Philip Freneau’s family heritage was French Huguenot (Protestant). His father’s family migrated to New York in 1705, became members of the city’s respected and influential Huguenot community, and established a profitable agency for wines imported from Bordeaux, France, and from the Madeira Islands. Pierre Fresneau (Philip would change the spelling of the family surname) carried on this business with his brother, but upon his marriage to Agnes Watson he commenced his interest in the dry goods business. Philip Morin Fresneau was born on Frankfort Street in New York, on January 2, 1752; he was the first of his parents’ five children. Later in the same year, the family moved to the hamlet of Mount Pleasant, near present-day Matawan, New Jersey, which was centrally located for the crucial New Jersey campaigns of the War of Independence at Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth.
When Philip was fifteen, his father died, and the future poet inscribed at the end of Pierre’s letter-book, “Here ends a book of vexation, disappointments, loss, and plagues that sunk the author to his grave short of 50 years.” Philip’s father left the family in unenviable financial straits. Philip’s education, however, had not been jeopardized as his father’s financial situation deteriorated. He had been sent to a Latin school in Penelope, New Jersey, headed by the Reverend Alexander Mitchell, a friend of John Witherspoon, the newly appointed president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), subsequently one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Although it was intended that Philip should prepare for a vocation in the church, his associations at Princeton (where he was admitted as a sophomore) militated against such a serene career. He was a roommate of James Madison; he became a close friend of Hugh Brackenridge, a future novelist; and he heard numerous sermons by Witherspoon, a leading theologian, philosopher, and rhetorician, who was to write much in favor of the Revolution. Freneau and Brackenridge were joint authors of “The Rising Glory of America,” a long poem read at their commencement in 1771.
After graduation, Freneau taught school briefly, studied for the ministry desultorily, toyed with Deism, and penned several satires of British manners and administration before (early in 1776) sailing for the West Indies, where he was briefly a privateer. His “A Political Litany,” written in 1775, is hardly above doggerel level, but the sentiments are genuine. In eight stanzas, the poet asks the Lord to deliver his countrymen from sixteen pestilences that range from Lord North and Admiral Montagu to bishops and slaves. His poems that resulted from his West Indian experiences are generally more socially significant, less petulant, and better...
(The entire section is 1142 words.)