Phillis Wheatley

Poet who demonstrated how the idealism of the Revolution affected African Americans
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley engraved by Scipio Moorhead circa 1773.

An engraving of Phillis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead, circa 1773. It is the fontispiece of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, on display at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson claimed that “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.” On this point, the celebrated “Sage of Monticello” was wrong. Of all those who sung of the glory and idealism of the American Revolution, perhaps none lifted their praises higher than Phillis Wheatley, a slave living in Boston, Massachusetts. Denied much of what the Revolution promised, Phillis was the first slave, the first African American, and the third woman from the American colonies to publish a book of poems. Unlike Jefferson, the French philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau, recognized the excellence of Phillis’s poetry. He wrote that those claiming “there never would be Negro poets” were proved incorrect by her “excellent verse.” Phillis’s poems also demonstrated how deeply the idealism of the Revolution effected African-Americans. The voice of a young woman emerges in her poetry, struggling with the contradictions of racial prejudice and slavery in an age of liberation.

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal on the West African coast in 1753. She was sold into slavery at the age of seven, and sent to America. Standing before the assembled crowd of prospective buyers at a Boston slave auction in 1761, Phillis appeared of slight build, and obviously suffering from the cold, being naked except for a small piece of cloth. The shivering girl caught the attention of Susannah Wheatley, the wife of John Wheatley, a successful tailor. The Wheatleys already owned several household slaves, but Susannah wanted a young girl for herself to train as a domestic servant. From the beginning, Phillis performed none of the regular domestic responsibilities of the household slaves, and was kept constantly in the presence of Susannah Wheatley. Within weeks, the Wheatleys discovered that the young girl possessed considerable intellectual abilities. Mastering English within sixteen months of her arrival, Phillis soon expanded her education to include many other areas of interest. Mary Wheatley, Susannah’s daughter, found Phillis to be an excellent student in theology and literature, and over the next decade, Mary and others instructed Phillis in Greek and Roman classics, history, mythology, geography, and astronomy. By the time Phillis was twenty, she possessed an education equal to that of a Harvard graduate.

"King Street, Boston" circa 1776, artist unknown.

“King Street, Boston,” circa 1776, artist unknown.

As soon as she could read, Phillis demonstrated a desire to write as well. On her own, she copied the alphabet on a wall with chalk, and in 1767, Phillis composed her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge.” The last two lines of the first stanza betray the Wheatleys’ influence over Phillis’s sense of identity: “Parent of mercy, ’twas thy Powerful hand / Brought me in safety from the dark abode.” Phillis portrayed Africa, “the dark abode,” as a pagan land, from which she thankfully escaped. Susannah became her “parent of mercy,” bringing Phillis into a Christian household. Phillis ignored, however, her position as a slave in that household, and avoided any reconciliation between her alleged “racial inferiority” and the Christian teachings of the Wheatleys.

As she matured as a poet, Phillis directly faced the issue of race. In her 1768 poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she referred to African Americans as “Negroes, black as Cain.” During the eighteenth century, many Americans believed that Africans descended from Cain, and, tainted by Cain’s curse, were racially inferior to people of European ancestry. Her use of the analogy also suggests she accepted the racial stigmatism. However, she cautioned Christians to remember, that Africans “may be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” Still a teenager, the voice of an independent woman is already apparent. Phillis thus placed Africans, and their descendants, on equal terms with Europeans, and their descendants, by claiming that all would enter heaven on equal terms. In a poem dedicated to the memory of the Reverend George Whitefield, the idea of a savior available to all was clear: “Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you, Impartial Saviour is his title due.” To Phillis, the belief in her soul’s inevitable freedom thus overcame the contradiction between her alleged inferiority and her astounding literary success.

From its beginnings in the 1760s, the Revolutionary struggle captivated Phillis. In 1768, in a poem she playfully entitled “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” Phillis celebrated the repeal of the hated Stamp Act. She continued to follow the events of the unfolding crisis in the early 1770s more closely than most of the inhabitants of Boston.

Title page from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley.

Title page from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley.

She continued to publish, and in the winter of 1772, advertised for subscribers to a collection of her work. John Wheatley supported the idea, and sent the manuscript to Archibald Bell, a London bookseller. Bell forwarded the manuscript to the antislavery Countess of Huntingdon, who received it well, and requested that Phillis’s portrait appear on the cover. Scipio Moorhead, a slave of the Reverend John Moorhead, inked the frontispiece of what became Phillis’s 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Phillis became an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic, and in May 1773, travelled to London with Nathaniel Wheatley, Mary’s twin brother. Although friends encouraged her to remain in London, Phillis soon returned to Boston, as Susannah Wheatley had become ill in late 1773. In March 1774, Phillis’s “parent of mercy” died, and Phillis became a free person. She seems not to have completely abandoned the Wheatleys, however, nor did she lose sight of the Revolution. In a 1775 poem addressed to General George Washington, Phillis made no reference to Washington’s refusal to allow African Americans to join the army, or of his many slaves held in bondage, and proudly defended Washington as the guardian of freedom. The nation is embodied by the figure of “Columbia,” and Phillis implores Washington to “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side.” Within a month, Thomas Paine published the poem in the Pennsylvania Magazine. Despite great hopes though, the war years proved difficult for Phillis. In March 1778, John Wheatley died, and Phillis left the Wheatley home. On April 1, 1778, she married John Peters, a free black living in Boston. Little is known of the marriage, but the couple did not prosper. In 1779, Phillis outlined a proposal for a three-hundred page volume called Poems & Letters on various subjects, dedicated to the Right Hon. Benjamin Franklin Esq: One of the Ambassadors at the Court of France. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of war prevented the volume from being published, and the Peters became destitute. While Phillis’s portrait adorned the cover of Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanac for 1782, John sat in prison for debt, while his poet wife scrubbed floors at an inn. Phillis bore three children during the war, but two died as infants, and the last died in early childhood. Phillis’s health, shaky since an illness in 1772, worsened as well.

