J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 01, 2018

A New Year’s Greeting from Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau (1752-1832) graduated from Princeton College in 1771, already in the habit of writing poetry. He tried teaching and studying for the ministry, but all he really wanted to do was write, which was a nice lifestyle but not a lucrative one.

Despite supporting the Patriot cause on paper, Freneau spent the first years of the Revolutionary War in the Caribbean, writing nature poems. In 1778 he sailed back to the U.S. of A., landing only after being captured and released by the Royal Navy.

After publishing more poetry, Freneau enlisted as supercargo on a ship to the Azores. That trip required evading British vessels. In May 1780 he set out again for the island of St. Eustatia, this time as a paying passenger.

That ship started its voyage by seizing a small sloop from Crown hands in Delaware Bay. Its captain therefore had no leg to stand on when British ships counterattacked the next day. I mean that literally: Freneau wrote that “a twelve-pound shot…struck Captain Laboyteaut in the right thigh, which it smashed to atoms.”

Freneau expected the British would again set him free as a non-combatant passenger. Instead, his captors shoved him in with their other prisoners. His treatment wasn’t as bad as it could have been because he was soon treated as an officer. Nonetheless, Freneau found himself on one of the infamous British prison-ships in New York harbor.

And he stayed on that ship for six weeks before falling quite ill and being released. Freneau spun that experience into more fervid Patriotism and his most famous poem, The British Prison-Ship. (Michelle Porter discussed that composition at the Journal of the American Revolution.)

In April 1781 Freneau began to edit the Freeman’s Journal, published in Philadelphia by printer Francis Bailey. In that capacity he wrote two verses for the newspaper’s carriers at the end of 1782, plus another for the apprentices of the Pennsylvania Evening Post. Here’s one of those:
To those Gentlemen who have been pleased to favour
Francis Wrigley, News Carrier, with their custom.
January 1, 1783.

ACCORDING to custom, once more I appear
With the verse you expect at the dawn of the year:
For at length we have got into EIGHTY AND THREE;
And in spite of proud Britain, are happy and free.
If the times have been hard, and our commerce gone wrong,
We still have been able to struggle along.
If some, through misfortunes, are slack in the purse,
It is not so bad but it might have been worse.—
Great things, the year past, were reveal’d to our eyes:
The Dutch have confess’d us their friends and allies,
And humbled the pride of our haughty invaders,
By fighting their fleets and destroying their traders,
If the English succeeded in taking the COUNT,
To what, in the end, did their conquest amount?
With their boasts, and their brags, and their shouts of applause,
It but sav’d them from ruin—not ruin’d our cause.

BUT leaving the weight of political cares
To those, who are plac’d at the helm of affairs,
To the humours of fortune in all things resign’d,
I mean by my visit to put you in mind,
That, as true as a clock, both early and late,
With the news of the day I have knock’d at your gate,
And gave you to know what the world was a doing,
What LOUIS intended, or GEORGE was a brewing.
If sometimes the papers were trifling and flat,
And the news went against us,—I cou’dn’t help that;
If parties were angry, and vented their spite,
I bro’t you their wranglings—not help’d them to write.
I therefore presume (and not without reason)
You’ll remember your NEWSMAN, and think of the season;
The markets are high, and the weather is cold;
No party I serve, and no pension I hold.
We Hawkers are men, and have children and wives
To comfort our hearts, and to solace our lives:
But if I say more, you’ll think it is stuff;
And a word to the wise is, in reason, enough.
Freneau wrote similar verses to celebrate the start of 1784 before that spring quitting the Freeman’s Journal to take another trip to the Caribbean. Two years later, Bailey collected his erstwhile editor’s poetry, including six carrier verses. Freneau wrote a couple more in later life, and he included those poems in the editions of his work that he oversaw himself, indicating that he didn’t see his carrier verses as mere occasional ephemera.

COMING UP: Who was Francis Wrigley?

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