Hailed as the “poet of the American Revolution,” positioned as the “father of American Poetry,“ and, finally, decried as “that rascal Freneau” by George Washington, Philip Freneau fell into relative obscurity during the later part of his lifetime and his work remains underappreciated and understudied as an early piece of the American literature canon. Those who knew him and those who later studied his life maintain Freneau possessed a purely idealistic view of freedom and Democracy for America. His role as the poet of the American Revolution is largely what has solidified Freneau’s place in American literature.
The oldest of five children, Philip Morin Freneau was born on January 2, 1752 in New York to Pierre Fresneau (Philip dropped the “s” from his surname) and Agnes Watson. The Fresneaus emigrated from Oléron, France and were prosperous merchants who imported wine and other commodities from Europe. The Watsons were successful farmers from Scotland with considerable landholdings in New Jersey. Freneau did not work as a merchant during his lifetime and failed in his attempt at farming later in life. His family had prepared him, instead, for intellectual and artistic pursuits. His father prided himself on his large book collection and made sure his children became avid readers. At 10 years old, Freneau’s family left New York for the family’s 1000 acre New Jersey plantation, leaving him in New York with tutors to receive a proper education. His father’s focus on education led Freneau begin Princeton in 1768 with a sophomore standing. Upon his graduation, Freneau dabbled in a few different activities, such as teaching, but was drawn to the sea. He traveled and spent time in the, then, West Indies on numerous occasions, and he served as a captain with his brother’s shipping company out of South Carolina — both up and down the east coast and to the West Indies. Much like Richard Henry Dana, Freneau’s experiences at sea proved advantageous to his life as a writer. His writing continued to develop and would be the focus of the majority of his life when he committed to the publishing industry after leaving the sea.
Freneau’s writing is often discussed as three main periods: his early works played with a variety of poetic forms and were largely composed during his time at Princeton; the high point of his career was during the American Revolution, where his poems championed the cause as he honed his craft; and his later works were, as critics argue, stifled by American seriousness.
Freneau began his studies at Princeton along with James Madison, Hugh Brackenridge, and William Bradford. These four friends formed a literary club called the American Whig Society. This sparked the previously defunct Well Meaning Society to resurface and rename themselves the Cliosophic Society, thus formally reigniting the Princeton literary wars between the Whigs and Tories. While Freneau experimented with prose, going so far as to write a novel with Brackenridge, his aspirations towards poetry found their way into all of his writing. Much of his early writing was in tune with his British contemporaries and influenced by English poetry. Critics agree that his skill for satire during this period was beyond his years and that his poem “The House of Night” (1779) illustrated Freneau’s individual promise as a poet. “The House of Night” differed from his other college writings because he left neoclassicism and the popular modes of British poets behind, exhibiting shift that was decades ahead of the British poets.
Some of his early satire work aimed at Princeton’s Cliosophic Society found its way nearly untouched such as “MacSwiggen, A Satire” (1775) into his American Revolution poetry. In addition to his satirical works, Freneau became particularly fond of occasional poetry as a way to engage with the events of the American Revolution. Freneau’s contemporary, African American poet Phillis Wheatley also wrote many occasional poems and some critiques of the British treatment of the colonies leading up to the American Revolution. Wheatley’s critiques looked towards reconciliation between Britain and its American colonies, while Freneau boldly expounded American democracy with his popular pre-war poem “American Liberty” (1775) and denounced Britain with targeted poems like, “General Gage’s Soliloque” (1775), “General Gage’s Confession” (1775), and “The Prison Ship” (1780) which was his response to being a prisoner on a British prison ship — an event that reinvigorated his anti-British sentiments in his poetry for the second half of the war.
Following the American Revolution, the biggest hindrance on Freneau’s writing was American solemnity that directly conflicted with the dreamer in Freneau. The more he worked to appeal to the new American sensibilities, the more his artistry deteriorated. This is not to say that his later works are unreadable, but Americans lost their need for America’s poet. Freneau spent the later years of his life revising and republishing collections of his poetry. Some of his poems became nearly unrecognizable from their earlier editions. Unfortunately, a fire at his New Jersey home in 1815 destroyed papers, manuscripts, letters, and much of his family’s extensive book collection.
Popular newspaper and journal publications were at the center of Freneau’s writing career. Many of his poems originally appeared individually in a variety of publications, along with Freneau’s prose writing. Freneau was affiliated with various journals and newspapers to varying capacities throughout his career, including holding significant influence as the editor of Freeman’s Journal, Daily Advertiser, National Gazette, and Jersey Chronicle, Time Piece, and True American. Freneau’s positions at these publications and his experiences at Princeton largely foretold the political direction Freneau’s work would take as he established himself as a poet and spokesperson of democracy.
The National Gazette and Jersey Chronicle were both publications that he had founded and eventually abandoned. In 1791, while struggling to support his growing family, Freneau’s good friend from college, James Madison, connected him with then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to work as clerk for foreign languages in the Office of the Secretary of State, which was located in Philadelphia at the time, with the enticement that he would have plenty of free time to focus on his writing. Jefferson hoped that Freneau would utilize his passion from the American Revolution to start a Whig newspaper in opposition to John Fenno’s very popular Tory leaning Gazette of the United States. Thus the National Gazette was born in 1791. Verbal sparring and works rife with satire defined Freneau’s newspaper as he went head-to-head with both the Tory’s publication and rising Federalists John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Freneau became caught up in a political battle, accused of partisanship and serving as Jefferson’s mouth piece rather than as an independent thinker and social commentator. While these accusations were not true for the most part — Freneau’s work was highly charged with political commentary that did align with Jefferson’s party — this period in his life has been charged with tainting his artistry. In other words, it was here that politics superseded his craft and the quality of his writing deteriorated.
Upon returning to New Jersey from Philadelphia in 1795, Freneau established the Jersey Chronicle which only lasted one year due to low subscription rates. He attempted to stay in the publishing industry, but he was eventually forced back to sea due to debt. Unlike his earlier travels and time spent captaining vessels, Freneau was older and not inspired by the experiences. He wanted to return to his family’s plantation in New Jersey and live out the rest of his life with his books and writing, which he eventually managed to do. Freneau died in relative obscurity on December 18, 1832 at age 80 after losing his way in a blizzard which weakened his health considerably.
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