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Historic Houses

Mount Pleasant Hall
Freneau
Where James Madison wooed in vain the sister of Philip Freneau, the Poet of the Revolution

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

GUARDED by Beacon Hill, a mile and a half out on the Middletown Point turnpike, is what remains of the home of Philip Freneau, the most noted American poet and writer of his day, whose stirring verses served hot from "The Sign of the Rose," at the outbreak of the Revolution, and later at his own little press at Mount Pleasant, did much to inspire the hearts of his countrymen with the love of freedom.

The first homestead was erected in the year 1752 by Pierre Freneau, the father of the poet, and was named Mount Pleasant, after the residence of his grandfather in La Rochelle. Its situation was truly pleasant, and almost divine. It stood in the midst of a grove of great locust-trees, every one of them over a century old, and said to have given the poet as much pleasure as anything in his life. About it stretched, as far as the eye could reach, hundreds and hundreds of acres of fertile Jersey farm-land, all a part of the Freneau plantation.

During Pierre Freneau's life his family spent only a portion of each year at Mount Pleasant, as he possessed a large mansion on Frankfort Street, New York City ; but after his decease, in 1767, his widow removed there permanently with her five children, – Philip Morin, Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Margaret Allaire, and his old "Aunt Allaire," always an important member of the household. Mount Pleasant Hall was a wide and spacious dwelling. There was one large main house and two wooden wings added at later periods. A wide hall ran through the middle building, and there were balconies at the north and south ends, giving it a very stately appearance.

From old letters and papers we learn that the family lived the usual peaceful life of cultured leisure indulged in by the Jersey gentry farmers of the period. There are several pieces of gold and silver plate still in existence, handed down as heirlooms through the Freneau family, which are mute testators that they were familiar with the luxuries of the times.

The young Philip at an early age began the indulgence of his poetic fancy. As a boy he loved to climb the heights of the blue Homdel hills, and gaze off over the mysterious Atlantic, dreaming of the days when he should flit over its foam-flecked waters in a gallant ship, the hero of a hundred brave adventures. Most likely his youthful imagination was well steeped with the tales of pirates and buccaneers which lived in the minds of the people in the vicinity. The wild coast of New Jersey sheltered many a Blackbeard and Captain Kidd in the early eighteenth century, and often suspicious crafts found their way there at a much later period. The dwellers near the coast were never free from the terror of gangs of robbers, called in Monmouth picarooners ; and Mrs. Freneau often bade her slaves hide the plate in the meal barrels when the house was approached by strangers.

The Rev. William Tennent, of Freehold, and later the Penolopen Latin School, conducted by the Rev. Alexander Mitchell, prepared Philip for the College of New Jersey. After his arrival there, at the age of sixteen, his squibs and poems, especially " The History of the Prophet Jonah," charmed his fellow-students as much as the proficiency displayed in his studies delighted good Presi- dent Witherspoon, for that worthy soon wrote a congratulatory letter to Mrs. Freneau, praising her son's good parts, and the students hailed Freneau as a dawning genius.

While at Nassau Hall, in fair Prince-Town, he entered into close intimacy with many of his classmates who afterwards became notable in their various walks of life. Among them were Brockholst Livingston, future justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and also one of his relatives by marriage ; William Bradford, Attorney-General during Washington's second term of office ; Hugh Henry Brackenridge, judge and author ; Samuel Spring, chaplain to the Revolutionary army ; Aaron Burr, afterwards Vice-President of the United States ; Henry Lee, the famous " Light-Horse Harry;- Gunning Bedford, one of the framers of the Constitution; Aaron Ogden, afterwards governor of New Jersey ; and James Madison, the fourth President, who was Philip's room-mate and one of his warmest personal friends through life.

It was during one of the college vacations that the quiet and studious little Madison accompanied Freneau to his Jersey home for a visit. One who loiters along the old Middletown turnpike near Mount Pleasant to-day will see few changes in the scenic setting through which their coach passed. A century has rolled very lightly adown that seldom frequented highway. Many of the houses Freneau knew are still lingering, mossy and weatherbeaten, by the roadside, and some of the stone fences built by Freneau slaves yet stand guard over fertile fields.
Very joyful was that home-coming and the welcome given to young Madison in a household where all that was best in Huguenot customs and traditions still lingered. How gladly the poet's beautiful mother – for she is radiantly beautiful in her old portrait with the sabre thrust through the heart – embraced them both. The portrait of Agnes Watson (Mrs. Freneau), painted when she was about sixteen, formerly hung in old Mount Pleasant Hall. Under one of the vine-covered porticos old Aunt Allaire was waiting to add her caresses, and in the background stood the poet's lovely sister Mary. "She was as pure as an angel," Freneau wrote of her in after years; and as young Madison gazed on her his heart was lost.
During the Revolution the house was visited by marauders, and many of the family portraits were mutilated. The one of Agnes Watson received a sabre thrust near the location of the heart.

