The American Revolution was loaded with contradictions, perhaps none more glaring than the notion of fighting for individual liberty while slavery was so deeply embedded in the rebelling colonies. To truly understand the American Revolution, it’s necessary to wrestle with that reality. The stories of some individuals help shed light on the experience of enslaved Americans during the war.
Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, likely in 1753, and then imported into the British colonies in 1761. John Wheatley of Boston purchased her to assist his wife Susanna and daughter Mary as a house servant. Like many slaves, she was given the last name of her owners; her first may have come from the name of the ship that brought her across the Atlantic. Susanna and Mary noticed something in young Phillis and taught her to read and write, introducing her to the Bible and religion. She published her first poem in 1767 and the 1770 poem “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield,” gave her some degree of fame.
For a slave to demonstrate such abilities was unheard of in the 18th century and Bostonians debated whether Wheatley had actually written the material attributed to her. When Susanna Wheatley started selling subscriptions in order to raise funds for a book of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry–the 18th century equivalent of a literary kickstarter campaign–several of the town’s leading luminaries decided to assemble a panel that would determine whether Phillis was capable of writing such verse. It included John Hancock, Thomas Hutchison, several ordained ministers, and three poets. Most of the panelists owned or traded slaves. The implications of such a panel were obvious: should it conclude Phillis was incapable of writing the poems attributed to her then Susanna Wheatley’s subscription plan was likely a fraud. Fortunately, it concluded that Phillis was the real thing: a talented poet in her own right.
Despite the public controversy and added attention, Wheatley could not get her work published in the colonies. Instead, a London publisher took up the work and released “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” by Phillis Wheatley in 1773. This made her the first African American to publish a book. She even visited London with the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, on a kind of book tour. In 1774 she received her freedom and in 1778, as the Wheatleys died off, Phillis married John Peters. They had three children, though none lived past childhood. Wheatley could not earn a living writing poetry, but worked as a “scrubwoman” in a boarding house and then died from the complications of childbirth in 1784.
During her lifetime, Phillis met some of the founding fathers. Her interview with Hancock has already been mentioned and it’s reasonable to believe she may have met Henry Knox, an up-and-coming bookseller who would have been aware of the literary controversies surrounding her. Benjamin Franklin met her in London and offered his services. She corresponded with George Washington in 1775, even composing an ode to the new Commander in Chief. It’s a bit over the top in praising the general and departs from her more thoughtful pieces on nature and religion, but it struck a note with Washington who wrote her back in 1776, apologizing for not making it public out of concerns that it might be viewed as vanity on his part. Washington’s biographers noted that his letter to her is remarkable because he treats her as a social equal, not how Washington the slaveowner was accustomed to interacting with African Americans, much less those in bondage or recently manumitted. It’s worth quoting: “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” The two apparently met that spring and the poem found its way into publication. (Washington forwarded it to his secretary Joseph Reed with the thought that publishing it would further demonstrate her talent. Reed may have taken the hint.)
I’m out of my lane when it comes to poetry, but thought it worth leaving a bit of her work for readers to ponder.
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
Phillis Wheatley Historical Society
National Women’s History Museum