Creating a Noble Past
Philip Freneau’s Literary Image of the Indian
Philip Freneau (1752-1832) has one strong conviction that runs through all of his poetry. He believes in an ideal America, one that would take the best from European civilization (commerce and science) and the best from Nature and the Indian. Freneau is not concerned with how this will happen, he is merely sure that it will happen and the Englishman and Indian will cease to exist in any physical way in the new United States of America. In his writing the British are simply dismissed as foreigners and invaders of America.
Freneau’s relationship to the Indian, however, is more complicated. He believes that although the Indian is doomed to disappear, first the American has to learn from this natural man. Freneau takes it upon himself to create a Native American in total harmony with Nature and with all the natural wisdom within it. The Indian becomes noble through an understanding of universal laws and an acceptance of the death of their society as inevitable within the cyclical pattern of nature and the natural power struggle between cultures. This mixing of natural philosophy and literary image was Freneau’s vague answer as to why the Indian would simply disappear from America, but the image also served to strengthen the connection between the new Americans and the old. By making this connection he took the first step on the path to creating an ideal America based on liberty, reason and natural philosophy. And through this fictional past, Freneau was able to break away from Europe and justify America as a distinct entity with an inherent place in the world.
In one of Freneau’s earliest poems, “The Rising Glory of America,” written when he was nineteen, it is clear that he has already established in his mind the natural right of America, and freely criticizes what he sees as the decadent, avaricious invaders from Europe:
Gold, fatal gold, was the alluring bait
To Spain’s rapacious tribes — hence rose the wars
From Chili to the Caribbean sea, (227-229)
The rural American wishes only to live a simple life of agriculture and commercial trade but their land is seized upon by the British for political gain:
What are these mighty riches we possess,
That they should send so far to plunder them? —
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This wretched land, that drinks its children’s gore,
Has been a scene of tumult and confusion! —
Are there not evils in the world enough?
Are we so happy that they envy us? (403-404, 411-414)
Further, Freneau not only believes that America is justified in its existence, he believes it is fated. In his preface to “Ode to the Americans” he writes:
the progress of liberty and reason in the world is slow and gradual; but,
considering the present state of things, and the light of science universally
spreading . . . it cannot be long impeded, or its complete establishment prevented.
Although this preface indicates a universal movement, Freneau’s poem details America as the seat of liberty and reason:
Yet, nature must her circle run —
Can they arrest the rising sun?
Prevent his warm reviving ray,
Or shade the influence of the day?
If Europe to the yoke returns,
Columbia at the idea spurns —
Let Britain wield barbarian rage
We meet her here, through every stage. (87-94)
America was uniquely situated to rationally combine science and commerce (from its European connection) with untouched North American nature. But this desire to bring together these two disparate elements complicates Freneau’s relationship to nature: he glorifies its simplicity and beauty while at the same time he views the necessity of improving upon it:
whatever nature plann’d
Came, first, imperfect from her hand,
What ourselves imperfect call;
In nature’s eye, though perfect all — (“Ode to the Americans” 3-6)
Even in “The Wild Honey Suckle” in which Freneau seems to defend the untouched as beautiful, the poet is melancholy in recognition that such a static state cannot continue:
Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honied blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
No roving foot shall crush thee here,
No busy hand provoke a tear. (1-6)
These last two lines imply that there has been or will be a disturbance of nature. In fact, the poet himself might be the “roving foot” and the “busy hand.” But the poet assures himself that
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same. (21-22)
This is his justification for roving into nature:it loses nothing through the contact, and the invader gains by touching. By the end of the poem, then, Freneau is not speaking about nature, but about a metaphor for the man:
The space between, is but an hour,
The frail duration of a flower. (23-24)
In short, Freneau imagines nature as primitive and essentially good, yet doomed to die in the natural course of life and progress. Similarly, Freneau sees the Indian as a human manifestation of nature and thus benevolent but doomed to disappear under the power of a progressive civilization. This image of nature’s unforced receding, and the strong and sympathetic touch of the invader who incorporates the best of nature while taking it over, appears in “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country.” In this example of Freneau’s melancholy relationship to nature, he writes:
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,
When other streams, less pleasing, flow,
And darker forests round him grow. (19-24)
For Freneau, the loss of the Indian is quiet and somewhat sad, but necessary for the natural (and thus inevitable) advancement of civilization. That is to say, civilization advancing in terms of productivity. As he envisions the Mississippi:
Great Sire of floods! whose varied wave
Through climes and countries takes its way,
To whom creating Nature gave
Ten thousand streams to swell thy sway!
No longer shall they useless prove,
Nor idly through the forests rove;
Far other ends, the heavens decree —
And commerce plans new freights for thee. (25-30, 35-36)
He believes that, ultimately, America will prove a reconciliation between nature and commerce. That “there Reason shall new laws devise, / and order from confusion rise”(41-42).
Freneau identifies the ideal American as one that has incorporated aspects of Nature, thus, the Indian, as Nature, becomes a pseudo-ancestor to the American. Mary Weatherspoon Bowden notes that Freneau’s Indian is based on a creed of the Enlightenment in “which all nature is ruled by universal laws” (160). Indeed, Freneau sees the Indian joined to the American through the universal brotherhood of man, and gives him the voice of a natural philosopher. By giving voice to Nature, Freneau can use the Indian to prompt America to incorporate its elements and by doing this move away from a British past. Thus, Freneau consciously elevates the Indian from the common stereotypes of blind savage or primitive dupe of the European invader, to something worthy of an American ancestor. He gives him respect as not only a man connected to Nature, but as one connected to a universal, natural wisdom. Once Freneau has created the Indian as respectable and wise, he can draw the new American closer to the old.
