Philip Morin Freneau Essay - Critical Essays

Freneau, Philip Morin


Philip Morin Freneau 1752-1832

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Robert Slender and Hezekiah Salem, among others) American poet, journalist, and editor.

Known as “the Poet of the Revolution,” Freneau is considered one of the most important of the early American poets. His work exhibits elements of both neoclassicism and pre-Romanticism, but because much of its subject matter is so narrowly topical, its chief appeal is as a historical record of the politics of the American Revolution and the early days of the republic. After the war, Freneau served as editor of the democratic newspaper theNational Gazette, producing essays and poems that were admired by some and reviled by others as two distinct factions struggled to control the direction of the country's new government.

Biographical Information

Freneau was born in New York on January 2, 1752, to Pierre Fresneau and Agnes Watson Fresneau. The family, of Huguenot descent, was engaged in successful commercial enterprises and land investment. The eldest of four children, Freneau showed early promise as a scholar, studying both Latin and Greek and reading extensively at the family's estate in New Jersey. At sixteen he was admitted to Princeton University, where he was a roommate of future president James Madison and met Hugh Henry Brackenridge, with whom he collaborated on A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America (1772), their commencement address. Influenced by Princeton president John Witherspoon, Freneau studied classical and English literature and became convinced that America could and should develop its own literature independent of European influences.

Freneau taught school briefly after graduating and then traveled to Santa Cruz for two years, where he wrote poetry in praise of the natural beauty of his surroundings. He returned to the United States in 1778 and began writing both poetry and prose attacking the British and supporting the American cause. While serving on a privateer in 1780, Freneau was captured by the British and held briefly on a prison ship; then, suffering from starvation and illness, he was transferred to a British hospital ship. His experience solidified his anti-British feelings and inspired one of his most famous and vicious poems, The British Prison-Ship (1781).

After the war, Freneau returned to the sea while continuing to write humorous pieces and satirical poetry for American periodicals. In 1790 he married Eleanor Forman and the couple moved to Philadelphia, where Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had offered Freneau a position as a government translator. In October of 1791 he established a new political journal, the National Gazette. Under Freneau's editorship, the journal attacked the Federalist policies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and served as a counterbalance to the Federalist paper, the Gazette of the United States, published by Hamilton supporter John Fenno. The Federalists considered Freneau little more than a mouthpiece for Thomas Jefferson, and he so outraged Washington that the normally reserved president referred to him as “that rascal Freneau.”

Freneau returned to his family farm in New Jersey after the National Gazette ceased publication, but he continued to serve as writer and editor for the Jersey Chronicle and the Time-Piece and Literary Companion for the next several years. Financial considerations eventually forced him to return to the sea as a captain, and although he continued to write, his later verse was not well received. Interest in his poetry briefly revived during the War of 1812, but soon his popularity waned again, and he died in obscurity and poverty in 1832.

Major Works

Freneau's first published piece was the graduation poem he and Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote together, A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America. Reflecting the idealism of its young authors, the poem praised America as a land where freedom, liberty, and equality would create an atmosphere in which the arts and sciences would flourish. In 1772, while completing postgraduate work at Princeton, Freneau published a collection of poems, The American Village, whose title piece was a response to Oliver Goldsmith's “The Deserted Village.” In 1775, while living in New York, Freneau published a series of poems satirizing the British, among them “General Gage's Soliloquy,” “General Gage's Confession,” and A Voyage to Boston. Freneau's 1776 visit to Santa Cruz resulted in one of his most famous poems, “The Beauties of Santa Cruz,” written in 1777 but not published until 1779. A romantic tribute to natural beauty, the poem represented a departure from the political satire he had been producing in New York.

