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Sunday, July 7, 2013

The American Soldier: Since the Revolution Left With "Famine and a Name"



The American Soldier

A Poem By Philip Freneau  (1752 – 1832)
A Picture from the Life
To serve with love,
And shed your blood,
        Approved may be above,
But here below
(Example shew,)
‘Tis dangerous to be good.

--Lord Oxford

Deep in a vale, a stranger now to arms,
Too poor to shine in courts, too proud to beg,
He, who once warred on Saratoga’s plains,
Sits musing o’er his scars, and wooden leg.
Remembering still the toil of former days,
To other hands he sees his earnings paid;--
They share the due reward—he feeds on praise.
Lost in the abyss of want, misfortune’s shade.
Far, far from domes where splendid tapers glare,
‘Tis his from dear bought peace no wealth to win,
Removed alike from courtly cringing ‘squires,
The great-man’s Levee, and the proud man’s grin.
Sold are those arms which once on Britons blazed,
When, flushed with conquest, to the charge they came;
That power repelled, and Freedom’s fabrick raised,
She leaves her soldier—famine and a name!

Philip Freneau

  • Philip (Morin) Freneau was born in New York City, the oldest of the five children of Huguenot wine merchant Pierre Fresneau (old spelling) and his Scottish wife. Philip [Morin] Freneau fulfilled the dream of his father when he entered the Class of 1771 to prepare for the ministry. Well versed in the classics in Monmouth County under the tutelage of William Tennent, Philip entered Princeton as a sophomore in 1768, but the joy of the occasion was marred by his father's financial losses and death the year before.

    In spite of financial hardships, Philip's Scottish mother believed that her oldest of five children would graduate and join the clergy. Though he was a serious student of theology and a stern moralist all his life, Freneau found his true calling in literature. His relationship with roommate and close friend James Madison would later contribute to his establishment as the editor of the National Gazette.  Madison recognized early Freneau's wit and verbal skills, tools that would make him a powerful wielder of the pen and a formidable adversary on the battlefields of print. 

    Freneau family tradition suggests that Madison became acquainted with and fell in love with the poet's sister, Mary, during visits to their home while he was studying at Princeton. While tradition has it that Mary rejected Madison's repeated marriage proposals, this anecdote is undocumented and unsupported by other evidence.

    Freneau graduated Princeton in 1771, having written the poetical History of the Prophet Jonah, and, with Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the prose satire Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca. Following his graduation, he tried his hand at teaching, but quickly gave it up. He also pursued a further study of theology, but gave this up as well after about two years.

    As the Revolutionary War approached in 1775, Freneau wrote a number of anti-British pieces out of his fervent patriotism. He felt a deep obligation to perform public service, but, at the same time, he distrusted politics and had a personal yearning to escape social turmoil and war. The romantic private poet within him struggled against his public role.  

    However, by 1776, having made himself anathema to the New York Tories, the poet embarked for the West Indies, where he lived for two years writing about the beauty of nature and learning navigation.

    In 1778, Freneau returned to America, and joined the militia. Freneau eventually became a crew member on a revolutionary privateer as a blockade runner, and he was captured in this capacity. He was held on a British prison ship for six weeks. This unpleasant experience (in which he almost died), detailed in his work The British Prison Ship, would precipitate many more patriotic and anti-British writings throughout the revolution and after.
  • In 1790 Freneau married Eleanor Forman, and became an assistant editor of the New York Daily Advertiser. Soon after, Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson worked to get Freneau to move to Philadelphia in order to edit a partisan newspaper, the National Gazette (1790–1793).

    As aid to the undertaking, Jefferson, then Secretary of State, gave Freneau an office, and thus produced the curious condition of a clerk in the government writing and printing savage attacks
    on the President.

    The National Gazette provided a vehicle for Jefferson, Madison, and others to promote criticism of the rival Federalists. With his own strident satires, lampoons, and exposes, and with learned essays on government written by Madison and Brackenridge, Freneau vilified the politics of the Federalists.

The Gazette took particular aim at the policies promoted by Alexander Hamilton, and like other papers of the day, would not hesitate to shade into personal attacks, including President George Washington during his second term. Owing to The Gazette's frequent attacks on his administration and himself, Washington took a particular dislike to Freneau.

Washington was much irritated at the abuse, and Jefferson in his Complete Works said that he "was evidently sore and warm and I took his intention to be that I should interpose in some way with Freneau, perhaps withdraw his appointment of translating clerk to my office. But I will not do it."

According to the French minister of the time, some of the worst of these articles were written by Jefferson himself, and Freneau is reported to have said, late in life, that many of them were written by the Secretary of State.