James Madison could have written of his first love, Mary Freneau, those beautiful lines which the poet embodied in the most exquisite of all his poems, "The Wild Honeysuckle," for most of her life had been passed in the glades and glens of rural Monmouth.

Fair flower that doth so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honed blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet.
In those sylvian solitudes, of which Freneau has left us many charming pictures, – "by murmuring streams" and "flower-decked dells," – Madison breathed to his Jersey Mary his unrequited love. In vain he begged and implored her to marry him, but, although she admired and respected him, she had formed a resolution to lead a single life, and could never be induced to alter her decision. The future President told the poet that he admired his sister more than any woman he had ever seen, and her refusal of him was the cause of that sad- ness of temperament noted in the early years of his manhood. Poor Madison was pursued by ill luck in his love-affairs until he met his sprightly Dolly Payne. His second proposal, at the age of thirty-two, was anything but a happy choice. The lady, Miss Catherine Floyd, a daughter of General William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, after accepting and then rejecting him for a more ardent suitor, added insult to injury, so tradition says, by sending him a lump of dough, shaped like a heart, to show her disgust at his wooing.
Eleanor Forman's brothers and sisters all married into distinguishe families. Among the prominent names of New York and New Jersey closely connected with theirs are those of Ledyard, Bleecker, Tappan, Seymour, Van Rensellaer, Jay, Cass, Colden, and Livingston.
Philip Freneau was much more successful in his love-affairs than his friend Madison. During these vacation days he began his courtship of Eleanor Forman, of near-by Forman Place, now owned by the Vredenburgh family. She was a maiden both beautiful and educated far in advance of most of the women of her day. A pretty story is told of their corresponding in verse for a number of years before their marriage. Their engage- ment was a very long one for those days of hasty mar- riages, for they were not united until after the close of the Revolution.
When the happy day at last arrived, the poet took his bride home to live at old Mount Pleasant Hall. They were both bookish people, and although never rich in this world's goods, managed to form one of the largest libraries in New Jersey at a time when a dozen or two books were considered a goodly number for the usual educated household. Towards the close of the eigh- teenth century, while living at the Hall, they had a small building erected as a library, some distance from the main house, and there they used to retire from household cares and read and write in solitude. After their brilliant life in Philadelphia, where Freneau edited The National Gazette and was French translator for Jefferson, then Secretary of State, and Mrs. Freneau's little salon became known as a magnet for the wits of the Quaker City, this library house afforded great enjoyment to Mrs. Freneau. Writing to her young brother, Major Samuel Forman, then in the wilderness of Northern New York, near Cayuga Lake, she says:
My two little girls and books are my chief comforters. I wish it were in my power to send you as good a collection of the latter as we have. You would not feel the loss of friendship and the want of company so much as you do. We must endeavor to make ourselves independent of the world as far as possible, and let our own friends furnish us with that pleasure which too many of us go in search of abroad.
In these quiet days many relations and distinguished friends journeyed to visit the poet and his wife. We know Madison and his new-made wife were invited, for Freneau sent him a belated letter of congratulation on his marriage which contained such an invtation:
MONMOUTH May 20th, 1795

MY RESPECTED FRIEND, –:

The Public papers some time ago announced your marriage. I wish you all possible happiness with the lady whom you have chosen for your Companion through life. M. Freneau joins me in the same, and desires me to present her best respects to your lady and yourself. Should you ever take an excursion to these parts of Jersey, we will endeavor to give Mn Madison and yourself – 'if not a costly welcome, yet a kind,' –

I am, Sir
with great Esteem
Your friend and humble Serv't
PHILIP FRENEAU.
Among all the guests who enjoyed their hospitality none could have been more welcome than Philip's hand- some brother, Peter Freneau, " the Apollo of Charles Town," who was secretary of state in South Carolina for the years 1788 to 1794 inclusive. He was a leader of society in the city which has been called one of the most aristocratic of the South, many of its inhabitants being members by birth of the French and English nobility. Among his intimates were Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, at whose hospitable mansion on the Bay he was a constant visitor; the witty Colonel Lehre; Mrs. Ralph Izard, who was Miss De Lancey, a famous New York beauty ; Lady Mary Middleton, a relative of the Pinckneys ; Pierce Butler, a cousin of the Duke of Ormond, and many others whose names have added lustre to the old city's social history. He was a striking figure at the gatherings of the St. Cecilia Society, noted for its handsome and elegantly garbed frequenters. An early visitor to CharlesTown said that at the St. Cecilia meetings one could view the " choicest flowers" of the South, and Quincy wrote, "In loftiness of head-dress the ladies stoop to the daughters of the North ; in richness of dress surpass them." It is related of Peter Freneau that when visiting Mr. and Mrs. Philip Freneau in Philadelphia, he was one of the most talked of men in the Assemblies, and his likeness to Charles Fox was so pronounced that a portrait of the British statesman was exhibited as his own.

