By Bonnie James
America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Basic Civitas Books, 2003, 129 pages
Phillis Wheatley is perhaps the most fascinating and thought-provoking American you never heard of.
She arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761, at about age 7, but not in the ordinary way that immigrants were coming to the New World at that time. She was brought here alone, “a slender frail female child,” from the West Coast of Africa, or perhaps the islands off the coast of Guinea, aboard a slave schooner, the Phillis, and soon after, was purchased by Mrs. Susanna Wheatley, whose husband John was a prosperous tailor and merchant. Mrs. Wheatley was shopping for a house servant. The girl-child she selected was described as “naked” but for “a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a filibeg.” Yet, over the course of her brief life, Phillis would come to know and be recognized by some of the most exalted personages of the Revolutionary period.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, begins his account of this extraordinary individual with a gripping rendition of her interrogation by Boston’s most stellar citizens, in October of 1772, about 11 years after she had arrived. As Gates notes, the details of the event were either not recorded, or have been lost to history, so he imagines how it might have unfolded. As he tells the story:
Phyllis, then about 18 years of age, was subjected to questioning by 18 of Boston’s most prominent men. The “trial”—the term of the book’s title—cannot help but call to mind those earlier “trials” in Salem, a mere 20 miles, and only 80 years distant. This one, however, was held in a far more civilized environment, at Boston’s Town Hall, the Old Colony House. According to Gates’s telling, Phillis brought with her for the occasion, a manuscript encompassing about 20 of her poems. The issue before the tribunal was to determine whether a slave girl, who despite having demonstrated an unusually precocious intelligence—within 14 months of her arrival, she had become proficient in English, having been tutored in English, Latin, and the Bible by the Wheatley daughter Mary—were capable of writing Classical poetry. She were likely familiar, at least by reputation, with those assembled that day by her master John Wheatley, “an astonishingly influential group of the colony’s citizens,” who were there to settle questions about the authenticity of Phillis’s literary abilities. The stakes, Gates writes, were as high as they could be: both for her, and for her race.
A Precocious Child
In the estimation of John Wheatley,
“Phyllis was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between Seven and Eight years of Age. Without any Assistance for School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.
“As to her Writing, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a letter to the Reverend Mr. Occom, the Indian Minister, while in England.
“She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin tongue, and has made some progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.”
–John Wheatley, 1772
Phillis wrote her first poem in 1765, four years or so after she had arrived at Boston Harbor. By 1767, at age 13 or 14, one of her poems, submitted by Susanna Wheatly, was published in the Newport Mercury; and in 1770, she wrote a poem on the subject of the Boston Massacre, “On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770,” quoted in part by Gates:
Long as in Freedom’s Cause the wise contend,
Dear to your unity shall Fame extend;
While to the World, the letter’s Stone shall tell,
How Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav’rick fell….
That same year, Phillis eulogized a popular English evangelical preacher, the Rev. George Whitefield, who had for several years preached at outdoor mass revival meetings in the Colonies. Her poem was widely read, having been published as a broadside in Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia, and in many reprints as well. With the poem’s publication in London, in 1771, Phillis suddenly had a readership that spanned the Atlantic. According to Gates, Phillis’s mistress Susanna Wheatley arranged to have her work collected and published in book form. The Tory paper, the Boston Censor, in several issues, published a list of titles of 28 poems to be included in the first volume. Unfortunately, an insufficient number of subscriptions were obtained, such that the project fell through. It was, perhaps, too much to expect that a sufficient number of proper Bostonians would be prepared to accept an African slave as a Classical poet.
Nonetheless, it can be surmised that a prominent Philadelphian would have seen Phillis’s eulogy for Rev. Whitefield. Walter Isaacson’s estimable biography of Benjamin Franklin relates a surprising connection between Franklin and Whitefield. Surprising, because Franklin was, if anything, a religious skeptic, but, as with many of his interests, his curiosity overcame his doubts. A May 2017 essay by Justin Taylor, titled, “Ben Franklin and George Whitefield Debate the Purpose of Education,” states:
“Ben Franklin and George Whitefield were a true odd couple in the history of 18th-century friendships. Whitefield was the greatest evangelical preacher of the era, while Franklin called himself a deist and doubted basic points of Christian orthodoxy. As I show in my new religious biography of Franklin, Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin about his need to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. ‘He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion,’ Franklin recalled, ‘but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.’”
