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Phillis Wheatley: A Black and enslaved poet who helped shape Revolutionary America

OH Fast Facts for Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), was a Black and enslaved poet who lived in the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War. Through her rich and imaginative writing, she became one of the best known poets of the late 18th century, and helped to shape a lasting cultural identity for the fledgling United States during the American Revolution and beyond.

Phillis Wheatley was seized from the Gambia-Senegal area of West Africa around the age of seven and brought to Boston in 1761. She is named after the boat that took her from Africa, the Phillis, and was purchased by John and Susanna Wheatley as a domestic servant for Mrs. Wheatley. The Wheatley's were wealthy merchants, and known for having “progressive” ideas. When young Phillis showed herself to be a quick study and obsessive learner, the Wheatley family immediately started educating her. She was taught Greek and Latin by the Wheatley's daughter Mary, which it is said that Phillis could read by the age of 12. The education of young people at the time primarily relied on classical Greek and Roman works, and biblical literature. Because of these influences, scholars note that her poetry is heavily influenced by the classical poets, including Homer, Horace, and Virgil, and more contemporary writers like Alexander Pope, who was also classically influenced. Phillis could read complicated passages from the Bible at a young age.

The earliest poem that we have by Wheatley was copied into the final page of The Rev. Jeremy Belknap's diary of 1773. It showed the influence of her Christian upbringing. Wheatley was 11 at the time, and Belknap's transcription is evidence that the Wheatley’s might have made a habit of presenting young Phillis to guests to demonstrate her skills and abilities.

A page of text from the diary of The Rev. Belknap transcribing Phillis' poem.

Phillis Wheatley’s first Effort—AD 1765. AE 11 [Age 11]

“Mrs Thacher’s Son is gone Unto Salvation her Daughter too so I conclude

They are both gone to be renewed”

And then he re-wrote it as a four-line stanza:

“Mr[s] Thacher’s Son is gone Unto Salvation Her daughter too, so I conclude They are both gone to be renewed”

Phillis had chronic asthma, and as such, likely did not do a good deal of heavy labor while in the Wheatley household. Instead, they encouraged her writing. Phillis was a prolific writer, and her first publication came at the age of 12 in the Rhode Island Newport Mercury. This poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," was with a rousing piece that commemorated two men rescued at sea.

Phillis wrote other pieces, but gained renown for an Elegy for the popular pastor, Rev. George Whitefield, which was published in a collection. But despite a wealth of unpublished material, professional support, and prior publications, the Wheatleys were unable to find a publisher for a collection of poetry in the American Colonies. And so they decided to look to England for a publisher, instead. In 1773, the Wheatley's son, Nathaniel, accompanied Phillis to England, taking with them a signed statement from seventeen notable men from New England, who attested that she was the one who wrote the poems. (This statement was reprinted at the front of Phillis' book.) These dignitaries included John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, Andre Oliver, and the Rev. Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather.

Phillis was welcomed by the abolitionist elite in England, and easily found a publisher. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed later the same year (1773) and was considered a success.

Back in the American Colonies, the drums of revolution were steadily beating. Being exposed to the upper echelons of Boston gentility, Phillis was very aware of the politics of the day. Phillis wrote a letter with an enclosed poem to George Washington, dated October 26, 1775. This poem, His Excellency, George Washington, was privately circulated by Washington, and printed a few months later by Thomas Paine in the April 1776 publication of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Phillis was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolutionary cause, writing to Washington, "Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in."

Washington was very moved by her poem, and in a reply dated February, 28 1776, he invited her to visit him in Cambridge. They met in March of 1776, and Phillis' poem was published the following month.

Wheatley's Columbia - a classical goddess of liberty

Phillis Wheatley's poem to Washington has had lasting cultural effects.

Allegory of America Nicolaes Berchem, Mid-late 17th C.

Along with celebrating Washington in it, Phillis evoked a female "allegory of America," known as Columbia, a feminization of "Columbus." Early depictions of Columbia showed her in as an Indigenous woman in nature, clad in furs and feathers. Phillis' depiction, however, drew upon her classical training and knowledge of the Greek and Roman deities, and she gave Columbia more European traits and references.

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 flashes 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.

The concept of a "fair goddess" - with "golden hair" and wearing laurels - was one that could be readily adopted by white colonists in Revolutionary America who were educated in the Classics, especially a goddess that represented freedom and liberty. This representation was quickly clasped upon, and subsequent depictions of Columbia are in keeping with Phillis' representation. (Go to the OH page on Columbia for more.)