After another decade of feverish public action, Freneau withdrew again in 1801, when Jefferson was elected president. Freneau later retired to a more rural life and wrote a mix of political and nature works.

On the evening of December 18, 1832, at the age of almost 81, Philip Freneau walked home from a meeting of the circulating library in Philadelphia in a snowstorm; he fell, broke his hip, and froze to death. His body was found the next day. His tombstone begins, simply: "POET'S GRAVE."

Freneau’s literary work is a fusion of neoclassicism and romanticism. His patriotic and political poems used the diction, poetic forms, landscapes, mythologies, and deistic thought of the eighteenth century. Yet his poetry also exhibits the lyric qualities, the sensuous images, and the adulation of nature and primitivism that became the conventions of American romanticism in the next century. 

For his patriotic zeal and sardonic humor, he was named "The Poet of the American Revolution" and is still widely regarded as the "Father of American Literature." Freneau’s importance as a poet is evident in his work in creating a language and a subject matter adjusted to the increasingly democratic ideology of newspapers and magazines. He was America’s first public poet in the popular mold.

  • "The American Soldier"

    Can you imagine being an American revolutionary, one who actually fought in the war, who later dared to express his mixed emotions about the new government and those who had led the cause for freedom? This man had the boldness to criticize the esteemed Father of the Country. Such a patriot writer and poet was Philip Freneau.

  • Americans who read Freneau's "The American Soldier" will likely recognize the echoes of American veterans' frustrations that began after the Revolution and continue through war after war. The Civil War, the World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- all have produced similar carnage and unfortunate straits for brave, wounded warriors. Philip Freneau's work is alive and pertinent to the present day.

    Freneau's National Gazette upheld Jefferson's "Republican" principles and even condemned George Washington's foreign policy. Freneau regularly denounced Washington as a monarchist:

  • "He holds *levees like a King, receives congratulations on his birthday like a King, makes treaties like a King, answers petitions like a King, employs his old enemies like a King.”

    • * (By the 1760s this custom was being copied by the King's representatives in British America, the colonial governors. Following American independence the levée became a social gathering, i.e., the presidential levée—established by President George Washington. He opened the presidential mansion weekly to the public, allowing Washington to greet and meet the public. The presidential levée was carried forward by John Adams and subsequently ended by Thomas Jefferson.)
    • Jefferson wrote:

      "I do believe that General Washington had not a firm confidence in the durability of our government. He was naturally distrustful of men, and inclined to gloomy apprehensions; and I was ever persuaded by a belief that we must at length end in something like a British constitution, had some weight in his adoption of the ceremonies of levees, birthdays, pompous meetings with Congress, and other forms of the same character, calculated to prepare us gradually for a change which he believed possible, and to let it come on with as little shock as might be to the public mind."

      Freneau's Gazette spent much of its time criticizing the policies of the Washington  Administration. For example, the paper described Alexander Hamilton's financial policies in 1792 as "numerous evils...pregnant with every mischief," and described George Washington's sixty-first birthday celebration as "a forerunner of other monarchical vices."
    • Jefferson needed to have a nationwide party to counteract the Federalists, a nationwide party organized by Hamilton. Foreign affairs took a leading role in 1794-95 as the Republicans vigorously opposed the Jay Treaty with Britain, which was then at war with France. Republicans saw France as more democratic after its revolution, while Britain represented the hated monarchy. 
    • The party denounced many of Hamilton's measures (especially the national bank) as unconstitutional. The party was strongest in the South and weakest in the Northeast; it favored states' rights and the primacy of the yeoman farmers.

    • Sick of the constant tirades against the government, an outraged President Washington actually called on Jefferson to put a stop to Freneau. Remarkably, Jefferson refused.

      Jefferson later praised Freneau for having "saved our Constitution which was galloping fast into monarchy," while Washington grumbled of "that rascal Freneau" -- an epithet that became the title of Lewis Leary's authoritative biography (1949). 
    In the poem "The American Soldier," Freneau pictures the Revolutionary War veteran as a "scarred" and disfigured man "too poor to shine in courts and too proud to beg" for political help. Evidently unappreciated and uncompensated for his loyal service and physical loss, the veteran can only sit in his valley at home and watch his "earnings" paid to other, more noble hands.

    The words they and he are italicized as formal titles to emphasize the division between the common soldier ("he"), who suffers dark misfortune, and the wealthy profiteer of the war of Revolution ("they"), who live enlightened lives under costly "domes where splendid tapers glare."

