The beginning of the 19th century was, for many Americans, a time to take stock. Some of the leading lights of the revolutionary generation had begun to fade or pass away—Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, and Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The death of George Washington in 1799 brought about a period of national mourning and introspection, as the country reflected on its first president’s legacy, as well as the nation’s future.
The poets of the Revolution also felt this shift in mood. Many of the patriot poets, who had spent the war publishing harsh satires of the British and dramatic calls to arms, turned their attention to creating a new American poetry that was suitable to a new kind of nation. Some of the new poems took the form of elegies—poems of mourning, such as Philip Freneau’s “On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin.” These elegies often used the death of a prominent individual as an opportunity to explore not only that person’s accomplishments, but also the responsibilities that those still living were obligated to take on.
The writer of this poem is unknown, and he chose to identify himself only as a Revolutionary soldier drawing closer to his death. As you read the poem, think about the achievements this writer describes, as well as which responsibilities he feels he is leaving for future generations.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.