Thomas Jefferson Papers

Enclosure: Philip Freneau’s Poem on Thomas Jefferson’s Retirement, February 1809


Philip Freneau’s Poem on Th: Jefferson’s Retirement


Addressed to Mr. Jefferson,

On his approaching Retirement from the Presidency of the United States.

Trenton, N.J. February, 1809.

from the true american.

Præsenti tibi maturos largimur honoresHor.


To you, great Sir, our heart-felt praise we give,

And your ripe honours yield you—while you live.


AT length the year, which marks his course, expires,

And Jefferson from public life retires;

That year, the close of years, which own his claim,

And give him all his honours,1 all his fame.

Far in the heaven of fame I see him fly,

Safe in the realms of immortality:

On equal worth his honoured mantle falls,

Him, whom Columbia her true2 patriot calls;

Him, whom we saw her codes of freedom plan,3

To none inferior in the ranks of man.

When to the helm of state your country called

No danger awed you and no fear appalled;

Each bosom, faithful to its country’s claim,4

Hailed Jefferson, that long applauded name:

All, then, was dark, and wrongs on wrongs accrued,

Our treasures wasted,5 and our strength subdued;

What seven6 long years of war and blood had gained,

Was lost, abandoned, squandered, or restrained;

Britannia’s tools had schemed their easier way,

To conquer, ruin, pillage, or betray;

Domestic traitors, with exotic, joined,

To shackle this last refuge of mankind;

Wars were provoked, and France was made our foe,

That George’s race might govern all below,

O’er this wide world, unchecked, unbounded, reign,

Seize every clime, and subjugate the main.

All this was seen—and rising in your might,

By genius aided, you reclaimed our Right,

That Right, which conquest, arms, and valour gave

To this young nation7—not to live a slave.

And what but toil has your long service seen?

Dark tempests gathering o’er a sky serene—

For wearied years no mines of wealth8 can pay,

No fame, nor all the plaudits of that day,

Which now returns you to your rural shade,

The sage’s heaven, for contemplation9 made,

Who, like the roman, in their country’s cause

Exert their valour, or enforce its laws,

And late retiring, every wrong redressed,

Give their last days to solitude and rest.

This great reward a10 generous nation yields—

Regret attends you to your native fields;

Their grateful thanks for every service done,

And hope, your thorny race of care is run.

From your sage counsels what effects arise!

The vengeful11 Briton from our waters flies;

His thundering ships no more our coasts assail,

But seize the advantage of the western gale.

Though bold and bloody, warlike, proud, and fierce,

They shun your vengeance for a murdered Pearce,

And starved, dejected, on some meagre12 shore,

Sigh for the country they shall rule no more.

Long in the councils13 of your native land,

We saw you cool,14 unchanged, intrepid, stand;

When the firm Congress, still too firm to yield,

Stay’d masters of the long contested field,

Your wisdom aided, what their councils framed—

By you the murdering savages are15 tamed—16

That Independence we had sworn to gain,

By you asserted (nor declared in vain)

We seized, triumphant,17 from a tyrant’s throne,

And Britain tottered when the work was done.

You, when an angry faction vexed the age,

Rose to your place at once, and checked their rage;

The envenomed shafts of malice you defied,

And turned all projects of revolt aside:—

We saw you libelled by the worst of men,

While hell’s red lamp hung quivering o’er his pen,

And fiends congenial, every effort try

To blast that merit which shall never die—

These had their hour, and traitors winged their flight,

To aid the screechings of distracted night.

Vain were their hopes—the poisoned darts of hell,

Glanced from your flinty shield, and harmless fell.

All this you bore—beyond it all you rose,

Nor asked despotic laws to crush your foes.—

Mild was your language, temperate though severe;

And not less potent than Ithuriel’s spear

To touch the infernals in their loathsome guise,

Confound their slanders and detect their lies.

All this you braved—and now, what task remains,

But silent walks on solitary plains:

To bid the vast luxuriant harvest grow,

The slave be happy and secured from woe—18

To illume the statesmen of the times to come

With the bold19 spirit of primeval Rome,

To taste the joys your long tried service brings,

And look, with pity, on the cares of kings:—

Whether, with Newton, you the heavens20 explore,

And trace through Nature the creating power,

Or, if with morals you reform the age,

(Alike in all the patriot and the sage)

May peace, and soft repose attend you, still,

In the lone vale or on the cloud-capp’d hill,

While smiling plenty decks the abundant21 plain,

And hails astrea22 to the world again.

Printed broadside (DLC: Rare Book and Special Collections). Printed in New York Public Advertiser, 3 Mar. 1809, Trenton True American, 6 Mar. 1809, and Freneau, A Collection of Poems on American Affairs (New York, 1815), 2:24–7.

præsenti tibi maturos largimur honores: “Upon you, however, while still among us, we bestow honours betimes,” from Horace, Epistles, 2.1.15 (Horace, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library [1970], 396–7). murdered pearce: while forcing an American merchant ship to stop and submit to search on 25 Apr. 1806, a cannon shot from the British ship Leander killed American seaman John Pierce just off Sandy Hook. The incident led to rioting in New York, and in the absence of a strong navy TJ issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of the Leander’s captain, Henry Whitby, and ordering it and two other British ships out of United States territorial waters. Whitby evaded an American trial and was acquitted by a British court-martial (TJ: Proclamation regarding Henry Whitby, 3 May 1806 [DLC]; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 5:114–7; Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812 [1961], 106–8). The touching of Satan by the Archangel ithuriel’s spear exposed his falsehood and revealed his true form in Milton’s Paradise Lost, 4.800–23 (Frank Allen Patterson, ed., The Works of John Milton [1931], 2:135).

1Public Advertiser: “merit.”

2Public Advertiser: “joint.”

3Footnote keyed to this line with asterisk in Public Advertiser and True American: “It is generally understood, that the constitution of the United States, now in force, in most of the important particulars, was the draft of Mr. Madison’s pen.”

4Public Advertiser: “fame.”

5Public Advertiser: “lavish’d.”

6Public Advertiser: “eight.”

7Public Advertiser: “country.”

8Public Advertiser substitutes “treasured gold” and True American substitutes “hoarded gold” for preceding three words.

9Public Advertiser substitutes “chiefs and patriots” for this word.

10Public Advertiser: “our.”

11Public Advertiser: “angry.”

12Public Advertiser: “hungry.”

13Public Advertiser: “assemblies.”

14Public Advertiser and True American: “firm.”

15Freneau, Collection: “were.”

16Preceding four lines omitted in True American.

17Public Advertiser: “indignant.”

18Preceding two lines placed four lines farther down in Public Advertiser.

19Public Advertiser and True American: “firm.”

20True American: “all heaven.”

21Public Advertiser: “abounding.”

22Footnote keyed to this word with dagger in Public Advertiser: “The goddess of justice, among the Romans.”

Index Entries

  • Freneau, Philip; “Poem on Thomas Jefferson’s Retirement,” search
  • Horace; quoted by P. Freneau search
  • Leander (British warship) search
  • Milton, John; Paradise Lost search
  • newspapers; New York Public Advertiser search
  • newspapers; Trenton True American search
  • New York (city); Public Advertiser search
  • Paradise Lost (J. Milton) search
  • Pierce, John search
  • poetry; sent to TJ search
  • Public Advertiser (N.Y. newspaper); publishes P. Freneau poem search
  • True American (Trenton, N.J. newspaper) search
  • Whitby, Henry search
  • “Poem on Thomas Jefferson’s Retirement” (Freneau) search