Philip Freneau (1752 - 1832)

Life and Works

Philip Freneau was born on 2 January, 1752, four years before the French and Indian War, and died in 1832, four years before the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's landmark essay, Nature. His life therefore encompassed the conception, gestation, birth and early formation of the political and cultural entity that the United States was to become. He was, at the same time, born in the middle of the Age of Reason, and died in the midst of the rising tide of American Romanticism. For these reasons his poetry offers us an interesting gauge to all of these fundamental historical changes. And, because it reflects so nicely the tension between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking, his poetry also offers us a fascinating case study of that crucial cultural transition.

Freneau was born of French Huguenot parents (his father was named Pierre Fresneau) on the thousand-acre family estate, Mount Pleasant, located near Matawan in New Jersey. Shortly after his father died, in 1767, Philip entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), to study theology and prepare himself for the ministry. His roommate there was James Madison - who would later be President of the United States (1809-17) - and one of his classmates was the future novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge.

Political opinion at the campus of the College of New Jersey was predominantly anti-British, and its campus was often the scene of demonstrations in support of the growing drive toward independence. In this climate he discovered that his sharp wit and skill with language suited him more for a life of letters than of religion. He collaborated with Brackenridge on a picaresque narrative titled Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, which gave a satirical view of life in 18th-century America. It lay unknown, however, until it was acquired by Princeton and published by the University Press in 1975. The two young writers also collaborated on an epic patriotic poem, "The Rising Glory of America", which Brackenridge read at the commencement ceremony in September, 1771.

The family's wealth had dwindled since his father's death, so it was necessary for Freneau to earn a living after his graduation from college. His first job was as a schoolteacher in Long Island. He hated it and only lasted for thirteen days; however, he accepted another teaching post, at Somerset Academy near Baltimore, Maryland, where he stayed until the end of term, 1773. He was soon offered a position as secretary on a plantation in Jamaica, where he stayed for about two years. During the passage there, Freneau got his first introduction to sailing, a profession that he would practice at various times for the rest of his working life. Even though his family had both house and field slaves at Mount Pleasant, he became aware at this time of the horrors of slavery and the workings of a slave economy, as he describes in the anti-slavery poem "To Sir Toby". He spent the next few years sailing around the Caribbean as a ship's master.

When he returned home after the outbreak of the War of Independence, he found that Mount Pleasant had been burnt down by the British. He attained permission to operate as a privateer and attack English shipping in a sloop which he had built and named the Aurora.


Restored 18th-century sloop under sail First American naval flags


Unfortunately, the Aurora was captured by the English in May of 1778, and Freneau was taken prisoner. The brutal treatment he received during almost eighteen months of confinement on a prison ship only served to exacerbate his anti-British sentiments and was the source of his long poem "The Prison Ship" (published in 1780), which angrily denounced the abuses he had suffered, and inspired as well a large number of propaganda poems and pamphlets.

Freneau went to sea several more times over the following years, though it was also during this period that he earned his reputation as a writer. The strongly patriotic verse in support of the new nation that he published as editor of the Freeman's Journal in Philadelphia made him known as the "Poet of the American Revolution". The Poems of Philip Freneau appeared in 1786, A Journey from Philadelphia to New York, in 1787 and The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau, in 1788.

Two years later, a well-known poet and propagandist, as well as a qualified sea captain, Freneau married Helen Forman, sister of General David Forman, one of the founders of the Order of the Cincinnati, and settled in New York. However, the following year Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, offered him a position as a government translator in Philadelphia, with a tacit understanding that Freneau could dedicate his time to a pro-Jefferson newspaper, the National Gazette, whose purpose would be to counter the powerful Hamiltonian paper of John Fenno.



He was so effective in upholding Jefferson's ideas of "Republican" principles that Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, called him a "rabble-rousing journalist", and George Washington wondered why "that rascal Freneau" was being employed by his own government.

But Jefferson's support for him gradually waned, and the National Gazette ceased publication in 1793. During the next tow decades, Freneau alternated between working either as a ship's captain or as a newspaper editor in New York and New Jersey, all the time writing his poems and producing essays denouncing the greed of corrupt politicians. He published Poems Written and Published during the American Revolutionary War in 1809 and A Collection of Poems Chiefly on American Affairs in 1815.

Mount Pleasant burned again in 1818, and with it his library and many unpublished manuscripts. He never seems to have recovered from this blow. Rather than rebuilding the estate, he had to sell it in order to pay the creditors he had been avoiding since the loss of the Aurora in 1778. From this point on, he wrote very little. He spent the final years of his life plagued by poverty, and overly fond of drink. He died, somewhat pathetically, on the evening of18 December, 1832, at the age of 80. Walking home from a meeting of the circulating library in Philadelphia, he fell, broke his hip and froze to death.

Freneau's tombstone

It is clear that Freneau's political verse earned him his fame during his lifetime. But we undoubtedly remember him today because he so neatly bridges the Enlightenment and Romanticism. His lyrical and reflective poetry - which he himself called "Poems of Romantic Fancy" - anticipate the Romantic poetry of William Cullen Bryant. But what may be even more interesting are the manifold ways in which so much of his work betrays the strong pull on him of those two quite contradictory ways of thinking that can be simplified as the tension between Reason and Fancy.

It is often speculated that had Freneau been born a few decades later, his poetic talent, freed from the distraction of politics and propaganda, would have flourished more richly - as evidenced by that modest jewel of pre-Romantic verse, "The Wild Honeysuckle". But of course, Philip Freneau can only be what he is. The poetry he left is a fascinating document not only of the birth and early growth of a nation, but maybe even more importantly, of the beginning of a giant step - from the Enlightenment to Romanticism - in the growth of the Western mind.


Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)