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Philip Freneau

Known as the "poet of the American Revolution," Philip Freneau not only wrote about the war that gave the United States its independence from Britain, he also fought and almost died in it. From his friendships with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, Freneau is now a relatively obscure poet whose contributions to American history and literature are drastically underrepresented. 

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Philip Freneau

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Known as the "poet of the American Revolution," Philip Freneau not only wrote about the war that gave the United States its independence from Britain, he also fought and almost died in it. From his friendships with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, Freneau is now a relatively obscure poet whose contributions to American history and literature are drastically underrepresented.

Philip Freneau Biography

The oldest of five children, Philip Freneau was born to a family of deeply religious wine merchants in 1752. He was raised in New Jersey, attending the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) to become a minister. His roommate was James Madison, and while in college Freneau became deeply interested in both literature and politics. He graduated in 1771 and tried teaching, but quickly gave it up.

As the American Revolutionary War approached and tensions mounted, Freneau wrote a series of anti-British satires. He left the United States in 1776 and travelled to the West Indies, where he spent his time learning navigation and writing poetry. It was during this transitory period that Freneau wrote much of his longest poems, focusing on his natural surroundings and writing satire on the cruelty of slavery.

He returned to the United States in 1778, joined the militia, and served as sea captain on a privateer ship. He was captured by British forces and held as a prisoner of war for 6 weeks. He nearly died during this time, and recorded the experience in his long poem The British Prison Ship. After this experience, he became much more outspoken about British oppression throughout the revolution and after. His patriotic, anti-British works earned him the title "Poet of the American Revolution."

Philip Freneau, Photograph of two pirate ships on the sea with the moon on the background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - One of Freneau's most well-known poems, The British Prison Ship, details his experience as a prisoner of war when his ship was captured by British forces.

After the war, Freneau married and published two poetry collections, The Poems of Philip Freneau, Written Chiefly During the Late War in 1786, and The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau in 1788. Thomas Jefferson admired Freneau's political writing style and, along with James Madison, convinced Freneau to move to Philadelphia.

There, Jefferson and Madison helped Freneau to found and edit The National Gazette, an anti-Federalist newspaper that promoted Jefferson's policies. Jefferson also hired Freneau as a translator in the State Department, which was controversial as the only foreign language Freneau knew was French.

Freneau used his position as editor of The National Gazette to criticize Federalist policies and political figures. He specifically attacked both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, leading to Washington calling him "that rascal Freneau." Hamilton accused Freneau of being Jefferson's tool rather than a free-thinking intellectual, which Freneau and Jefferson both denied.

Philip Freneau, A letter with a pen attached to it on top of a newspaper, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Freneau is known for founding The National Gazette, and using his position as editor to criticize Federalist politics and praise the Democratic Republicans.

After Jefferson resigned from Secretary of State in 1793, Freneau left The National Gazette, editing a few small newspapers before retiring to his farm in New Jersey. He lived to be 80 years old, eventually freezing to death in Matawan, New Jersey in 1832.

Freneau's Poetry and Writing Style

Overall, Freneau's poetry is most defined by the intersection of Neoclassical and Romantic traditions. In his writings, he used these traditions to complement his style of poetry as a form of self-reflection and collaboration. His poetry focuses on topics like politics, the natural world, Native Americans, and naval battles.

Freneau's political poetry differs deeply from his nature poetry. As a political poet, Freneau relies heavily on satire, using dry humor to ridicule his opponents. Whether he was condemning British influence in the United States, advocating for the abolishment of slavery, or criticizing his Federalist political opponents, Freneau was deeply satiric. He went head to head with many of his political rivals, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, exposing their vices and ridiculing their political policies.

Freneau's nature poetry, on the other hand, focuses on lyricism and the American landscape. In these poems, Freneau tended more towards the Romantic tradition, exploring and marveling at the natural world around him. This can be seen in poems like 'The Wild Honeysuckle' (1786), 'May to April' (1787), and 'On the Religion of Nature' (1815).

Philip Freneau Poems

Let us take a look at some poems by Philip Freneau

'The Wild Honey Suckle' (1786)

The speaker of this poem is talking to a beautiful honey suckle, which has grown in a spot off the beaten path. Away from humans, the honey suckle is free to flourish in the calm silence where it has the perfect mix of shade, water, and protection. The speaker thinks the honey suckle is lovely, planted "by Nature's self."

But then the speaker laments how the honey suckle will decay one day. He compares these flowers to the one in Eden, saying that he's sure these ones are just as beautiful, and it's a shame that this flower has to die while those lived forever. Expanding the metaphor, he compares the flower to every living organism that will eventually die. He says that all living things return to their original state in death, and human life is as short as a flower's. Themes include beauty, death, and the transient status of life.

Philip Freneau, Honeysuckle, StudySmarterFig. 3 - One of Freneau's most well-known poems reflects upon the beauty and brevity of a wild honeysuckle.

The British Prison Ship (1781)

The British Prison Ship is a long poem, comprised of three (or four, as the poem was revised six times) cantos, that details Freneau's firsthand account of being captured and kept as a prisoner on a British prison ship during the American Revolutionary War.

