Philip Freneau (frih-NOH) is best remembered today for his poems. In his own time, however, such was hardly the case. Freneau’s contemporaries knew him best for his satirical, sometimes vituperative essays. Freneau first used his satirical skills as a prose writer in Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770), which he wrote with Hugh Henry Brackenridge while the two were undergraduate classmates at Princeton (then College of New Jersey). In the introduction to the 1975 edition of the book, Michael D. Bell argues convincingly that this brief volume, more than half of which is by Freneau, is the first American novel.
After the outbreak of the American Revolution, Freneau put his satirical pen to work for American independence by contributing prose (and some poetry) to Brackenridge’s United States Magazine in 1779. During 1781 and 1782, he helped Francis Bailey publish Freeman’s Journal, a liberal and, of course, anti-British newspaper. During 1790 and 1791, he edited the Daily Advertiser in New York. Freneau’s next publishing venture is what some would consider his most famous; others would call it his most notorious. From October of 1791 until October of 1793, he edited The National Gazette in Philadelphia, which was at that time the center of the national government. In this newspaper, Freneau supported Jeffersonian politics and opposed the Federalist position of John Fenno’s United States Gazette, which operated under the financial control of Alexander Hamilton, the principal voice of Federalism.
Following Thomas Jefferson’s temporary withdrawal from politics, which concurred with loss of financial support for The National Gazette, Freneau returned to his New Jersey estate and set up a press of his own. There he published almanacs; yet another newspaper, The Jersey Chronicle; and another collection of his poetry (1795). In 1797, he and his expanding family relocated in New York, where Freneau began one more newspaper, The Time Piece and Literary Companion (March, 1797, to March, 1798). In his later years, he made contributions to such other newspapers as Charleston’s City Gazette (1788-1790, and also 1800-1801), the Philadelphia Aurora (1799-1800), the New-York Weekly Museum (1816), and Trenton’s True American (1821-1824).