Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Philip Freneau and the Paradox of American Freedom

Continuing my leisurely jaunt through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, I came today to the poetry of Philip Freneau (1752-1832).  Freneau was raised in a wealthy New York family, and went to school with James Madison, who would become president.  As a young man, Freneau had aspirations to be a writer, but business interests called him away from fully devoting himself to letters.  In 1776, the year the signers of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal," Freneau took a position as a secretary on a plantation in the West Indies, where he and other white men got rich off slave labor, just as men like Jefferson and Washington were doing in the newly declared United States.  Here, in these early experiences, Freneau saw (but perhaps did not fully realize) the paradoxical implications of American democracy.  It claimed to bring freedom to all men, so long as they were white men.  This paradox of freedom would haunt American literature for decades to come.

Philip Freneau

Despite his business activities, Freneau still managed to write poetry, and some even dubbed him the "Poet of the American Revolution."  His poetry deals with the paradox of American freedom.  In "On the Emigration to America and Peopling of the Western Country," Freneau envisions a free America that extends the length of the continent, successfully predicting the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny."  Freneau equates the monarchies of Europe with slavery.

"From Europe's proud, despotic shores
Hither the stranger takes his way,
And in our new found world explores
A happier soil, a milder sway,
Where no proud despot holds him down,
No slaves insult him with a crown."

The irony, of course, is that it was not just European monarchs who owned slaves.  The founders of America owned slaves too.  Freneau himself presided over slaves at the plantation in the West Indies.  For Freneau, it is in the American west that new possibilities for freedom exist, even perhaps for American slaves:

"O come the time, and haste the day,
When man shall man no longer crush,
When Reason shall enforce her sway,
Nor these fair regions raise our blush,
Where still the African complains,
And mourns his yet unbroken chains."

And yet the freedom Freneau envisions does not apply to Native Americans, who were seen as in the way of white American progress.  Sadly, the 19th century would witness a genocide where white men would indeed "crush" their fellow man.  Freneau seems blind to the implications of this new "freedom" in the west.

"From these fair plains, these rural seats,
So long concealed, so lately known,
The unsocial Indian far retreats,
To make some other clime his own,
Where other streams, less pleasing flow,
And darker forests round him grow."

Here, Freneau is predicting the removal of Native Americans from their lands, a process that was already well underway when these words were written, and would tragically continue for years to come.  The irony, again, is that Freneau's poem is meant to be optimistic, to envision a kind of utopian American future of freedom.  To a contemporary reader like me, however, with the hindsight of history, the poem is dark and foreboding.

In his poem "On Mr. Paine's Rights of Man," Freneau again predicts an optimistic future for white American progress.  He personifies America as "Columbia" (after Christopher Columbus), with all the ethnocentrism and devastation that implies:

"Columbia, hail!  Immortal be thy reign;
Without a king, we till the smiling plain;
Without a king, we trace the unbounded sea,
And traffic round the globe, through each decree;
Each foreign clime our honored flag reveres."

Again, Freneau is successfully predicting the global dominance that the United States would come to achieve.  Unfortunately, he sees this totally optimistically, and seems blind to the darker implications of this.  I almost agree that Freneau could be dubbed "The Poet of the American Revolution" because he represents (with varying degrees of self-consciousness) the paradoxical "freedom for white men" that was the guiding ideology of the founding fathers.

The land of "freedom"

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