Colonial America, 1607-1783: Literature


Philip Freneau, 1752-1832

By Starlet M. Chavis 
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 

Most famous as the “Poet of the Revolution,” Freneau is also known for his romantic involvement in poetry.  Born in New York, Philip Freneau was well educated early in life.  His mother taught him at home until the age of thirteen, when she sent him to a Latin School.  He later entered the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, at the sophomore level at the age of sixteen.  These years of his life laid the foundation of his future career for becoming a poet.  A few people whom Freneau met at Princeton that made inspirational influences in his life were James Madison, William Bradford, and Henry Brackenridge.  During this time, Freneau and his friends formed a group called the American Whig Society, which was a group that opposed the British-oriented Tory Clio-Sophic Society.  Freneau produced his first piece of political satire, “Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca,” while becoming fascinated by the interest in the arguments between his rival association.  However, one of his most important developments was “The Rising Glory of America,” which he wrote along with the assistance of Brackenridge.  The poem speaks about the integrity of a new country approaching a neoteric era, which would be blessed with “sweet liberty! /Without whose aid the noblest genius fails, /And science irretrievably must die.”  The poem was read and well liked at the commencement on graduation day, and later published the next year. 

After graduation, Freneau had many jobs of employment, but never content with any of these unless he was writing.  For two years he sailed the islands of the West Indies, composing poems that expressed his romantic appreciation for the islands and the ways their beauty enchanted his soul.   Knowledge of the war, brought Freneau back to the states, where he joined the New Jersey militia, but later became a sea captain.  On his many voyages at sea, he wrote  “The British-Prison Ship,” which is a poem about the horrifying adventures Freneau experienced when imprisoned by the British during the war. 

However, Freneau’s best work was done while he was the editor of the National Gazette and a foreign translator in Philadelphia, encouraged by Thomas Jefferson.  Meanwhile, Freneau became known as a critic of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, and a fiery exponent of the Jefferson Republic.  George Washington referred to Freneau as “that rascal Freneau,” while on the same note, Jefferson believed that Freneau “saved our constitution which was galloping fast into monarchy.” 

Although Freneau’s life and work are filled with excitement, it is left unfinished without an originator and experimenter.  As I did mention and you could see for yourself, he was in and out of numerous jobs, as he attempted to find his place in the world of writing.  He struggled to communicate for the new nation, as he analyzed with countless forms of phraseology, such as poems and journalism.  Among his innumerable downfalls, he did succeed in creating significant poems and essays that helped to structure American literature.  Freneau is surely the “Poet of the Revolution,” as his work reflects the subject and “sense of mission of his time,” and one who lived to drive America in the direction of freedom. 


Philip Freneau 
This World Wide Web page features a picture of Freneau, along with a list of his many poems, such as "The Rising Glory of America" and "The British Prison-Ship"  This link also connects you to a brief biography of his many life experiences.
Harry Hayden Clark.  Poems of Freneau.  Hafner Library of Classics/No.19. Hafner Publishing Co., Inc.  New York, NY 1929.  PS 755 .A5C6 1968 
Both a primary and secondary source, this timely book contains numerous poems written by Freneau.  It also contains a fairly thorough introduction of the life of Freneau, written by the author, Harry Hayden Clark. 
W. H. Auden.  American Writers  Supplement II, Part I.  Charles Scribner's Son, New York, NY 1981.  Ref PS 129 .A55 Sup. II pt. I 
This secondary source, although rather lengthy, provides an extensive biography of the life of Freneau.  It also includes a list of Freneau's principle works, and a helpful bibliography, along with other useful information. 

Study Questions

"The British-Prison Ship" 
  • In the poem, "The British-Prison Ship," what is the name of Freneau's ship, and the ship that took him and his crew captive?
  • Who or what is Freneau referring to what he speaks about the Sol?
  • How long was Freneau and his fellow sea-men held captive by the British?
  • List some of the treacherous experiences Freneau encountered on the hospital prison-ship.
  • What is Freneau secretly talking about in this poem, and constantly speaks of in most of his work? 

Major Works 

  • The Poems of Philip Freneau: Written Chiefly During the Late War 
  • The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau Containing His Essays and Additional Poems
  • Poems Written Between the Years 1768 and 1794
  • Poems Written and Published During the American Revolutionary War
  • A Collection of Poems...Written Between the Year 1797 and the Present Time


  • Poet 
  • Sea-Captain of Coastwise Trading Vessels
  • Editor of the New York Daily Advertiser
  • Translator for State Department
  • Founder of the National Gazette
  • Editor of the Jersey Chronicle
  • Editor of the Time-Piece and Literary Companion
  • Farmer


  • New York , NY
  • Mt. Pleasant, NJ
  • Penolopen, NJ
  • Flatbrush, Long Island
  • Santa Cruz, West Indies
  • Freehold, NJ


  • 1752: Born in New York
  • 1767: Went to Latin School, in Penolopen, NJ
  • 1767: His father died
  • 1768: Entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton)
  • 1770: Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca
  • 1771: School teacher on Long Island
  • 1772: Published "The Rising Glory of America" 
  • 1775: Published "The House of Night"
  • 1776: Traveled to Santa Cruz in the West Indies
  • 1778: Captured by British while returning to U. S. 
  • 1778: Joined the New Jersey militia
  • 1779: Contributed to the United States Magazine
  • 1780: Imprisoned a second time by the British for two months
  • 1781: Published "The British-Prison Ship"
  • 1786: Published The Poems of Philip Freneau 
  • 1787: Sea captain 
  • 1787: The Poems of Philip Freneau: Written Chiefly During the Late War 
  • 1788: The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau Containing His Essays and Additional Poems
  • 1790: Returned home and married Eleanor Forman 
  • 1790: Moved to New York, editor of the Daily Advertiser
  • 1791: Moved to Philadelphia, foreign translator for the State Department
  • 1791: Founded the National Gazette 
  • 1793: Financial collapse of the National Gazette
  • 1794: Retired to Mt. Pleasant 
  • 1795: Poems Written Between the Years 1768 and 1794 
  • 1795: Moved to New York
  • 1795: Publication of the Jersey Chronicle
  • 1797: Editor of The Time-Piece
  • 1799: Retired again to Mt. Pleasant
  • 1802: Financially forced back to being a sea captain
  • 1804: Returned home and became a farmer
  • 1809: Published Poems Written and Published During the American Revolutionary War
  • 1815: A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs, and A Variety of Other Subjects, Chiefly Moral and Political
  • 1818: Fire destroyed his Mt. Pleasant home 
  • 1832: Died in a snowstorm near his home in Freehold, NJ
Colonial America, 1607-1783: Literature