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.