    After the war, many wounded patriots undoubtedly literally "sold their arms" to survive while attempting to make a new start with the scant pension awarded by the government. It was impossible to survive in a new nation by "feeding on praise" of service. She leaves her soldier only "famine and a name!"

    It should be understood that Washington was anxious to create an army that could stand up to the
    British, and he was was very critical of the battlefield performance of the militia. He believed that
    relying on militia was “resting upon a broken staff.” However, he praised the effectiveness of the
    militia acting behind the enemy lines.

    And, soldiers often resented civilians whom they saw as not sharing equally in the sacrifices of the
    Revolution. Several mutinies occurred toward the end of the war, with ordinary soldiers protesting their lack of pay and poor conditions. Not only were soldiers angry, but officers also felt that the
    country did not treat them well.

    So, it is true that, during the Revolution, a traditional and easy way for an American soldier to express his displeasure was to desert. Desertion was rife in all militaries of the eighteenth century. In part this was a reflection of the social origins of most soldiers, who came from the lower classes and who were used to easily walking away from unsatisfying or poorly paying jobs. Desertion was especially easy in America, where opportunities were varied and attractive.

    Many men who deserted from the Continental army did so for personal reasons. They left to go home to support their families or to help harvest a crop. Others did so because they found conditions in the army intolerable. The inability of the authorities to provide the army with adequate food and clothingexcited a lot of anger.

    Officers suffered hardships along with their men, but they had the advantage of being able to resign their commissions.

    The Newburgh Conspiracy

    The Battle of Yorktown was not the coup de grâce that so many make it out to be. Before that peace could be negotiated, another two years would pass before both Britain and America would sit down at the bargaining table. During this time, the Continental Congress faced a severe financial crisis, in which they were unable (or possibly not fully willing) to support Washington's army. Though the fighting had all but stopped, Washington was still forced to maintain the Continental Army until the final peace treaty was signed. As a result, the Continental Army suffered greatly in terms of hunger, lack of equipment, fatigue and cold.

    Charles Royster, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University, contends, “A disgusted
    soldier would go home, but disgusted officers found friends in the army and in political office who
    wanted to use their positions to increase the authority of government, especially Continental

    Royster says this is exactly what happened in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. By the final year of the war, Continental officers had many reasons to be disgruntled. Fighting had essentially ceased in late 1781 with the British surrender at Yorktown, but a formal peace treaty had yet to be signed.

    Boredom became one of the army’s chief enemies, one that gave officers plenty of time to envision their futures. Many did not like what they saw; they were apprehensive about leaving the brotherhood of their fellow officers and venturing into civilian life once again. They feared that the genteel status and respect they had earned through military service would not follow them when they returned.
    In addition, they had sacrificed some of the best years of their lives to win American independence. Many had missed out on the opportunity to learn a civilian trade and a means for making a living. Furthermore, they knew their last month’s army pay would not carry them very far. In light of these concerns, the officers decided they deserved pensions and repeatedly petitioned Congress to provide them. As the inevitable disbanding of the army approached, these petitions became decidedly more urgent.

    In response to these justifiable grievances in March 1783, several officers within the Continental Army, including Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, formed what many historians believe to be an anonymous pact to overthrow the Continental Congress and establish a new government. This coup, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, was backed by several of Washington's most trusted men, who felt that the cause of liberty was being threatened by the politicians at home.

    Commander-in-Chief George Washington stopped any serious talk by appealing successfully to his officers to support the supremacy of Congress in an emotional address on March 15. Not long afterward, Congress approved a compromise agreement it had previously rejected: some of the pay arrears were funded, and soldiers were granted five years of full pay instead of a lifetime pension of half pay.

    A Lasting Legacy

    "The poverty of Revolutionary War veterans initiated a complicated
    history between the United States and its soldiers"

    Read this account for a perspective of Revolutionary war veterans' entitlements.

    (Philip Mead, "The Unfinished Revolution," National Park Service, 
    U.S. Department of the Interior)

    Link for information about the Revolution:

    "As the Revolutionary War ended, American soldiers, turned their attention toward land bounties and other rewards promised in their enlistment contracts. In an 1830 memoir titled "A Narrative of Some of the Adventures Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier," Sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin, a hard core veteran of seven years in the Continental Line, demanded to know why Congress and the people failed to deliver.  