After the war ended, Phillis published another poem, Liberty and Peace (1784), celebrating the victory and again "Columbia" is featured as triumphing over another allegory, "Britannia."

As we have covered in our Columbia post,

Columbia was nearly always shown as a defender of marginalized people, including formerly enslaved people after the Civil War (admonishing President Andrew Johnson for not hurrying along Reconstruction, see image), and she was shown protecting Chinese immigrants in the West of the United States.

A similar female allegory emerged in pre-revolutionary France as Marianne, a woman in classical dress and with what was known as a "Phrygian cap." The Phrygian cap was worn by freed slaves during the Roman Empire as a visible way of showing their freed status. Marianne quickly became the symbol of the new French Republic, and was printed in countless publications and on currency. Marianne was often shown as a protector of "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality," the motto of the French Revolution.

This connection of the American goddess Columbia and the French Marianne came together in the later nineteenth century with the design and construction of "Liberty Enlightening the World," otherwise known as The Statue of Liberty, designed by French sculptor, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi.

The Statue of Liberty's sponsor, Éduard René de Laboulaye, was an anti-slavery activist, and Bartholdi had been immersed in representations of Marianne in France. Bartholdi had also taken a trip to Egypt and was inspired by the colossal statues of the Pharaohs. Together, they crafted a new, modern allegory for "Liberty," which took inspiration from post-Wheatley representations of Columbia as a classical goddess. With the chains of slavery crushed beneath her feet, this new Columbia was to become a beacon to the world.

Wheatley's Complicated Legacy

Despite her many accomplishments, including the first woman of African descent to be published in America, Wheatley's legacy has proved to be a complicated one for activists and scholars. She was a product of her time, an enslaved woman who was educated by her owners, and who had a profound bond with them as well. In a letter to a friend, she mourned the passing of Mrs. Wheatley, and she considered the loss as great as that of a "parent, sister, or brother."

She wrote most of the works we know about when she was very young, before she was freed. And she found acclaim when her poetry lined up with the dominant culture of the day, which was Eurocentric and dominated by powerful, white men. As such, it should be no surprise that her whiter, classical depiction of Columbia took hold in the public consciousness with lasting cultural implications, such as they are.

Black activists in the twentieth century have also criticized her lack of public denunciations of slavery, and for being too accepting of white culture of the day. Wheatley's most famous poem was "On being brought from Africa to America," which reads as a story of biblical deliverance, while also gently chiding the reader to remember the primary humanity of Black people, although still implying that they are in need of "refinement":

'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, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

In other correspondence, Phillis seems to suggest that she welcomes the "order" imposed upon Africans by colonizers, while also underscoring the human pull towards freedom and liberty. She thought that the calls for liberty by the same people who oppressed others were ridiculous, and she hoped they could see the hypocrisy of their position. Phillis had a public correspondence with the Rev. Samson Occum, a Mohegan Indian and ordained Presbyterian minister. In a letter to Occum printed in the Connecticut Observer on March 11, 1774, she wrote: "In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance." She hoped that God would help those who oppressed others see their error, "This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree." This often overlooked passage showed that although Phillis benefitted from her status, she was perfectly aware of how the revolution was meant to only benefit some in the colonies and not others enslaved like herself.

Freedom and Untimely Death

Susanna Wheatley died in 1774, and John followed her in 1775, freeing Phillis in his will. Phillis was 25 years old. Suddenly without a family or ready means of support - but free - Phillis tried to make her way in the world. After a few months, she married a talented, handsome, and ambitious free Black man, John Peters, who had a grocery. However, in a country about to go to war and in competition with white men for the same positions, Peters was not given many opportunities. Peters tried many different jobs and enterprises, but he had difficulties finding success and eventually ended up in a debtors prison. Phillis and Peters had as many as three children, none of which survived.

In freedom, Phillis took paid work as a domestic servant, doing much more arduous labor than what she was asked to do for the Wheatleys. Despite this, Phillis kept writing, and put notices in the paper seeking a publisher for a 300 page work, but without finding any luck, and much of her writings are lost as a result. Suffering from chronic asthma, Phillis' health rapidly declined in her poor working and living conditions. In 1784, while Peters was in prison, she died along with their infant child. She was 31.


Do Your Own Research



Phillis Wheatley Primary resources:

Secondary Analysis of Wheatley's Life and Works:

For more on Columbia, Marianne, and The Statue of Liberty:

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