philip freneau

Philip Freneau

muriel j smith 120There are so many people through the centuries who are connected with Highlands and all of Monmouth County we sometimes forget how much pride we can take in our ancestry and the earlier settlers of the area.

Philip Freneau is one of them. Born in New York and educated at Princeton, where he roomed with James Madison, Freneau was known as the Poet of the Revolution, and actually in some circles is known as the Father of American Literature. He kept other good company during his Princeton years..the likes of Aaron Burr, William Bradford, later US attorney general, William Patterson, later Governor for whom the northern NJ city is named, Henry Lighthouse Harry Lee and Hugh Brackenridge, with whom he wrote what is regarded as the first book of narrative prose written in the United States.

The oldest of five children, his mother educated him so he could be a minister, and while Freneau dutifully studied theology, he was more drawn to literature. Then when the Revolution broke out, he used his wit and poetic ability to bring the era’s politics into the poetic world and educate the people on the American Whig Society. His style was eclectic and he could write satire and comedy as well as patriotism and inspiration, be it for the Revolution or the sea, recalling the time he loved as a sea captain visiting islands and writing naval ballads.

Freneau married a Monmouth County lady, and built the family home in Mount Pleasant on his wife’s 1,000 acre estate, the community now known as Freneau.

He tried a variety of different jobs and occupations during his life, decided early on he did not like teaching, but was drawn to editing and newspapers. He worked for a while as a trader during the sea captain days, and as a farmer. And when he was in the New Jersey militia, captured, and imprisoned on a British ship, he even wrote about that, pouring a large dose of bitterness into what was otherwise beautiful poetry. Later, at the suggestion of friends Madison and Thomas Jefferson, he even started his own newspaper in Philadelphia, the National Gazette. Purpose of the Gazette was to uphold Mr. Jefferson’s beliefs and counter the pro-Alexander Hamilton press. He was also working for Jefferson during his presidential years serving as clerk for foreign languages within the office of the secretary of state. Later, still in Mount Pleasant, he published The Monmouth Almanac that printed stories about everything from the solar system to Freneau’s own essays.

Lofty, deep, funny or strange as some of Freneau’s works were, his Naversink is the poem best remembered and appreciated by folks in the Bayshore. In five stanzas, he wrote about the beauty of “these, hills, the pride of all the coast,” the valley, “these vales, impervious to the wind…:” what the hills saw….”a thousand sails your hazy summits greet,” the Revolution, “you saw the angry British come, you saw him, last, retreat.” He even incorporated Joshua Huddy’s hanging in the poem, referring to “Where forests round them rise, Dark groves, their tops in æther lost, that, haunted still by Huddy's ghost, the trembling rustic flies.”

Freneau never made much money for all his writing; he sold off much of his farm to pay debts, lost the house to a fire in 1818, and worked as a laborer whe he was in his 70s to pay his taxes. In his 80s, he applied for a veteran’s pension which was granted, the grand amount of $35 a year.

But he never lived to collect it. Philip Freneau, the Poet of the Revolution, the poet who wrote of those Highlands hills “Let those who pant for wealth or fame pursue the watery road; Soft sleep and ease, blest days and nights, and health, attend these favorite heights, retirement's blest abode!” died of exposure in a blizzard in December, 1932.