By the early 1770’s, the winds of revolution were beginning to sweep across the east coast of Britain’s American colonies. Like many of her compatriots in Boston, Phillis Wheatley, a young woman of extremely modest means, was caught in the current. Phillis never attended school, but she was well educated. From a young age she displayed a strong talent for poetic verse. In fact, Phillis Wheatley was one of the very first female poets to live in what would soon become the United States of America. It should come as no surprise that her patriotic love of liberty would find its way into her verse, as is reflected in this 1773 poem addressed to the British Secretary of State for the colonies:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of freedom sprung,
Whence flowe these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood…
By 1773 these were sentiments shared by many in Boston. Britain’s harsh rule was becoming more and more unbearable, and Boston, as the most important center of commerce in British America, felt that autocratic burden first. However, look again at the verse quoted above. Notice it poses a question. Read on, and you’ll find the answer, and it just might come as a surprise:
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d,
Such such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
When she was just seven or eight years old, Phillis Wheatley was captured by slave traders in West Africa. Separated from her family, she barely endured the horrors of the Middle Passage. By the time she arrived at Boston’s wharves, the frail little girl was near death. One kind woman seeking to purchase a domestic servant boarded the slave ship and took pity on her. The ship’s captain was glad to be rid of the child. He did not expect her to live long enough to make it to the slave market in New York or Baltimore. He sold the sickly waif to Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a Boston merchant, for a paltry sum of money. Thus did the little girl from West Africa become Phillis Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts.
Phillis was far more fortunate than other Africans who were sold into American slavery. Susanna Wheatley wanted not just a servant, but a companion for her two children. Susanna did something almost unheard of: she gave her slave an education. By the age of 12, Phillis (named for the slave ship that brought her to America) could read both Latin and Greek, and showed a love and understanding of the classical verse of Homer, Virgil, and Milton. Soon word spread throughout Massachusetts and the other colonies of the astonishing little slave girl from Boston who could read the classics and write poetry as if she were a white child.
By her early 20’s, Phillis was full of hope for the future. Americans yearned to be free from the tyranny of the British crown; surely that quest for liberty would be extended to all, even those – perhaps especially those – who toiled under slavery’s cruel yoke. Shortly after he was named to lead the Continental Army, Phillis composed a poem for George Washington, and mailed it to him at his Massachusetts headquarters: It is a lengthy poem, so I only recite a portion of it, but it’s a portion noteworthy for several reasons:
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates…
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 peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
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.
Look at the last two lines of the first stanza. “first in peace and honors”, she writes, anticipating the famous lines penned 24 years later for Washington’s funeral, “First in war – first in peace – and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Indeed, Phillis Wheatley’s poem, written nearly a year before the Declaration of Independence, is the first instance of recognition of Washington’s role as Father of his Country. It’s remarkable that a slave would be the one who initiated the veneration of Washington, even when the outcome of the nascent revolution was questionable at best.
Washington knew Phillis was a slave. That did not prevent him from sending a prompt reply to the honor she extended to him.
Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands ’till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect.
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. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.
I am, with great respect, your obedient humble servant,
As I read the poems of Phillis Wheatley, I’m left almost speechless that a slave, heartlessly taken from her home and family, would join the ranks of American patriots. I wish I could feel her emotions as she read the letter from George Washington, particularly its ending, when the great general called himself the “humble servant” of a slave girl. What passed through her mind as she read that? What sense of hope must have flowed through her veins?
Sadly, Phillis Wheatley’s adult life proved difficult. She remained frail throughout her life. Freed following the death of her mistress, she married a free black man in Boston, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Following the revolution, interest in Phillis’s poetry declined. Though no longer enslaved, Phillis and her husband were still considered second or third class citizens by Boston society. The couple had two children who died in childbirth. In 1784, her husband abandoned her while she was expecting a third child, leaving the pregnant Phillis virtually penniless. Both mother and child died soon after a difficult childbirth.
In many ways, Phillis Wheatley was no different than the other 700,000 slaves living in America at the time of the Revolution. They all shared her longing for liberty. She only differed from them in her ability to express that longing in literary form. Although her poems rarely dwell on her condition as a slave, the desire for freedom and dignity still shines through, just as it still does for those who even now struggle with the dichotomy between America’s great promise, and its all too frequent sad reality.
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 dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.´