Freneau's poem The British Prison-Ship, based on his capture by the British while serving on the crew of the brig Aurora, marked a turning point in the poet's life and career. His opposition to the British hardened into hatred, and the romantic idealism of his youth gave way to disillusionment and realism in his writing. Immediately after the war, in 1784 and 1785, Freneau produced several poems in an intensely personal style that many critics consider his masterpieces, among them “The Hurricane,” “The Vernal Ague,” “The Wild Honey Suckle,” and “The Indian Burying-Ground.” By 1786 Freneau had become known as the “Poet of the Revolution” and published The Poems of Philip Freneau, new and reprinted selections dealing with American themes and concerns. Two years later he produced The Miscellaneous Works of Philip Freneau, which include a number of his essays as well as poetry.

As editor of the National Gazette, Freneau turned his attention to criticizing the government of Washington and Adams: he opposed England's political and cultural dominance of America, he advocated friendship with France, and he railed against Alexander Hamilton and what he considered the monarchical leanings of the Federalists. Freneau's other prose writings include numerous essays for the Freeman's Journal and other periodicals, many written under the pseudonyms Robert Slender and Hezekiah Salem.

Critical Reception

Freneau's reputation as the “Poet of the Revolution” proved a mixed blessing. His poems and essays were considered of interest only as long as their subject matter remained in the national spotlight, and his work was quickly forgotten once independence was won and the struggle to establish a new government was resolved. In terms of style, scholars often position Freneau's poetry at the point of transition between neoclassicism and Romanticism, with some claiming that its chief value lies in its similarity to the work of later Romantic poets. Several critics have suggested, for instance, that Freneau's poetry about the sea anticipates the work of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Herman Melville, while his poem “The House of Night” anticipates the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Gilbert L. Gigliotti insists, however, that critical assessments of such poems as “The Hurricane” as pre-Romantic and, therefore, superior to Freneau's other works, miss the fact that the poem reflects a very old classical tradition, the “ship of state” poem. Other critics, such as Joseph Harrington, have suggested that Freneau's work was outdated even during his lifetime because it was political rather than personal. Harrington quotes William Cullen Bryant, writing as early as 1818, claiming that Freneau was “a writer in verse of inferior note … whose pen seems to have been chiefly employed on political subjects.”

One of Freneau's most political poems, The British Prison Ship, has drawn a great deal of critical attention. Richard C. Vitzthum considers the events that inspired the poem a turning point in Freneau's life and career. According to Vitzthum, not only did Freneau's political philosophy change considerably—he went from a rather passive observer of the American Revolution to a rabid supporter of it—but his personal view of the world was also altered. The optimism and idealism that characterized his early work was replaced by disillusionment, even bitterness. Mary Weatherspoon Bowden (see further reading) has studied the many revisions of the poem between 1780 and 1809 and has called into question not only the critical consensus regarding the poem's meaning, but also the factual basis of the events that inspired the poem. Bowden has also commented on Freneau's prose writings, claiming that “too many of his essays are unfocused because they lack a singleness of purpose. This fault is, perhaps, one of enthusiasm—Freneau wants to comment on too many things in each essay.”

Freneau's most controversial writing was produced during his association with the National Gazette. Many of his political opponents criticized him for engaging in partisan politics while employed by the government as a State Department translator. The rival newspaper called Freneau “a spaniel” and “a fawning parasite,” but Samuel E. Forman, writing in 1902, insisted that Freneau and his newspaper did not deserve this “unsavory reputation.” According to Forman, “the fear and hatred that [National Gazette] won for itself arose from the ability with which it was edited. It was supported by the best talent of the age,” including Brackenridge, Madison, and Jefferson, who believed that Freneau's newspaper had prevented America from drifting toward monarchy in the early days of nationhood. One of Freneau's major concerns was the British cultural dominance over America, and he is considered the first American poet to reverse, even in a small way, this trend in literature. Jane Donahue Eberwein asserts that Sir Walter Scott borrowed a line of Freneau's for his 1808 poem “Marmion.” Despite this small victory, Eberwein claims that Freneau's best work was ignored, while his lighter verse proved popular with his readers. According to Eberwein, his unsophisticated audience encouraged Freneau's often “bombastic rhetoric, repetition, overstrained humor, and formless doggerel”; but Freneau “managed to find his own voice at times” and wrote “some of the finest, most timeless poems in American literature.”

