Philip Freneau, America’s First Atheist Poet

Mark Kolsen

Although mostly ignored in anthologies of American literature, Philip Freneau is still recognized as “The Poet of the American Revolution.” During the War of Independence, he was unyielding in his criticism of the British and in his praise for the colonists’ patriotism, bravery, and sacrifices. In his poem about the Battle of Eutaw Springs, Freneau writes that the soldiers:

… saw their injured country’s woe,

The flaming town, the wasted field;

They rushed to meet the insulting foe;

They took the spear—but left the shield.

Yet during the war, Freneau was more than just an observer. He fought as a militiaman; in 1780, the British captured and imprisoned him on a ship. He almost died there, and his bitter experience led to his writing “The British Prison Ship,” a scathing condemnation of British brutality.

After the war, Jefferson helped Freneau establish the National Gazette, an anti-Federalist newspaper. According to the University of Groningen’s biographies of important American figures, Freneau “became the first powerful, crusading editor in America, and the literary predecessor of William Cullen Bryant, William Lloyd Garrison, and H. L. Mencken.” He advocated for the common man and wrote poems—such as “The Jug of Rum”—to which most people could easily relate. Like Paine, Jefferson, and other anti-Federalists, Freneau cheered for the French Revolution. He strongly believed that political and religious oppression were symbiotic. In 1792, on the third anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Freneau recalled the

Bright Day, that did to France restore

What priests and kings had seized away

Freneau’s poetry reflected his expansive worldview. Like many nineteenth-century romantic writers, he revered nature for its beauty and power and as a source of human happiness. As a retired person living in Chicago, I often appreciate Freneau’s simple wish for

A hermit’s house beside a stream

With forests planted round,

Whatever it to you may seem

More real happiness I deem

Than if I were a monarch crowned

Freneau saw humor in every aspect of life. Once a honeybee buzzed near Freneau as he was enjoying a glass of wine near a lake. Freneau’s light-hearted response to the bee, in “On a Honeybee,” always drew smiles from my students when they read the poem:

Welcome! I hail you to my glass:

All welcome, here, you find;

Here let the cloud of trouble pass,

Here, be all care resigned—

The fluid never fails to please

And drown the griefs of men or bees.

On the other hand, Freneau could write scathing satire directed at not only the British but human stupidity and immorality. In “The Parting Glass,” Freneau writes:

With you, whom reason taught to think,

I could for ages sit and drink;

But with the fool, the sot, the ass,

I haste to take the parting glass.

Although Freneau’s contribution to the American revolution and American literature has been recognized, his atheism—at least in later life—has mostly been ignored. Along with Jefferson, Paine, and other American revolutionaries, Freneau is usually labelled a deist: one who believes a god created the world but, after creation, never intervenes in human affairs. Jacob Axelrod, Freneau’s primary biographer, states that Freneau’s “simple piety was not complicated by supernatural beliefs or dogmatic formulas. His allegiance was to man—God needed no help—for man was the sole source of good and evil.” Freneau, Axelrod says, believed “in the ultimate triumph of the human intellect, free and generous, for the world’s salvation.” Thus, Freneau felt the need to “unshackle” men “from the fetters of state and church, of politics and religion.” Nevertheless, Axelrod posits that Freneau was a deist: that is, a believer.

Axelrod is correct to assert that one cannot read too much into Freneau’s anti-religious writing. For example, in Freneau’s blistering criticism of the Bible and the clergy, he identified parts of the Old Testament as the “annals of Hebrew butchers” containing “authentic accounts of, now and then, eighteen or twenty thousand young children having been cut to pieces … by order of the supreme Being (alias the Priests).” This kind of polemic was characteristic of Paine and other anti-clerical deists, although—it must be said—Freneau’s knife had an especially sharp edge. Who can forget Freneau’s definition of theology: “the Study of Nothing!—and the profession of a priest is little better than that of a slothful Blockhead!”?

Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that in his later years Freneau crossed the line into atheism. In 1949, Nelson Adkins published Philip Freneau and the Cosmic Enigma, an in-depth but forgotten study of Freneau’s religious development. Adkins points out:

Many an orthodox theologian of the eighteenth century expressed the fear that deism was leading straight in the direction of agnosticism and atheism. With the abandonment of a belief in revelation, and with only the Newtonian universe left as evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being, nothing could now prevent the skeptic from declaring that such a universe contained within itself all the creative power necessary for its own functioning. Why, then, postulate the existence of god? Some of the French Encyclopedists had come substantially to this conclusion.

Adkins then marshals twenty-two pages of evidence substantiating Freneau’s move to atheism during his later years. Highly influenced by the Roman classics, especially Lucretius’s De rerum natura (the subject of Stephen Greenblatt’s recently celebrated book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern), Freneau’s later writings consistently reflected Lucretius’s materialistic atheism. In one essay, Freneau suggested that the soul, if it exists, must be “really substance as the body … matter only modified, like water and ether, in a different way.” In sharp contrast to deists such as Paine, Freneau denied the existence of an afterlife and viewed death as “a sleep, that has no dreams.” Near the end of “The Wild Honeysuckle,” perhaps Freneau’s most famous poem, he writes:

If nothing once, you nothing lose,

For when you die you are the same …

In his 1795 poem “The Sexton’s Sermon,” Freneau, Adkins notes, “practically disavows a Christian paradise” and writes:

What is this Death, ye thoughtless mourners say?

Death is no more than never ceasing change.

Like Lucretius, Freneau came to believe that life springs from death. A dead man’s dust nourishes the “green” and “delightful” forest, which “proceeds from decay itself, and without it the whole face of nature would wear the wrinkles of decrepit old age.” In “Here Lies Watch,” an epitaph to his favorite dog, Freneau wishes, “May he have a speedy Resurrection into this poplar [tree].”

Other “pagan philosophers” also influenced Freneau. Like Christopher Hitchens, Freneau appreciated the hedonistic entreaties of the Epicureans. According to Adkins, Freneau’s “love of sensuous pleasure reached its fullest expression” in “The Sexton’s Sermon”:

The joys of wine, immortal as my theme,

To days of mirth the aspiring soul invite:

Life, void of this, a punishment I deem,

A Greenland winter, robbed of heat and light.

The Stoics also influenced Freneau, whose personal experiences on the sea made him appreciate the stoic virtues of fortitude and patience. In “An Ancient Sage at Athens,” Freneau advises a young gambler:

If prudence we possess

No other Deity we need

To work our happiness.

Given all of Adkins’s evidence, why have historians insisted on labeling Freneau a “deist”? Perhaps it is because, in his early and middle years, Freneau wrote deistic poetry. Perhaps it is because only Adkins took the time to study the influences on, and Freneau’s later thoughts about, the “cosmic enigma.” Perhaps it is because, in an era when conservatives wrongly insist that the American Founding Fathers were Christians, it is too much to admit that “the poet of the revolution” developed—in his late years, at least—into an atheist.

But it’s time for Americans to recognize that our “poet of the revolution,” the composer of such beautiful poems as “The Wild Honeysuckle,” was also America’s first atheist poet.

Mark Kolsen

Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and has been a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.