Freneau, an adamant republican, served on a revolutionary privateer and as a Jeffersonian newspaper editor, and never tired of shouting down the aristocracies and tyrannies of old Europe. He was also the first American Romantic poet, and the gap in environmental imagination that separates him from Davies and Edwards, let alone Edwards’ puritan predecessors, was profound. In another sense, though, Freneau only found a new and more fitting idiom for a national project that was turning decisively to continental conquest and settlement.
Freneau’s work gives a sense of where nature stood in the literary and popular imagination of the early republic. His poetry has three major themes. First is the fierce, sometimes bloody-minded republicanism of a Jeffersonian who supported Tom Paine and the French Revolution. Kings for him were “source of discord, patrons of all wrong [who]/On blood and murder have been fed too long…/The curse, the scourge, the ruin of our race …/Who made this globe the residence of slaves.” He urged, “haste the period that shall crush them all.” One of the pleasures of reading Freneau – and the pleasures are not mainly literary – is being reminded of the unabashed radicalism, even the republican utopianism, of the American Revolution. He mocked monarchists as idolators and slaves to their own superstition and fear, and voiced every confidence that Reason sided with the American cause. Independent America, he promised in the midst of the Revoluion, would enjoy “a second golden reign,” an unfallen empire of peace and freedom.
His Nature, mistress of Reason, was the unfailing ally of republican freedom, and kings were usurpers against her. The essential unity and harmony of nature is Freneau’s second great theme. Freneau’s material nature was a Deist creation, uniform in its laws, with no miracles or “special providence” to excite superstition: “All, nature made, in reason’s sight, is order all, and all is right.” This nature taught, by innate inclination, “the path of right, fair virtue’s way” of liberty, equality, and peace. This natural religion, he wrote, “deals not curses on mankind,/Or dooms them to perpetual grief,/If from its aid no joys they find,/It damns them not for unbelief;/Upon a more exalted plan/Creatress nature dealt with man.” Freneau rejected, as of a piece, the curses and threats of priestcraft and the promises of divine favoritism: both were, in Jefferson’s well-remembered phrase, forms of tyranny over the mind of man. The “more exalted plan,” which was in line with constitutional drafter James Wilson’s moral-sense theory, was that of natural solidarity among free and equal individuals, and when republicans had finally driven superstition from the human mind, “Then persecution will retreat/And man’s religion be complete.” Freneau, though sounding Deist themes, had also adopted notes of neo-pagan humanism, complete with his “Creatress Nature,” the only non-human actor in a poem on “Religion” in which God makes no appearance. In other poems, he adopted the view that the soul was mortal, which he shared with Epicurus and Hobbes, and which seems to have had, for him as them, the radical consequence that this world is humanity’s only home. This meant, on the one hand, relinquishing any hope of eternal pleasure and reward in the next life, and, on the other, accepting the freedom, and responsibility, to create the only possible “golden age” in this world.
The North American continent figured centrally in Freneau’s story, for it was humanity’s last great opportunity, a chance to reclaim Roman and British freedom – and on the grandest scale yet, one that might become universal. In his poem “On the Emigration to America and People the Western Country,” written very early in the period of independence, Freneau forecast new discoveries in political freedom and human happiness: “a future age…/Whose genius may the world engage,/Whose deeds may over death prevail,/And happier systems bring to view,/Than all the eastern sages knew.” Even if “over death prevail” has only the figurative sense of winning immortality through historical renown, it replaces heavenly immortality with earthly greatness. The promise of “happier systems” aims to overcome all previous political philosophy by way of the actual experiments of a free people.
The setting of this sublunary millennial promise was a continent made rich by labor and knowledge, where settlers would “tame the soil, and plant the arts.” In the heart of the nature imagery of this poem, human effort redirects the vast but useless energy of the living landscape, the “savage stream” of the Ohio and “princely flood” of the Mississippi, surging through a country where “forests bloomed but to decay.” Now that power would be turned to use and wealth: the soil would feed new nations, and, as for the rivers, long the lifeblood of “a darksome wood … unnoticed,” now “commerce plans new freights for thee.” This image – the material basis of a new chapter in human freedom – is the poetry behind that telling promise in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, that Americans’ “chosen country” contains “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation” – at last, time and world enough for an “empire of liberty” to enter history.
Freneau’s third theme presents a striking contrast to republican freedom and nature’s rational order. This is his sentimental and aesthetic attachment to the wild and primitive aspects of the natural world – the same aspects that, in his other poems, are to be subsumed under the progress of reason and freedom, both fulfilling Nature’s ideal design. These notes in his poems suggest that there is something incomplete in the plan of rational freedom, something charismatic, even essential, in the primitive. As he put it, reflecting on the charm of an “Indian Burying Ground,” in the presence of myth “Reason’s self shall bow the knee/To shadows and delusions here.” It is telling that Freneau uses the image of political or religious submission, the same that he savages when it is addressed to priests or kings: the same impulse, to kneel to power and mystery, wins a kind of respect from him when it responds instead to enchanted nature – or, more exactly, to an image of another, more primitive people’s idea of enchanted nature. Here, a kind of sentimental and aestheticized submission is a safe and decent way to acknowledge the irrational in ourselves.
