Philip Freneau

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Philip Morin Freneau
Born(1752-01-02)January 2, 1752
New York City, British America
DiedDecember 18, 1832(1832-12-18) (aged 80)
Matawan, New Jersey
OccupationPoet, writer, polemicist
Alma materCollege of New Jersey (1771)

Philip Morin Freneau[1] (January 2, 1752 – December 18, 1832) was an American poet, nationalist, polemicist, sea captain and early American newspaper editor sometimes called the "Poet of the American Revolution". Through his newspaper, the National Gazette, he was a strong critic of George Washington and a proponent of Jeffersonian policies.


Early life and education[edit]

Freneau was born in New York City, the oldest of the five children of Huguenot wine merchant Pierre Freneau and his Scottish wife. Freneau was raised Calvinist by parents who were part of a Presbyterian congregation led by a New Light evangelical, Rev. William Tennent, Jr.[2] Freneau later attended a grammar school directed by Tennent.[3] Philip was raised in Matawan, New Jersey. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he studied under William Tennent, Jr.

Freneau's close 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.[4]

Freneau graduated from Princeton in 1771,[5] having already written the poetical History of the Prophet Jonah, and, with Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the prose satire Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Writing career[edit]

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 spent time writing about nature—and writing biting satire about the cruelty of slavery in the West Indies. 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 experience, which almost killed him, was detailed in his work The British Prison Ship, which prompted many more patriotic and anti-British writings throughout the revolution and after.[6] 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. Freneau accepted this sinecure, 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.

Later years and death[edit]

Freneau later retired to a more rural life and wrote a mix of political and nature works.

He died at 80 years of age, frozen to death while returning to his home, and was buried in what became the Philip Morin Freneau Cemetery on Poet's Drive in Matawan, New Jersey. His mother was also buried there but his wife was laid to rest at her family plot in Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery on what is now Route 516 and Main in Matawan.


The non-political works of Freneau combined neoclassicism and romanticism. Although he is not as generally well known as Ralph Waldo Emerson or James Fenimore Cooper, Freneau introduced many themes and images for which later authors became famous. For example, Freneau's poem "The House of Night", one of the early romantic poems written and published in America, included the Gothic elements and dark imagery that later were seen in the poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Freneau's nature poem "The Wild Honey Suckle" (1786) was considered an early seed to the later Transcendentalist movement taken up by William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Romantic primitivism was anticipated by Freneau's poems "The Indian Burying Ground" and "Noble Savage."

Memorials to him in Matawan include:

  • The Matawan Post Office on Main Street has a sculpture of Freneau on its wall, depicting 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.
  • A site Freneau frequented in Matawan is now in use as a restaurant. From 1961 until 2008, it operated as The Poet's Inn, honoring Freneau's memory. The business has changed hands several times, and the building has been renovated over the years.[7]
  • Freneau, New Jersey, an unincorporated community within Matawan, was named in his honor.[8]
  • Freneau Woods Park, named after Philip Morin Freneau, whose family once partly owned the property is located along the headwaters of Matawan Creek and Lake Lefferts. This 313-acre park is comprised mostly of woodland and protects critical wildlife habitat and bolsters water quality in the region. Both historically and environmentally significant, the park provides open space in a densely populated area of the county.

In 2022, the band Bird in the Belly used the words from Freneau's poem "Pestilence" for their concept album After the city. The lyrics appear in the song "Pale Horse" and represent the arrival of the pale horse into their fictional depiction of London.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spelled Phillip Frenau in Oxford's Poetry of Slavery Anthology (2003).
  2. ^ Elliott, E. (2014). Freneau, Philip Morin (1752-1832). In M. Spencer (Ed.), The Bloomsbury encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment. Bloomsbury.
  3. ^ Elliott, E. (2014). Freneau, Philip Morin (1752-1832). In M. Spencer (Ed.), The Bloomsbury encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment. Bloomsbury.
  4. ^ Ketcham, Ralph (1971). James Madison: A Biography. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia. p. 108.
  5. ^ Elliott, Jr., Emory B. (1978). "Freneau, Philip [Morin]". A Princeton Companion. Princeton University Press. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
  6. ^ Harmon, William, p 357.
  7. ^ Caggiano, Greg. "Matawan’s Brass Rail Bar and Grill, and Memories of The Poet’s Inn", Eating New Jersey, December 12, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2016.
  8. ^ Capuzzo, Jill P. "2 Lakes, the Shore and a Train to the City", The New York Times, February 19, 2010. Accessed July 30, 2012. "The expanded Cape that Ms. Bragg and Mr. Colón bought last October for $370,000 is in the Freneau section — a hilly, wooded area named after the Revolutionary War poet Philip Freneau, who lived here and is buried in the neighborhood."
  9. ^ "StackPath". 14 February 2022.


  • 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.
  • Harmon, William. Top 500 Poems, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992, p 357. "Freneau came along just in time to take part in literary activities related to the American Revolution."
  • 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

External links[edit]