

At the age of forty-one, Philip Freneau returned to Mount Pleasant and established his own press. In 1795, he edited and published a new collection of his poetry, Poems Written Betweenthe Years 1768 and 1794. In his newspapers, he commented on major national events and issues. After Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Freneau warned of the dangers of losing liberties. The Alien Act gave the president the power to imprison aliens (citizens of foreign countries who were living in the United States) or send them back to their country of residence if they were suspected of activities posing a threat to the U.S. government. The Sedition Act had a broader range, prohibiting all spoken or written criticism of the government, the Congress, or the president. Editors faced fines and jail time if their publications violated the Alien and Sedition Acts. Freneau protested the arrest of newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769–1798), who published anti-Federalist opinions in his Daily Advertiser.

Concerning the death of Bache's grandfather, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) in 1790, Freneau wrote the following verse titled On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin:

So long accustomed to your aid,
The world laments your exit made;
So long befriended by your art,
Philosopher, 'tis hard to part!—
When monarchs tumble to the ground,
Successors easily are found:
But, matchless Franklin! what a few
Can hope to rival such as you,
Who seized from kings their sceptered pride,
And turned the lightning darts aside.

Over the years, none of Freneau's publishing attempts proved successful. His marriage suffered under the endless debt, and the couple separated. In 1802, Freneau returned to the sea aboard the John, a schooner that carried salt and cider to Southern ports. He occasionally returned to his farm but was forced to sell off pieces of his land for income. Freneau worked on his poems and wrote essays attacking the greed and selfishness of corrupt politicians during the early years of the nineteenth century. One collection of his poems was published in 1809 and another in 1815; both were two-volume sets. So vocal during the American Revolution, Freneau had surprisingly less to say about the War of 1812 (1812–15) against the same enemy.

Freneau produced no publications of any sort between 1816 and 1821. In 1822, at the age of seventy, Freneau made plans to publish a final selection of his writings, but this collection did not come out during his lifetime. In 1832, Freneau applied for a government pension of $35 a year. The money was due to him as a veteran of the American Revolution. However, Freneau did not live to receive his pension. He was caught in a snowstorm and lost his way while walking home from a country store on December 19, 1832. After a life filled with struggles, Freneau froze to death in Monmouth County at the age of eighty.

For More Information


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

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Philip Freneau. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Freneau, Philip. The Writings in Prose and Verse of Hezekiah Salem, Late of NewEngland. Edited by Lewis Leary. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975.

Leary, Lewis. That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1941. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1964.

Marsh, Philip M., ed. The Works of Philip Freneau. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1968.

Web Sites

Elliott, Emory B., Jr. "Freneau, Philip [Morin]." Princeton University Press. (accessed on August 13, 2005).

"Selected Poetry of Philip Morin Freneau (1752–1832)." RepresentativePoetry Online. (accessed on August 13, 2005).

Freneau, Philip (1752-1832)

views updated May 21 2018

Philip Freneau (1752-1832)


Jeffersonian editor and poet

Patriot. Philip Freneau was well prepared for a career as one of the most prominent literary figures in the early United States. He was born on 2 January 1752 to a wealthy New York family at the center of the cultural life of that colonial city. Freneau entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age fifteen, and there made contacts among the emerging political and cultural leaders of America, including a future president, James Madison. He also read English poetry and began to desire a career as a poet. He had his first literary success in 1771 when he coauthored with his friend Hugh Henry Brackenridge a poem titled The Rising Glory of America, capturing the spirit of a nation on the verge of independence. During the revolutionary years Freneau lived for a time in the West Indies and served aboard a privateer in the Caribbean Sea. This was a hazardous job, and it ended with him in a British prison ship in New York harbor. He wrote constantly of his experiences, developing a distinctively romantic poetic voice.

