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...
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Satiric verse that is inspired by temporary or parochial concerns is seldom able to outlive the special circumstances that occasioned it: This is the reason for the almost total exclusion from anthologies today of Freneau’s vitriolic verse of the Revolutionary years. Undoubtedly he was one of the most popular poets of his time and place and deserved his title, the “poet of the American Revolution.” With the passage of time, however, his lyrical poems, in which he sang of the beauties of nature with the feeling and intensity of the British Romantic poets, are those that have remained of interest to readers. Some half-dozen beautiful lyrics represent a praiseworthy accomplishment and assure Freneau of a small but permanent place in American literature.
Shortly after Philip Morin Freneau was born, the family moved from New York City to Mt. Pleasant, New Jersey, where Freneau reached adolescence. Even though his father died in 1767, his mother, Agnes, managed to send her son to Princeton, then known as the College of New Jersey, in 1768. Freneau’s classmates included such notables as Hugh Henry Brackenridge and James Madison; also in attendance during Freneau’s tenure were William Bradford (later attorney general of the United States) and Aaron Burr. The curriculum of the college at that time was not structured to prepare men for the ministry but was designed to shape cultured gentlemen; in a word, Freneau was not trained to be a dogmatist, a factor that was to have profound significance on his development as a poet.
After leaving Princeton, Freneau tried teaching for a time, first in Flatbush, Long Island, and later at Somerset Academy in Maryland, where his former college classmate, Brackenridge, was principal. For the next two years, from 1773 to 1775, it is believed that Freneau studied theology. Later in 1775, while in New York, the poet wrote and published patriotic, satirical poems about the British; the first, short version of the gothic poem “The House of Night” also appeared that year. From 1776 to 1778, he lived and traveled in the Virgin and Caribbean islands. In July, 1778, while attempting to return to the United States, Freneau was taken prisoner by the British but was soon released. During the next two years, the young author wrote poems and essays for Brackenridge’s...
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