The hardships of the Revolution did not dim Phillis’s reverence for the cause of liberty. In 1784, a year after the formal peace with Britain, Phillis published “Liberty and Peace,” her ode to victory. Her poem captured the same spirit of hope and majesty she expressed in her 1775 poem to Washington, and the last lines provide a lasting tribute to the cause of liberty in the American Revolution: “To every Realm shall Peace her charms display, And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.” On December 5, 1784, Phillis Wheatley died at the age of 31. In the years after her death, abolitionists and others looked back with awe at the legacy of her poems, and sought to spread even further the “golden ray” of freedom. Of all the remembrances published of her life and work, none are as poignant as that of Dr. Joseph Ladd. Published in 1786, the tribute to Phillis comes in a long poem titled “The Prospects of America”:

. . .Here the fair volume shows the farspread name
Of Wondrous Wheatley, Afric’s heir to fame,
Well is it known what glowing genius shines,
What force of numbers, in her polished lines:
With magic power the grand descriptions roll
Thick on the mind, and agitate the soul. . .

 


Primary Source Documents: Phillis Wheatley

The following poems are taken from Julian Mason, Jr., ed., The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966)

“On Being Brought from Africa to America” (ca. 1768-69)

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.

The following LETTER and VERSES, were written by the famous Phillis Wheatley, The African Poetess, and presented to his Excellency Gen. Washington.

SIR,
I Have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible to its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,
Your Excellency’s most obedient humble servant,
PHILLIS WHEATLEY

Providence, Oct. 26, 1775.
His Excellency Gen. Washington.

CELESTIAL choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She slashes dreadful in refulgent arms,
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! how propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates:
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air,
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight,
Thee, first in place and honours, — we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial hand.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destin’d round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury sound;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state
Lament thy thrift of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.

LIBERTY AND PEACE, A POEM.

By Phillis [Wheatley] Peters Boston:
Printed by WARDEN and RUSSELL, At Their Office in Marlborough-Street.
M,DCC, LXXXIV [1784]

LO! Freedom comes. Th’ prescient Muse fore told,
All Eyes th’ accomplish’d Prophecy behold:
Her Port describ’d, “She moves divinely fair,
Olive and Laurel bind her golden Hair,”
She, the bright Progeny of Heaven, descends,
And every Grace her sovereign Step attends;
For now kind Heaven, indulgent to our Prayer,
In smiling Peace resolves the Din of War,
Fix’d in Columbia her illustrious Line,
And bids in thee her future Councils shine.
To every Realm her Portals open’d wide,
Receives from each the full commercial Tide,
Each Art and Science now with rising Charms
Th’ expanding Heart with Emulation warms.
E’en great Britannia sees with dread Surprize,
And from the dazzl’ing Splendors turns her Eyes!
Britain, whose Navies swept th’ Atlantic o’er,
And Thunder sent to every distant Shore:
‘b’en thou, in Manners cruel as thou art,
The Sword resign’ d, resume the friendly Part!
For Galia’s Power espous’d Columbia’s Cause,
And new-born Rome shall give Britannia Law,
Nor unremember’d in the grateful Strain,
Shall princely Louis’ friendly Deeds remain;
The generous Prince th’ impending Vengeance eye’s,
Sees the fierce Wrong, and to the rescue flies.
Perish that Thrift of boundless Power, that drew
On Albion’s Head the Curse to Tyrant’s due.
But thou appeas’d submit to Heaven’s decree,
That bids this Realm of Freedom rival thee!
Now sheathe the Sword that bade the Brave attone
With guiltless Blood for Madness not their own.
Sent from th’ Enjoyment of their native Shore
Ill-fated — never to behold her more!
From Every Kingdom on Europa’s Coast
Throng’d various Troops, their Glory, Strength and Boast.
With heart-felt pity fair Hibernia saw
Columbia menac’d by the Tyrant’s Law:
On hostile Fields fraternal Arms engage,
And mutual Deaths, all dealt with mutual Rage:
The Muse’s Ear hears mother Earth deplore
Her ample Surface smoak with kindred Gore:
The hostile Field destroys the social Ties,
And Ever-lasting Slumber seals their Eyes.
Columbia mourns, the haughty Foes deride,
Her Treasures plunder’d, and her Towns destroy’d:
Witness how Charlestown’s curling Smoaks arise,
In sable Columns to the clouded Skies!
The ample Dome, high-wrought with curious Toil,
In one sad Hour the savage Troops despoil.
Descending Peace and Power of War confounds;
From every Tongue celestial Peace resounds:
As for the East th’illustrious King of Day,
With rising Radiance drives the Shades away,
So Freedom comes array’d with Charms divine,
And in her Train Commerce and Plenty shine.
Britannia owns her Independent Reign,
Hibernia, Scotia, and Realms of Spain;
And great Germania’s ample Coast admires
The generous Spirit that Columbia fires.
Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales,
Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.


For Further Reading:

William Henry Robinson, Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (1982).

Henry Louis Gates, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).

Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011).


All images are public domain and all are available through Wikimedia Commons.