Political Writing. After the war ended Freneau settled in Philadelphia and became a leader of the citys literary circle. He edited magazines and published many poems praising the Patriots efforts, earning the title of the Poet of the American Revolution. After more travel, and a further period publishing a newspaper in New York, he returned to Philadelphia to serve under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who shared his democratic principles. He founded the National Gazette in October 1791, and it soon became a significant mouthpiece for the Jeffersonians. The National Gazette was much livelier than its stately rival, the Federalist Gazette of the United States. Freneau poked fun at Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as a would-be king and worked hard to shape public opinion on republican principles. Both Hamilton and President George Washington were angry at the radical democratic opinions Freneau expressed in the paper. Washington pressured Jefferson to fire Freneau from his State Department job because of his outside activities, but Jefferson refused, standing up for Freneaus right of free expression. Jefferson wrote that no government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will. But even Jefferson was uneasy about Freneaus whole-hearted support of the French Revolution and of the controversial French ambassador, Edmond Genet. The National Gazette closed in October 1793, a victim of financial pressures and the disruption caused by a yellow fever epidemic. Freneau spent the rest of his life at sea or on his New Jersey farm, occasionally involved in publishing, and still writing poetry. In 1794 he wrote an almanac which sold well. Two years later he began a literary journal called the Time-Piece, but like the National Gazette, it suffered from inadequate financial backing and quickly closed. Freneau froze to death in a blizzard near Freehold, New Jersey, on 18 December 1832.


Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, Philip Freneau (Boston: Twayne, 1976);

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

Philip Morin Freneau

views updated May 23 2018

Philip Morin Freneau

Philip Morin Freneau (1752-1832) was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. Remembered as the poet of the American Revolution and the father of American poetry, he was a transitional figure in American literature.

Philip Freneau's life alternated between ardent political activity and attempts to escape to the solitude he thought necessary to a poet. Born in New York on Jan. 2, 1752, he graduated from Princeton in 1771, when with Hugh Henry Brackenridge he wrote a rousing poem, The Rising Glory of America. A period of school teaching and study for the ministry followed. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Freneau composed vitriolic satires against British invaders and Tory countrymen. But then he withdrew to the Caribbean, writing his ambitious early poems, The Beauties of Santa Cruz and The House of Night.

Returning in 1778 to his home in New Jersey, Freneau joined the local militia and sailed as a privateer. In 1780, on release from British imprisonment, he wrote the bitter poem The British Prison-Ship and the enthusiastic American Independence. The next 4 years were dedicated to patriotic prose and verse in the Freeman's Journal. In 1784 he again went to sea as master of vessels which plied between New York and Charleston. His poetry at this time was concerned with native scene and character.

Though nurtured on English poets such as Alexander Pope, Freneau strove now for an "American" idiom, producing in The Wild Honey Suckle and The Indian Burying Ground verses of quiet distinction. His first two collections were Poems (1786) and Miscellaneous Works (1788). In 1790 he returned to partisan journalism, ultimately working as editor of the outspoken National Gazette. He so earnestly opposed Federalist policies that George Washington called him "that rascal, Freneau," though Thomas Jefferson credited him with saving the country when it was galloping fast into monarchy.

In the early 1800s, after another period at sea, Freneau retired to his farm in New Jersey. Collected editions of his poetry appeared in 1795, 1809, and 1815; new poems appeared in periodicals into the 1820s. He died on Dec. 18, 1832.

The most prolific poet of his generation, Freneau produced verse uneven in quality, often marred by anger, haste, or partisanship, but sometimes exhibiting original lyric power. He anticipated such American romantic poets as William Cullen Bryant and Edgar Allan Poe. His prose is less often successful.

Further Reading

Biographical and critical studies of Freneau include Samuel E. Forman, The Political Activities of Philip Freneau (1902); Lewis Leary, That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure (1941); Nelson F. Adkins, Philip Freneau and the Cosmic Enigma: The Religious and Philosophical Speculations of an American Poet (1949); and Jacob Axelrad, Philip Freneau, Champion of Democracy (1967). □

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