Freneau, Philip [Morin] (1752-1832)
fulfilled the dream of his wine merchant father, Pierre Fresneau (old spelling) when he
entered the Class of 1771 to prepare for the ministry. Well versed in the classics in
Monmouth County under the tutelage of William Tennent, Philip entered Princeton as a
sophomore in 1768, but the joy of the occasion was marred by his father's financial losses
and death the year before. In spite of financial hardships, Philip's Scottish mother
believed that her oldest of five children would graduate and join the clergy. Though he
was a serious student of theology and a stern moralist all his life, Freneau found his
true calling in literature. As his roommate and close friend James Madison recognized early, Freneau's wit and verbal skills would
make him a powerful wielder of the pen and a formidable adversary on the battlefields of
print. Freneau soon became the unrivaled ``poet of the Revolution'' and is still widely
regarded as the ``Father of American Literature.''
Although Freneau had produced several accomplished private poems before
college, it was the intense experience of pre-Revolutionary-War Princeton that turned the
poet's interest to public writing. Political concerns led Madison, Freneau, and their
friends Hugh Henry Brackenridge and William Bradford, Jr., to revive the
defunct Plain Dealing Club as the American Whig Society. Their verbal skirmishes with the
conservative Cliosophic Society provided ample opportunities for sharpening Freneau's
skills in prose and poetic satire. Charged with literary and political enthusiasm, Freneau
and Brackenridge collaborated on a rollicking, picaresque narrative, Father Bombo's
Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, which presents comic glimpses of life in eighteenth-century
America. This piece, recently acquired by Princeton and published by the University
Library (1975), may well be the first work of prose fiction written in America.
During their senior year Freneau and Brackenridge labored
long on another joint project to which Freneau contributed the greater share. Their
composition was a patriotic poem of epic design, ``The Rising Glory of America,'' a
prophecy of a time when a united nation should rule the vast continent from the Atlantic
to the Pacific. At the commencement exercises of September 1771, Brackenridge read this
poem to a ``vast concourse of the politest company,'' gathered at Nassau Hall. The poem
articulated the vision and fervor of a young revolutionary generation.
Freneau's life after Princeton was one of change and
conflict. He tried teaching and hated it. He spent two more years studying theology, but
gave it up. He felt a deep obligation to perform public service, and his satires against
the British in 1775 were written out of fervent patriotism. At the same time he distrusted
politics and had a personal yearning to escape social turmoil and war. The romantic
private poet within him struggled against his public role. Thus, paradoxically, in 1776
the ``poet of the revolution'' set sail for the West Indies where he spent two years
writing of the beauties of nature and learning navigation. Suddenly in 1778, he returned
to New Jersey and joined the militia and sailed the Atlantic as a ship captain. After
suffering for six weeks on a British prison ship, he poured his bitterness into his
political writing and into much of his voluminous poetry of the early 1780s.
By 1790, at the age of thirty-eight, with two collections of
poetry in print and a reputation as a fiery propagandist and skillful sea captain, Freneau
decided to settle down. He married Eleanor Forman and tried to withdraw to a quiet job as
an assistant editor in New York. But politics called again. His friends Madison and
Jefferson persuaded him to set up his own newspaper in Philadelphia to counter the
powerful Hamiltonian paper of John Fenno. Freneau's National Gazette upheld Jefferson's
``Republican'' principles and even condemned Washington's foreign policy. Jefferson later
praised Freneau for having ``saved our Constitution which was galloping fast into
monarchy,'' while Washington grumbled of ``that rascal Freneau'' -- an epithet that became
the title of Lewis Leary's authoritative biography (1949).
After another decade of feverish public action, Freneau
withdrew again in 1801, when Jefferson was elected president. He retired to his farm and
returned occasionally to the sea. During his last thirty years, he worked on his poems,
wrote essays attacking the greed and selfishness of corrupt politicians, and sold pieces
of his lands to produce a small income. He discovered that he had given his best years of
literary productivity to his country, for it had been in the few stolen moments of the
hectic 1780s that he found the inspiration for his best poems, such as ``The Indian
Burying Ground'' and ``The Wild Honey Suckle,'' a beautiful lyric which established him as
an important American precursor of the Romantics.
Most students of Freneau's life and writing agree that he
could have produced much more poetry of high literary merit had he not expended so much
energy and talent for his country's political goals. In a way, though, he had fulfilled
his father's hopes for him, for he had devoted his life to public service as a guardian of
the morals of his society and as a spokesman for the needs of its people.
Emory B. Elliott, Jr.
From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright
Princeton University Press (1978).
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