Principal Works

The American Village (poetry) 1772

A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America [with Hugh Brackenridge] (poetry) 1772

A Voyage to Boston (poetry) 1775

The British Prison-Ship (poetry) 1781

The Poems of Philip Freneau (poetry) 1786

The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau, Containing His Essays and Additional Poems (poetry and essays) 1788

The Monmouth Almanac for the Year M, DCC, XCV (essays) 1794

Poems Written between the Years 1768 and 1794 (poetry) 1795

Letters on Various Interesting and Important Subjects [as...

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Mary S. Austin (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: Austin, Mary S. “Freneau as an Author.” In Philip Freneau, The Poet of the Revolution: A History of his Life and Times, edited by Helen Kearny Vreeland, pp. 211-26. New York: A. Wessels Company, 1901.

[In the following excerpt, Austin provides examples of nineteenth-century criticism of Freneau's poetry.]

For reasons already given, we deem it best to give the criticisms of others upon the poetry of Freneau, and begin with the remarks of a London publisher1 who, notwithstanding Freneau's hostile feeling towards all that savored in the least of Great Britain, has had the magnanimity to overlook all such sentiment, and bring before the public, of...

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Samuel E. Forman (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: Forman, Samuel E. “The Democratic Editor.” In The Political Activities of Philip Freneau, pp. 35-79. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1902.

[In the following excerpt, Forman discusses Freneau's position as editor of the National Gazette and the controversy that surrounded his work there.]

The plan and purposes of the new paper were published at considerable length. The Gazette was to appear every Wednesday and Saturday;1 the subscription price was to be three dollars per annum; the news published was to be of national character, especial attention being promised to the doings of the national government; the columns of the Gazette...

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Nelson F. Adkins (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Adkins, Nelson F. “Nature” and “Deism.” In Philip Freneau and the Cosmic Enigma, pp. 17-57. New York: Russell & Russell, 1949.

[In the following excerpt, Adkins explores the formation of Freneau's complex religious philosophy from his abandonment of the orthodoxy of his parents to his turn toward nature and deism.]



… Any attempt to assert the precise moment of Freneau's break with fundamentalist religious doctrine would, indeed, be hazardous. It seems valid to assume that the poet's mind could never have been wholly free from those great social and religious principles to which his age...

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Carol A. Kyle (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Kyle, Carol A. “That Poet Freneau: A Study of the Imagistic Success of The Pictures of Columbus.Early American Literature 9, no. 1 (spring 1974): 62-70.

[In the following essay, Kyle discusses Freneau's attempt to create an American myth in the form of an epic poem about Christopher Columbus.]

In American letters the impulse to write the great American novel has been dwarfed only by the impulse to write the great American epic: larger than both of these is the compulsion to create the great American myth. The earliest attempt in American literature to do all three at once occurs in Philip Freneau's “The Pictures of Columbus” (1774).1...

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Mary Weatherspoon Bowden (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. “Prose: Newspapers and Essays.” In Philip Freneau, pp. 87-122. Boston: Twayne Publishers: 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Bowden surveys Freneau's prose writings from 1790 to 1800, including his newspaper articles and humorous essays.]

The ten years from 1790 to 1800 were the most active and public ones of Freneau's life. Although he showed during these years a marked desire to settle down in New Jersey, national events called him forth to employ his talents, ones shown earlier with the Freeman's Journal, as a newspaper editor and political essayist. Although he published one book of verse, printing himself the 1795...

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Jane Donahue Eberwein (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “Philip Freneau (1752-1832).” In Early American Poetry: Selections from Bradstreet, Taylor, Dwight, Freneau, and Bryant, pp. 190-20. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Eberwein discusses Freneau's life and career, suggesting that his various activities as editor, farmer, and sea captain influenced his writing in various ways.]

