Freneau was born into the wrong place in time; he is an anachronism because of his poetic fervor in a period when few had the time to enjoy the luxuries of the arts. One of Freneau’s biographers has averred Freneau “failed in almost everything he attempted.” Luckily, Freneau was a “failure” during the latter half of the eighteenth century or the world would be without an excellent poetic expression of the nascent American values and consciousness.
Freneau’s “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country” glorifies America, but avoids excessive praise by depicting the salient characteristics of America, which distinguish it from Europe. He utilizes America’s natural assets, religiously-tolerant foundation, and classical and enlightenment ideology to illustrate America’s superiority over Europe, especially Britain, and dedication to the protection of liberty.
Freneau’s Emigration a Celebration of Natural Assets
At the epicenter of America’s superiority and importance is the reign of “Nature’s wildest genius.” Freneau points out the numerous opportunities in a land so rich in natural stores, even stating that America is the place to “tame the soil, and plant the arts.” Ostensibly, the vision of America as a strong foundation for the construction of humanity’s utopia has surfaced through the nature metaphors.
This is explicitly stated in the following lines: “What wonders there shall freedom show, / What mighty states successive grow!” In the third stanza, nature is equated to liberty: “What charming scenes attract the eye, / On wild Ohio’s savage stream!” The attractiveness of the “savage stream” of the wild Ohio River is an allusion to the attractiveness of freedom for the American people, and how the opportunity for that liberty enticed them to risk their lives in a voyage to America. Then, Freneau somewhat hyperbolically asserts nature’s work as better than “The boldest pattern art can frame,” which means he values freedom before culture.
Interestingly, when Freneau switches from describing America to Europe the nature imagery and figurative language becomes negatively twisted. In regard to European culture, Freneau says: “There ages past have rolled away, / And forests bloomed to decay.”
The images of nature and freedom are once again mixed in the fifth stanza as Freneau discusses the Mississippi River, which he suggests has suddenly been invested with meaning and usefulness because of the human presence there. Over and over, nature is characterized as an advantage, an opportunity- enriched soil for the cultivations of the seeds of liberty and success.
Freneau Addresses Religious Freedom in America
The impetus for the trans-Atlantic voyage of the pilgrims and Puritans, the country’s informal founders, was religious freedom, evidenced by Freneau when he says, “From Europe’s proud, despotic shores / Hither the stranger takes his way.” They came to escape Europe’s tyranny over their religious practices. For instance the king of England had decreed a national religion and attempted to silence all dissenting beliefs.
Freneau’s poem acknowledges this, and extends the ideologies of these dissenting religious groups to establish America’s superiority in the eyes of God. The pilgrims and Puritans felt they were on a mission for God and they felt it was their obligation to build America into that “City on a Hill”. Heavenly and religious diction and images are employed intermittently throughout the poem and implicitly assert that America has the favor of God (e.g. “No realm so free, so blessed as this.”) and have the means to carry out “heavens decree”.
Influence of Classic and Enlightenment Thought on Freneau
Finally, Freneau employs classical and Enlightenment ideas of rationality and equality. The uses of the allusions to “Palemon” and “the muse” reveal the classical influence on the work; moreover, the ideas characteristic of classical culture found their way into the Enlightenment and subsequently into Freneau. This influence is realized in Freneau’s dislike of the class division between the noble and impoverished in Europe. He believes this hierarchy suppresses free thought and free will. However, America is a place where “virtue warms the generous breast” and is devoid of “all-aspiring pride”; it’s a place where “order from confusion rise.”
Thus, in “forsaking kings and regal state” America has created an environment more inviting and enriching for individuals, according to Freneau. Freneau posits that this liberal environment will encourage “Reason” to devise better laws than those of Europe. Furthermore, these laws will protect people from each other as well, which is the underlying motivation for the last four lines of his penultimate stanza. Since America is a promise land of liberty, Freneau suggests slavery be abolished so that America can rid itself of hypocrisy and avoid the pitfalls of Europe.
Ultimately, Freneau concludes his poem with an optimistic prophesy about America’s future. He has established that America’s natural stores are an environment conducive to liberty and success; that the religious foundation of America is motivated to utilize the land to build a moral, cultural, and economic utopia; and that the classical and enlightenment influence on the political and social thought of Americans has helped them identify the weaknesses of Europe, which will help America devise a system to guard against the usurpation of liberty. Ultimately, Freneau has created a poem of American propaganda, but it reveals a great deal about the consciousness of early America and asserts the prodigious importance of liberty to Americans.
- Freneau, Philip. “On the Emigration to American and Peopling the Western Country”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, Arnold Krupat. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 742-3.
This article was originally published at suite101.com.