When the old city by the sea was still in her maidenhood, one of the diversions of her aristocracy was the spring-time fetes, or revels, held in the gardens of lordly plantations. Under tall oaks, magnolias, and blossoming mulberries, on lawns and broad balconies, the planters and their families would gather to make merry in the first month of flowers. Mrs. Philip Freneau, when an aged lady residing in New York, used to tell of a visit to his great plantation on the Cooper River, and the grandeur of a spring-time ball given by her brother-in-law, Peter, for some distinguished friends. The great ball-room with its waxed floor, the myriad lights in the sixteenth century sconces, the grand company, the catalpa and mulberry-trees in the garden glowing under the stars, and the music were always fresh in her mind ; but the most distinct figure was her ideal of manhood, Peter, of whom it is recorded that no woman ever looked once without looking again.

Peter Freneau was noted for his liberality and handsome presents. On one occasion he and his wife drove by easy stages from Charleston to Mount Pleasant Hall, and on their arrival he presented his brother with the span of horses, carriage, and slave coachman. After a subsequent visit he took the eldest daughter of the poet back with him to Charleston, where she remained some time attending the school conducted by the daughter of Admiral De Grasse, who afterwards became Mrs. De Pau, of New York. This distinguished son of New Jersey, and the friend of many great men of his time, has been cared the American Addison, and his French translations were admired by Napoleon. To-day he rests in his adopted Charleston, in the old French Huguenot church, in the heart of the city. Over him is the beautiful epitaph: "Whatever Omnipotence decides is right." Typical of the man.

Mount Pleasant Hall was partly destroyed by fire in 1818, on Sunday, when the family were away visiting a neighboring mansion ; but fortunately many pieces of fine furniture and several portraits brought from France were saved by a faithful negro slave who happened to be at home.

After the catastrophe the poet, his wife, and children, who now numbered four girls, on the verge of womanhood, removed to a house owned by Daniel Forman, Mrs. Freneau's brother, a few miles distant. There they lived in retirement, enjoying the delights of the Freehold neighborhood until the poet's death in 1832.

In this house his second and favorite daughter, Agnes, wedded Edward Leadbeater, a surgeon in the British army, who gave up his estates and a title to settle in America. Every country family for miles around attended, and we know of two who journeyed by post-chaise from New York to Mount Pleasant. They were Alicia, the bridegroom's fair sister, and her dashing husband, Patrick O'Rielly, Marquis of Breffney, who to be united to his first love had defied church and family and fled to the welcoming arms of the New World.

Edward Leadbeater and his wife rebuilt Mount Pleasant Hall, and spent their summers there until the brave gentleman's death, shortly before that of his distinguished father-in-law.

A portion of the house is standing to-day, but it is sadly changed and modernized. The great grove of locust-trees which the poet loved so well, and where the young Madison and his first love spent many a happy hour, is a memory of the past. The old Middletown Point turnpike still circles about the Freneau estate, and folds in its arms broad sweeps of green fields lengthening into woodlands and high hills swept by the cool breezes from the distant ocean. On one of these hills, where periwinkle and wild roses live together as kindred, in a spot as peaceful as the imagination can picture, are the graves of this famous New Jersey family. The resting-place of the poet is close by that of his beloved mother, under the shade of a tree where he wrote many of his most celebrated poems and composed those beautiful lines in " The Dying Indian," while his eyes rested on the panorama of Monmouth scenery he loved until death:

"I too must be a fleeting ghost – no more –
None, none but shadows to those mansions go;
I leave my woods, I leave the Huron shore,
For emptier groves below!
Ye charming solitudes,
Ye tall ascending woods,
Ye glassy lakes and prattling streams,
Whose aspect still was sweet,
Whether the sun did greet,
Or the pale moon embraced you with his beams – Adieu to all!
To all that charmed me where I stray'd,
The winding stream, the dark sequester'd shade;
Adieu all triumphs here!
Adieu the mountains lofty swell,
Adieu, thou little verdant hill,
And seas, and stars, and skies-farewell
For some remoter sphere!

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