Freneau uses the voice of an Indian philosopher in a series of essays written between 1795 and 1797 in the Jersey Chronicle and The Time Piece. Tomo Cheeki is a Creek Indian that laments that fact that America has “turned aside from the walks of Nature” (23). The Indian becomes the genus of nature and the mouthpiece for the history of civilization:
At some remote period, a numerous race of men seem to have flourished in this immense region, endued with the spirit and opinions of the white men of the present time; but the generation of red men came pouring down like a torrent from the cold woods of the north and the west, and bore down all opposition before them. The civilized nations were trampled under foot like the grass of the field, before the victorious hosts of our ancestors, leagued in one cruel band against the ancient people of the middle and of the south. (38)
This mixing of a possible white ancestor with the red conquerors affirms America’s historical right to the land while giving historical strength to Cheeki. With such a strong connection to America, Cheeki has the ancestral right to criticize its progress. But as Freneau’s poetry affirms, this ancestry is in spirit only. The Indian is doomed to die out in the natural cycle of existence. Cheeki writes that “after a time the Indian race will no longer be seen in the woods of their native land” (38). More precisely, in the short poem “The Indian Burying Ground” Freneau writes “that life is spent, / And not the old ideas gone” (15-16).
The details of how the Indian disappears or the ethics of why he must disappear are never addressed by Freneau who simply maintains that it is natural and inevitable that the Indian would cease to exist. For this reason the image of the Indian in Freneau’s poetry is often based upon death or dying — another natural and inevitable passage. Freneau’s philosophical Indian gains added nobility for both recognizing the inevitability of this change and accepting it. In “The Indian Student” Freneau suggests that America has nothing of value to offer the native American, and although the Indian is capable of understanding European knowledge, it would be unnatural for there to be any kind of mixing of the races. Indeed, it would only be pathetic and prolonging the inevitable:
And last he came, with foot so lame,
Where learned men talk heathen Greek,
And Hebrew lore is gabbled o’er,
To please the Muses, — twice a week.
Awhile he writ, awhile he read,
Awhile he conned their grammar rules —
(An Indian savage so well bred
Great credit promised to the schools.)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No mystic wonders fired his mind;
He sought to gain no learned degree,
But only sense enough to find
The squirrel in the hollow tree.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I only bow to Nature’s God —
“The land of shades will do for me.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Where Nature’s ancient forests grow,
“And Mingled laurel never fades,
“My heart is fixed; — and I must go
“To die among my native shades.” (25-32, 45-48, 63-64, 73-76)
Similarly, in “The Dying Indian” the chief is melancholy at the thought of leaving all the beauty of nature, but accepts his death as fated, and lives in the possibility of a philosophical heaven:
Perplexed with doubts, and tortured with despair,
Why so dejected at this hopeless sleep?
Nature at last these ruins may repair,
When fate’s long dream is o’er, and she forgets to weep
Some real world once more may be assigned,
Some new born mansion for the immortal mind! (52-57)
This philosophical, dying Indian is used to create a fictional American past. This past breaks away from British rule and European connections. It finalizes America’s place in the world. In “The Prophecy of King Tammany,” Freneau uses the real historical figure of Chief Tammany who lived during the early colonial era. Tammany laments his own inadequacy of arms to fend off the original British immigrants, but accepts death as a positive movement forward:
“But why these weak complaints and sighs?
“Are there not gardens in the west,
“Where all our far-famed Sachems rest? — ” (35-37)
He then warns the Americans that they “too, shalt have thy share of woe” (43) when the British invade in the late eighteenth-century. Once again, Freneau sets up the pattern of a natural man, nobly accepting defeat and offering words of wisdom and warning to his pseudo-descendants. It is Freneau as the poet who tells the reader at the end of the poem, that Tammany, having fulfilled his corporeal existence, is now, although melancholy, content to die:
He smiled amid the fervours of the fire
To think his troubles were so near their end,
‘Till the freed soul, her debt to nature paid,
Rose from the ashes that her prison made,
And sought the world unknown, and dark oblivion’s shade. (68-72)
Yet if the Indian for Freneau is a noble ancestor in the grand scheme of Man, offering wisdom and a fictional historical past on which America can move toward its ideal civilization, the Indian will still be conquered, and the poetry that Freneau writes is still more about his own feelings about America than his feelings toward the Indian. He never discusses the details of the disappearance of the native American because the way he has structured his literary Indian would make any confrontation a form of parricide.
It is both instructive and somewhat disconcerting to note that Freneau’s literary Indian would have far reaching effects. In 1967, Jacob Axelrod would write that Freneau’s “portraits of the Indian were more authentic than any others in literature before the work of Cooper” (408). Indeed, in historical terms North American society continues to live the legacy of a culture which at first hunted down the Indian as a brutal savage, and later punished it with a passive hope (reinforced by legislated neglect, ostracism and denial) that the Indian would simply disappear back into nature and takes its rightful, respected place within the mythological past of white America.
Axelrod, Jacob. Philip Freneau: Champion of Democracy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.
Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Philip Freneau. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Freneau, Philip. The Poems of Philip Freneau. Ed. Fred Lewis Pattee. 3 vols. Princeton, New Jersey: The University Library, 1902.
Freneau, Philip. Tomo Cheeki, the Creek Indian in Philadelphia. Ed. Elisabeth Hermann. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1987.
 All quoted poems are taken from Fred Lewis Pattee’s three volume selection of Freneau’s poetry.