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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Philip Freneau

Philip Morin Freneau, the most versatile and vitriolic of the patriot poets, was born in New York, the son of Pierre Fresneau, a tradesman, and Agnes Watson. His father’s Huguenot (French Protestant) faith and his mother’s Presbyterianism influenced Philip to enroll at the College at Nassau (Princeton), the bastion of New Light Christianity in America. Freneau joined the American Whig Society, the more libertarian of the college’s two student clubs. There he taught himself to be a poet, mastering the techniques of satire in the paper wars against the other club, the Cliosophical Society, and the devices of polite literature in verse prepared for the commencement exercises. With fellow Whigs James Madison and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, he composed a farcical romance, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, a work some scholars have been tempted to designate the first American novel. Of more lasting consequence were “The Power of Fancy,” a personal testament to his devotion to imagination, and his commencement poem, a collaboration with Brackenridge, A Poem on the Rising Glory of America, which explored the myth of the westward course of empire and arts from the Old World to the New.

Freneau graduated in 1771 when the American market for literature was so undeveloped that no one could make a living from writing. Consequently, he conducted his career as a man of letters as an adjunct to other occupations—schoolmaster, captain of a merchant vessel, government bureaucrat, farmer, and newspaper editor. He advanced his literary reputation by substituting productivity and topicality for exquisiteness and finish in his work. Immersing himself in the print culture (the world of magazines, newspapers, and cheap books then coming into being)—Freneau turned his back on the older belletristic world of private clubs and salons. Every product of his adult pen found its way into print, and every issue of the day prompted him to write.

Freneau won an audience for his poetry in 1775 with a series of verse satires of British officials and Tories, of which “A Political Litany,” has proved the most enduring. Having made himself anathema to the New York Tories, the poet embarked for the West Indies, where he lived for two years until joining the colonial forces as a blockade runner. In 1780 he was captured and incarcerated on a British prison vessel, an experience he memorialized bitterly in The Prison Ship. He attached himself to the Freeman’s Journal in Philadelphia, and lambasted the British and the Tories with a fusillade of verse. The patriotic zeal and sardonic humor of these pieces won Freneau his reputation as “The Poet of the Revolution.”

Despite his fame as a political poet, Freneau never restricted his literary concerns to affairs of state—not even when serving as the chief propagandist for Jeffersonian democracy as editor of the National Gazette (1790–1793). An encyclopedic curiosity led him to inquire into natural philosophy, speculative theology, history, aesthetics, and social manners. The quality of his work in these areas varies. As a poet of nature Freneau has earned lasting fame, his lyric on “The Wild Honey Suckle” being generally reckoned the inaugural poem in the romantic tradition furthered by William Cullen Bryant and the Transcendentalists. Freneau was less successful, though no less serious, as a theological poet. His susceptibility to ingenious theological speculation may be seen in the change of his beliefs from decade to decade. He espoused at various times deism, Swedenborgianism, and neo-Epicurianism.

Freneau’s importance as a poet is evident in his work in creating a language and a subject matter adjusted to the increasingly democratic ideology of newspapers and magazines. He was America’s first public poet in the popular mold.

David S. Shields
The Citadel

In the Heath Anthology
A Political Litany (1775)
The Wild Honey Suckle (1786)
The Indian Burying Ground (1787)
To Sir Toby (1792)
The Country Printer (1794)
On the Causes of Political Degeneracy (1798)
On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature (1815)
On Observing a Large Red Streak Apple (1822)
The Power of Fancy (1770)  [n.b., 1786]

Other Works

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Philip Freneau (1752-1832): A Brief Literary Biography
  A good overview of Freneau's life and the major themes in his poetry.

American Poems
  A fairly comprehensive biography and links to several poems available online.

Freneau, Philip [Morin]
  A biography annotated with online references.

Philip Freneau: The Indian Burying Ground
  A text of Freneau's poem, with a brief introduction.

Secondary Sources

William D. Andrews, "Philip Freneau and Frances Hopkinson," American Literature, 1764-1789, The Revolutionary Years, 1977

P. Marsh, The Works of Philip Freneau: A Critical Study, 1968

R. Vitzthum, Land and Sea: The Lyric Poetry of Philip Freneau, 1978

Eric Wertheimer, Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876, 1999