    "Why were he and his fellow soldiers 'turned adrift like old worn-out horses'?  How was it that impoverished soldiers had to sell their land claims to 'a pack of speculators who were driving about the country like so many evil spirits, endeavoring to pluck the last feather from the soldiers'?  Why, having spent his youth 'suffering everything short of death in his country’s cause,' did poverty still haunt him all his life?  And why, when the United States government finally provided a soldiers’ pension in 1818, thirty-five years after the war, did Martin and his fellow veterans still face scorn from the 'hardhearted wretches' who were 'vile enough to say that [the soldiers] never deserved such favor from the country?'

    "Revolutionary War veterans, like Martin, found themselves victims of a weak government unable to pay them and of conflicts between American republican ideals and the military institutions veterans represented.   The first veterans pension movement began during the war, when officers lobbied Congress in 1779 for half pay for life.   Public outcry charged officers with attempting to establish a military aristocracy on the backs of the civilian population.  

    "After the war, officers responded to the failures of government support by forming a hereditary veterans’ organization called The Society of Cincinnatus, an allusion to an ancient Roman general who gave up his military power to save the republic.  The society provided some mutual support, but only officers could join, leaving enlisted soldiers like Martin to fend for themselves.

    "In the decades following the war, divisions within the Revolutionary War generation made achieving widespread veterans’ compensation nearly impossible.   Congressional acts of the 1780s limited settlement on tracts of military bounty lands to properties of greater than 4,000 contiguous acres, a larger area than the land grant even of a major general.  They ostensibly allowed soldiers to combine their claims and settle together.  In reality, the law allowed land speculators to take advantage of veterans, who found it nearly impossible to find and communicate with other veterans who might have contiguous claims.  

    "In 1795, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Congressman James Madison, both veterans, disagreed over Hamilton’s financial plan for the nation primarily because it allowed soldier’s compensation notes to be redeemed by speculators.  Hamilton’s plan established the principle of transferable public credit in America, but on the backs of veterans. Not until after the War of 1812 was any widespread pension act passed for revolutionary veterans, though most states had previously made some provision for wounded veterans and soldiers’ orphans and widows.

    "In 1818, the Federal Pension Act finally provided support for a large number of veterans, but it reflected the prejudices of its authors and excluded large groups of veterans based on race, gender, and region.   The act provided $96 a year to any male veteran who had served more than nine months in the regular army.  It excluded women camp followers who had, in eighteenth-century terminology, 'belonged to the army' as support staff, doing cleaning, fatigue duties and sometimes fighting.   

    "The act also excluded most African-American veterans on the grounds that, because most had served for their freedom from slavery, they did not deserve additional rewards.  Because the act required proof of nine-months’ service, it also excluded thousands of militia veterans and irregular troops, which particularly impacted the southern states, where the war had devolved into largely guerilla fighting by 1780.  Only a small fraction of veterans, about 3,300, received benefits.

    "One year later, the War Department stripped from the rolls any pensioner not in dire poverty. A new pension act of 1832 liberalized the standards of evidence veterans needed to prove they had served, but it continued to exclude most women and African Americans and to favor northerners.

    "Even for white, northern, male veterans like Joseph Plumb Martin, who benefited from these federal pension acts, $96 a year was little compensation for what they had lost in their service.  On average, the longer an individual served in the Revolutionary War, the less property he or she accumulated in his or her lifetime.  Martin, for example, took his little military pay and moved to Maine where rumor had it land was free.  

    "One of his former generals, Henry Knox, bought up all the land where Martin lived and forced him and his fellow enlisted veterans to pay for legal title to lands they had already improved.  Though Martin and his neighbors tried everything from law suits, to official petitions, to even firing on Knox’s surveyors with their old Revolutionary War muskets, many of them ended up bankrupt under Knox’s pressure.  By 1820, Martin testified that he had “no real nor personal estate, nor any income whatever, my necessary bedding and wearing apparel excepted, except two cows, six sheep, one pig."

    "The poverty of Revolutionary War veterans initiated a complicated history between the United States and its soldiers.  During the Civil War, draft rioters marched in protest of the greater burden military service placed on the poor.  During the great depression a 'bonus army' of World War I veterans marched on Washington looking for long-overdue compensation.  Vietnam Era veterans faced public outrage for a war that many of them did not choose to fight.   Veterans of the United States Army in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face threats of cuts to their medical and other benefits. 

    "Like many veterans in American history, Joseph Plumb Martin drew a radical conclusion from his treatment by the United States government.  'The country,' he wrote, 'was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio, but equally careless in performing her contracts with me, and why so?  One reason was because she had all the power in her own hands and I had none.   Such things ought not to be.'

    "Martin charged his readership with the importance of vigilance against abusive power.   While Martin and his fellow veterans may have thought their military victories their most important contributions to American freedom, these warnings are perhaps a more lasting legacy."

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