Born the same year as Timothy Dwight and, like him, a revolutionary patriot, Philip Freneau was nonetheless a distinctly different poet—different in values, voice, and literary style. He represented a newer strain in American thought: more liberal, more secular, and more...

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Richard C. Vitzthum (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Vitzthum, Richard C. “‘Learn What It Is to Go to Sea,’ 1780-1786.” In Land and Sea: The Lyric Poetry of Philip Freneau, pp. 45-86. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Vitzthum suggests that Freneau's capture and subsequent imprisonment by the British marked a turning point in his personal philosophy and writing career.]

In 1778 Robert Bell published and gave Freneau a complimentary copy of the fourth number of the Miscellanies for Sentimentalists series, which included Freneau's patriotic poem “American Independence.” In this volume, which he kept for the rest of his life, Freneau scribbled marginalia...

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Hans-Joachim Lang (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Lang, Hans-Joachim. “The Rising Glory of America and the Falling Price of Intellect: The Careers of Brackenridge and Freneau.” In The Transit of Civilization from Europe to America: Essays in Honor of Hans Galinsky, edited by Winfried Herget and Karl Ortseifen, pp. 131-43. Tübingen: Narr, 1986.

[In the following essay, Lang examines the collaboration between Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge on the 1772 Princeton commencement poem, The Rising Glory of America.]

At a conference devoted to “The Transit of Civilization from Europe to America”, a paper dealing with the plight of the American writer in revolutionary and post-revolutionary times could find...

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Phillip Round (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Round, Phillip. “‘The Posture That We Give the Dead’: Freneau's ‘Indian Burying Ground’ in Ethnohistorical Context.” Arizona Quarterly 50, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 1-30.

[In the following essay, Round explores Freneau's poem “Indian Burying Ground” in the context of both Christian and Native American mythology, focusing on Freneau's changing use of the figure of the Native American as an emblem of American culture.]

Philip Freneau's “Lines Occasioned by a Visit to an Old Indian Burying Ground” (1787) is most often read as an imitation of a British graveyard poem—its Native American subject, “merely a ruse behind which Freneau...

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Gilbert L. Gigliotti (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Gigliotti, Gilbert L. “Off a ‘Strange, Uncoasted Strand’: Navigating the Ship of State through Freneau's Hurricane.Classical and Modern Literature 15, no. 4 (1995): 357-66.

[In the following essay, Gigliotti examines Freneau's “The Hurricane” as a ship of state poem that draws on classical tradition while making a case for the unique quality of the American experiment.]

The first of two editorial footnotes1 to Philip Freneau's “The Hurricane” in the second edition of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1994) reads:

Also titled, “Verses, made at Sea, in a Heavy...

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Joseph Harrington (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Harrington, Joseph. “Re-Birthing ‘America’: Philip Freneau, William Cullen Bryant, and the Invention of Modern Poetics.” In Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper, edited by A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven, pp. 249-74. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

[In the following essay, Harrington discusses the shift in poetic sensibility between 1800 and 1830 described through the poetic differences between Freneau and Bryant.]

… Not as a re-birth of values that had existed previously in America, but as America's way of producing a renaissance, by coming to its first maturity and affirming its rightful heritage in the whole...

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Further Reading


Axelrad, Jacob. Philip Freneau: Champion of Democracy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967, 480 p.

A thorough examination of Freneau's life and work, representing him as a visionary and advocate for the rights of the common people against the interests of the powerful.

Marsh, Philip M. Philip Freneau: Poet and Journalist. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1967, 444 p.

Popular biography emphasizing Freneau's journalism career.


Andrews, William L. “Goldsmith and Freneau in ‘The American Village.’” Early American Literature 5, no. 2 (winter...

(The entire section is 484 words.)