Freneau was born in New York City, the oldest of the five children of Huguenot wine merchant Pierre Fresneau and his Scottish wife. Philip was raised in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where he studied under William Tennent, Jr., whose friend at Princeton was James Madison, a relationship that would later contribute to his establishment as the editor of the National Gazette. Freneau family tradition suggests that Madison became acquainted with and fell in love with the poet's sister, Mary, during visits to their home while he was studying at Princeton. While tradition has it that Mary rejected Madison's repeated marriage proposals, this anecdote is undocumented and unsupported by other evidence.
Freneau graduated Princeton in 1771, having written the poetical History of the Prophet Jonah, and, with Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the prose satire Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca. Following his graduation, he tried his hand at teaching, but quickly gave it up. He also pursued a further study of theology, but gave this up as well after about two years. As the Revolutionary War approached in 1775, Freneau wrote a number of anti-British pieces. However, by 1776, Freneau left America for the West Indies, where he would spend time writing about the beauty of nature. In 1778, Freneau returned to America, and rejoined the patriotic cause. Freneau eventually became a crew member on a revolutionary privateer, and was captured in this capacity. He was held on a British prison ship for about six weeks. This unpleasant experience (in which he almost died), detailed in his work The British Prison Ship, would precipitate many more patriotic and anti-British writings throughout the revolution and after. For this, he was named "The Poet of the American Revolution".
In 1790 Freneau married Eleanor Forman, and became an assistant editor of the New York Daily Advertiser. Soon after, Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson worked to get Freneau to move to Philadelphia in order to edit a partisan newspaper that would counter the Federalist newspaper The Gazette of the United States. Jefferson was criticized for hiring Freneau as a translator in the State Department, even though he spoke no foreign languages except French, in which Jefferson was already fluent. Freneau accepted this undemanding position, which left free time to head the Democratic-Republican newspaper Jefferson and Madison envisioned.
This partisan newspaper, The National Gazette, provided a vehicle for Jefferson, Madison, and others to promote criticism of the rival Federalists. The Gazette took particular aim at the policies promoted by Alexander Hamilton, and like other papers of the day, would not hesitate to shade into personal attacks, including President George Washington during his second term. Owing to The Gazette's frequent attacks on his administration and himself, Washington took a particular dislike to Freneau.
Freneau later retired to a more rural life and wrote a mix of political and nature works.
Freneau is buried in the Philip Morin Freneau Cemetery on Poet's Drive in Matawan, New Jersey. His wife and mother are also buried here. He died at 80 years of age, frozen to death when trying to get back home.
The non-political works of Freneau are a combination of neoclassicism and romanticism. His poem "The House of Night" makes its mark as one of the first romantic poems written and published in America. The gothic elements and dark imagery are later seen in poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, who is well known for his gothic works of literature. Freneau's nature poem, "The Wild Honey Suckle" (1786), is considered an early seed to the later Transcendentalist movement taken up by William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Romantic primitivism is also anticipated by his poems "The Indian Burying Ground," and "Noble Savage."
Although he is not as well known as Ralph Waldo Emerson or James Fenimore Cooper, Freneau introduced many of the themes and images in his literature that later authors are famous for.
The Matawan Post Office on Main Street has a sculpture on the wall of Freneau. It features him with black slaves as he was an abolitionist later in life. It was created in 1939 by Armin Scheler, under a New Deal commission from the Treasury Department.
There is a Freneau fire company on Main Street/Route 79. Until a name change in mid-2000's, there was a restaurant called the Poet's Inn, where Freneau was supposed to have had many a rum.
- Spelled Phillip Frenau in Oxford's Poetry of Slavery Anthology (2003).
- Ketcham, Ralph (1971). James Madison: A Biography. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia. p. 108.
- Elliott, Jr., Emory B. (1978). "Freneau, Philip [Morin]". A Princeton Companion. Princeton University Press. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
- Mary Weatherspoon Bowden. Philip Freneau (Twayne's United States authors series; TUSAS 260) (1976)
- Jane Donahue Eberwein, ed. Early American Poetry: Selections from Bradstreet, Taylor, Dwight, Freneau and Bryant (1978)
- Elliott, Emory. Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810. Oxford University Press, 1982. 324 pp.
- Lewis Gaston Leary. That Rascal Freneau: A study in literary failure (1971)
- Nickson, Richard. Philip Freneau: Poet of the Revolution.
- Trenton: New Jersey Hist. Comm., 1981. 36 pp.
- Pasley, Jeffrey L. "The Two National Gazettes: Newspapers and the Embodiment of American Political Parties." Early American Literature 2000 35(1): 51-86. ISSN 0012-8163
- Vitzthum, Richard C. Land and Sea: The Lyric Poetry of Philip Freneau, University of Minnesota Press, 1978. 197 pp.
- Princeton Biography
- Virtual American Biographies
- Harper's Encyclopædia of United States History, Harper & Brothers, 1905
- Freneau's Poems
- Last Poems
- Anthology of American Literature Ninth Edition Vol. 1, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.
- "THE HOUSE OF NIGHT" (1779, revised 1786), A Vision, by Philip Freneau
- Quotations related to Philip Freneau at Wikiquote
- Densky, Lois R, Collection 21: Philip Freneau (1752-1832):Collection, 1661-1939, Monmouth County Historical Association