The poem starts when the Aurora, Freneau's ship, and the Iris, a British ship, sighted one another. A chase ensued as the Aurora attempted to flee. When the crew of the Aurora realized that they wouldn't be able to escape, they briefly fought back, but the Aurora was struck with a cannon and began to fill with water. The captain of Marines was shot and the ship captured.

Freneau was imprisoned on the Scorpion, one of the most notorious British prison ships of the war. The prisoners were treated horridly and Freneau wrote that death would have been a better fate than imprisonment. The air was foul and the prisoners were forced to lay in shackles. The poem recounts an unsuccessful prison break followed by a sickness that spread throughout the ship.

Freneau fell ill and was transferred to a hospital boat, but he was not treated any better. Two to three of his fellow prisoners died every day and other prisoners had to bury them on land. The poem ends rather abruptly with the speaker imploring the Americans to remember the prisoners of war and defeat the British for them.

'The Indian Burial Ground' (1787)

The speaker of the poem is observing a Native American burial, where the deceased are buried sitting upright instead of lying down. He praises the tradition and says that even though the majority of Europeans believe themselves to be superior to Native Americans, he actually thinks the "civilized" Europeans could learn much from Native American customs.

Native Americans bury their dead in a seated position, believing that their deceased live on in a separate world that is an extension of their life. The Christian Europeans, on the other hand, see death as an impersonal final end. They bury their departed lying down in an eternal sleep and set cold memorial stones on top of the grave.

Philip Freneau, Awoman sitting in nature with sun shining on her, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Freneau's speaker admires Native American groups that bury their dead in a seated position to reflect that death is an extension of life.

The speaker argues in favor of the mystical, open relationship that Native Americans have with death as an extension of life instead of the formal, terminal relationship that Europeans have with death. At the end of the poem, the speaker says that reason should "bow the knee / To shadows and delusions here," meaning that rationalism needs to give in to the imagination in death. Themes in the poem include death, life after death, and open-mindedness to other ideas.

'Emancipation from British Dependence' (1775)

Freneau was deeply critical of British influence in the American colonies. Leading up to and following the Revolutionary War, he wrote many satirical pieces that were anti-British. 'Emancipation from British Dependence' was one such poem. The speaker in this poem lists in detail all of the reasons that he abhors the British and advocates for American independence.

Freneau positions the British as a country full of greed, corruption, and anti-freedom sentiments. The poem is bitterly humorous with lines such as "Whom, if Heaven pleases, we'll give bloody noses" (12) and "What the devil care we where the devil he goes" (24). Adding to the satirical elements, everyone who supports the British are depicted as "stupid" and "slaves that would die for a smile from the throne" (18).

Philip Freneau - Key Takeaways

  • Philip Freneau was an important poet who wrote about the Revolutionary War and the tensions that led to the United States fighting for its independence.
  • Freneau went to college with James Madison, where he became interested in politics and literature.
  • He served as a privateer during the Revolutionary War, but was captured by the British and kept as a prisoner for 6 weeks. He details his experience in his long poem The British Prison Ship.
  • After the war, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison helped Freneau to found The National Gazette, which Freneau used to criticize Jefferson's political opponents, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
  • Freneau wrote both political poetry and nature poetry, and the two drastically differ.

Frequently Asked Questions about Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau was one of the first poets in America who significantly contributed to literary circles. He is often called "the poet of the American Revolution" as he recorded his experience in the war through his poetry and manuscript accounts. 

Freneau froze to death after falling in the snow on his way home. He was 80.

Freneau wrote poetry that depicted the United State's path towards freedom. He is one of the first American poets who significantly contributed to the literary world. He also wrote many anti-British satires and after the war was one of the loudest voices in opposing Hamilton and Washington's politics, as he served as a voice for Jeffersonian politics.  

Freneau was the editor of The National Gazette, an anti-federalist newspaper. He was a Democratic Republican and actively supported Jefferson and Madison. 

Freneau wrote many pieces criticizing the cruelty of slavery during his time in the West Indies. Later in life, he was an outspoken supporter of the abolition of slavery. 

Who was Philip Freneau? 

Philip Freneau was one of the first poets in America who significantly contributed to literary circles. He is often called "the poet of the American Revolution" as he recorded his experience in the war through his poetry and manuscript accounts. 

What was significant about Freneau's time in college? 

Freneau originally went to college to be a minister, but he quickly became interested in politics due to his roommate James Madison. It was also during college that Freneau developed a passion for writing. 

Why is Philip Freneau important? 


Freneau wrote poetry that depicted the United State's path towards independence. He is one of the first American poets who significantly contributed to the literary world. He also wrote many anti-British satires and after the war was one of the loudest voices in opposing Hamilton and Washington's politics, as he served as a voice for Jeffersonian politics.  

What happened to Freneau during the war? 

Freneau joined the militia and served as a privateer. His ship was captured by a British ship and he spent six months as a prisoner of war abroad a British prison ship. He recorded that experience in his poem the British Prison Ship. 

What did Freneau do after the war? 

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison convinced Freneau to move to Philadelphia, where he founded The National Gazette, a paper that criticized Federalist politics and praised Republican ones. 

What political enemies did Freneau make?

Both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington disliked Freneau. 

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