Editor, legislator. Freneau was born on April 5, 1757, in Monmouth County, New Jersey, the son of Pierre Freneau, a wine merchant and land speculator, and Agnes Watson. He was the younger brother of Philip Freneau, the better-known (and better-remembered) “Poet of the Revolution.” Little is known of Peter’s early life, but in December 1782 he disembarked at Charleston, South Carolina, where he would spend the remainder of his life. He either arrived with some prominence or attained it soon after, for in 1784 he was appointed deputy secretary of state for South Carolina. He became secretary of state in 1787 and retained the position until 1795. Freneau also operated a variety of business interests, including land speculation and shipping. By the early 1800s he owned shipping vessels, which he engaged for some years in the Madeira trade. Earlier in his shipping career, he had taken part in the sale of at least one slave cargo.
Freneau’s primary business and personal interests, however, were in printing. In 1795, in partnership with Seth Paine, he purchased the Charleston City Gazette and Daily Advertiser. Three years later the partners established a weekly newspaper, the Carolina Gazette, through which they disseminated the ideals and principles of the emerging Republican Party and its guiding light, Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Through his newspaper columns, Freneau became one of the leading Republican organizers in South Carolina, along with U.S. Senator Charles Pinckney. The Gazette tirelessly championed Jeffersonian principles and, as his successor noted, “soon obtained a controlling influence in the State.” As editor of the state’s most influential Republican newspaper, Freneau played a crucial role in securing South Carolina’s electoral votes for the party in the bitterly contested election of 1800, which in turn secured the election of Jefferson to the presidency.
In 1806 the voters of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes elected Freneau to the state House of Representatives as part of a broader Republican victory over the long-reigning Federalists of Charleston. Reelected in 1808, he resigned early the following year to accept an appointment from Jefferson as commissioner of loans in South Carolina, possibly a political sinecure from a grateful president for Freneau’s efforts on his behalf. He sold his printing and publishing interests in 1810, and his last years were marked by financial reverses. He retained, however, his influential position in the state’s Republican ranks, working with Pinckney and other party leaders to secure the election of Langdon Cheves to Congress in 1810. Freneau died in Charleston on November 9, 1813.
Bailey, N. Louise, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 4, 1791–1815. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
Davis, Richard B., and Milledge B. Seigler. “Peter Freneau, Carolina Republican.” Journal of Southern History 13 (August 1947): 395–405.