Philip Freneau (1752-1832)
Contributing Editor: David S. Shields
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Some of Philip Freneau's poems require an explanation of the changing political context of the 1770s through 1790s so that their arguments may be understood. Freneau's religious poetry, with its striking absence of scriptural allusion and Christian doctrine, may prove rather alien to students of traditional Christian background.
Discriminations between the beliefs of Patriots and Loyalists, Whigs and Tories, must be supplied for the poems of the 1770s. Discussion of the split of the American revolutionaries into Federalist and Jeffersonian factions during the 1790s is also helpful. "To Sir Toby" is an excellent poem with which to examine the legal justifications of slavery employed during the late 1700s.
I find that the early American political cartoons provide a useful way of introducing students to the context of Freneau's politics. (Michel Wynn Jones' The Cartoon History of the American Revolution is a good source.) Sometimes I get a reproduction of one of the newspapers in which a Freneau poem first appeared to show how closely his world view was tied to the journalism of the era.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Freneau was a radical advocate of political democracy. As the chief literary spokesman for the Jeffersonian program, he is an original expositer of certain powerful American political myths: of universal liberty, of the reasonability of the common man, of the superior morality of the life of the farmer to that of the commercial enterpriser. These myths still inform political discourse.
As a nature poet, Freneau presents little difficulty to the student, for his arguments are simple and his language straightforward.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Freneau cultivated a variety of styles, most of which were suited to the newspaper readership of common Americans he envisioned as his audience. As a political poet, he employed the usual neoclassical devices of parody, burlesque, and mock confession in his satires; in his political admonitions he practiced "Whig sentimentalism" in his antislavery verse and the "progress piece" in his historical ruminations. In general, Freneau was an eighteenth-century neoclassicist in his political verse. His nature studies and theological speculations, however, looked forward to romanticism, particularly in its representation of a natural world suffused with divine vitality.
Revolutionary and post-revolutionary Americans were immersed in political rhetoric. The common reader knew a surprising amount of political theory. An interesting exercise is to isolate the imagery in the poems connected with various political systems--monarchy, aristocracy, republicanism, democracy--and construct the mental picture that Freneau projected for his readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I do not usually guide a student's reading of the text with questions. I do, however, usually suggest that a student pay particular attention to the adjectives Freneau employs.
2. I will take a poem from a Federalist Connecticut wit (Richard Alsop, Timothy Dwight , or Lemuel Hopkins) and ask the students to contrast the ideals of government, citizenship, and policy found in it with those expressed in a political poem by Freneau.