Elsewhere, Freneau cultivated attention to natural objects with an interest that was more aesthetic and sentimental than spiritual and metaphysical. A poem on a wild honeysuckle admired the beauty of a flower concealed out of sight in the deep woods, and found its charm in the same cyclical, unproductive isolation that he had called on Americans to overcome in the continent’s woods and rivers. Like the puritans before him, Freneau emphasized the short life of the flower, but, unlike them, the Classically inclined Unitarian drew no moral or theological conclusion for human conduct. The flower’s brief existence, like its isolation, was part of the aesthetic appeal of the lovely, useless, sentimental, and tragic – the same qualities that drew Freneau, like his fellow Romantics in England and Europe, to write poems on ruins and on death by tuberculosis. His attraction to the primitive also led him to a well-rehearsed theme from Virgil’s Eclogues, the peace of the rural retreat in contrast to the corruptions of urbanity and power, a conceit that sometimes led him to the implausible suggestion that American villages and forests were populated by pipe-playing shepherds. Lacking real peasants (who were amply accessible to, say, Wordsworth) and without much capacity or inclination to convey the texture of labor or its effect on the human body, the republican Freneau in these poems inadvertently resembles Marie Antoinette playing shepherd. He was more interesting when he placed a wild, but seemingly white, natural man in the American forest. Freneau’s Jack Straw, named for the semi-mythical leader of England’s 1389 Peasant Revolt, is neither a pioneer nor a shepherd, but a wild creature himself, who washes with sand, has no tools but a hammer and axe, successfully courts his love with tobacco, and, in his simple state, finds no reason to envy the King of Britain his comfort and pomp. While he is not a political creature in terms, he would no doubt be a patriot given the chance, and Freneau’s poem invites more urban patriots to identify their secret selves with Jack Straw. He falls in the line of England’s mythic and sentimental “greenwood liberties,” the identification of simple, virtuous freedom with an ungoverned forest existence – familiar most famously in Robin Hood, who rebelled against tyrannical Nottingham officials but pledged his loyalty to just kings and timeless English liberty. To William Bradford of Plymouth, both these legendary men might have seemed “lords of misrule,” as he termed the outcast Thomas Morton. No doubt Bradford would have regarded Freneau’s approach to nature as a “school of atheism” and his politics as both anarchic and atheistic.
Freneau stood near the outer edge of his American culture, in both his muscular republican politics and his keen interest in nature. The place of nature in his outlook, though, displays limits that were much more widely shared. Appreciation of natural beauty was genuine and not necessarily religious or moralized. Freneau’s political muse, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that the state’s arched-stone “natural bridge” was “the most sublime of nature’s works,” where “the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” Jefferson accurately used sublime for a natural phenomenon that overwhelmed the mind, drawing pleasure from extremes of discomfort and threat: “If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from the bottom is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here.” He purchased the bridge and a 153-acre surrounding tract, and sometimes reflected on building there a Romantic version of Freneau’s idyllic rural retreat, a “little hermitage” where he could spend part of the year. Such sentiments were not peculiar to the forward-looking and Europhilic Jefferson. Timothy Dwight, the conservative minister, Yale president, and arch-opponent of what he styled French-Revolutionary atheism and anarchy, could hardly have been farther from Freneau and Jefferson in his vision of the young country; but when he wrote on his Travels in New England and New York, he explained that he dedicated some pages to scenery because it was what readers wanted: “not a small number of readers are delighted with landscapes, and their taste is as reasonably consulted … by a writer, as that of graver minds. When I hear so many individuals converse on the scenes of nature of with so much pleasure, I … believe that, wherever justice done to such scenes in a book, it will be read by them with some degree of the same pleasure.” Making good on his promise, he wrote later of New England’s variety of “immense ranges, bold spurs, and solitary eminences … delightful succession of sublimity and grandeur.” The beauty of more modest and hospitable landscape forms and gracious useful waterways was interspersed with the grand and sublime, so that “The variety, which Milton informs us Earth has derived from Heaven ‘Of pleasure situate in hill and dale’ is nowhere more extensively found.” The land was endless inspiration for those aesthetes who sought it: “Neither the poet nor the painter can here be ever at a loss for scenery to employ the pen or the pencil.” Much the same notes of appreciation, then, sounded from both poles of American public life.
Appreciation of the American landscape united these figures, otherwise so far apart, but it did so as an aesthetic and sentimental delectation, a pleasure for the drawing room or, perhaps, the solitary ramble or the retreat at the end of a period of public service. Romantic nature was present in the early republic, marking a break from the Puritan imagination, where nature, when not brutally practical, was fiercely moral and allegorical. Its presence, though, did not bespeak an essential force, a challenge to established order, or even a reflection on the moral costs of the providential garden that public language portrayed the continent as being. That would come later, when an aesthetic plaything became a polemical weapon, and the landscape of holiday the setting for a new kind of conversion.