Franklin, in his autobiography, described the effect of Whitefield’s preaching on the American colonists—including Franklin himself:
“In 1739 arriv’d among us from England the Rev. Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant Preacher…. The Multitudes of all Sects and Denominations that attended his Sermons were enormous and it was [a] matter of Speculation to me who was one of the Number, to observe the extraordinary Influence of his Oratory on his Hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils. It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners [behavior] of our Inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious….”
And here is an excerpt of Phillis’s poem to Whitefield, which gives a sense of the effect he had on his listeners:
On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield
Hail, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequall’d accents flow’d,
And ev’ry bosom with devotion glow’d;
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind….
Let ev’ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb safe retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates his dust.
As we shall see, there is more to be said about Phillis and Franklin below.
The Tribunal and Its Verdict
Let us now return to the scene that October day in 1772 at Boston’s Town Hall, and recall why the answer to the question of whether of not the young African American slave girl had in fact composed the poems which had been ascribed to her was of such momentous import.
As Gates writes: “If [Phillis] had indeed written poems, then this would demonstrate that Africans were human beings, and should be liberated from slavery. If, on the other hand, had she not written, or could not write her poems, or if indeed she was like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly, then that would be another matter entirely. Essentially, she was auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people” [emphasis added].
Among the members of the jury were:
His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, who entered Harvard at age 12, and would later become a loyalist refugee in England.
The Reverend Mather Byles, first minister of the Hollis Street Congregational Church in Boston, Harvard grad; grandson of Increase Mather and nephew of Cotton Mather (mentor of the young Benjamin Franklin). He also was a Tory loyalist.
Joseph Green, a well-known satirist—he and Byles often exchanged satiric poems and parodies. Also a loyalist who fled to London in 1775.
The Reverend Samuel Cooper, another poet and product of Harvard; minister of the Brattle Street Church; known as the “silver-tongued preacher.” Cooper was at the center of an inner circle of revolutionaries among whom were James Otis, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Adams.
James Bowdoin, a close friend of Franklin, student of electricity and astronomy, as well as a poet, and graduate of Harvard; he compiled a library of 1,200 volumes whose topics ranged from Science and math to philosophy, religion, poetry, and fiction. He became governor of Massachusetts in 1776.
John Hancock attended Boston Latin and Harvard; his family was one of the city’s wealthiest based on its trafficking in whale oil and real estate. He would go on to become the third president of the Continental Congress and the first governor of the Commonwealth. (He is perhaps best known today as the most famous signer of the Declaration of Independence by virtue of the fact that his signature was by far the largest, and whose name has become synonymous with the very act of writing one’s signature.)
The Reverend Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather; Harvard grad; principally remembered for his library, which has been described as “one of the greatest in New England.”
Overall, there were seven ordained ministers, three poets, six loyalists to the British Crown, and, as mentioned, a good number of those who would play crucial roles in the War of Independence. Five of those in attendance—Bowdoin, Cooper, Hubbard, Moorhead, and Oliver—would be subjects of poems written by Phillis.
As Gates wryly observes, “What they were not, however, was an association for the advancement of colored people.” Of the 18 present that day, a majority were slaveholders, indeed, one, Thomas Hubbard, had been a slave dealer.
They were all there to determine whether Phillis were truly the author of the poems attributed to her.
Even before the meeting with Phillis, some of her judges had personally examined her at the Wheatley home. Thomas Woolbridge did so, and wrote to the earl of Dartmouth about it:
“…I found by conversing with the African, that she was no Imposter; I asked if she would write on any Subject; she said Yes; … She, immediately, wrote a rough Copy of the inclosed Address & Letter, which I promised to convey or deliver. I was astonished, and could hardly believe my own Eyes.… They are all wrote in her own hand.”
Although no transcript of the examination of Phillis has survived, if there ever was one, Gates imagines that some of the questions put to her would have turned on the Classical allusions in her poems, for example, “Who was Apollo?” “What happened when Phaeton rode his father’s chariot?” “How did Zeus give birth to Athena?” “Name the nine Muses,” and so forth.
That Phillis passed her exam is evidenced by the statement signed by all eighteen of her inquisitors:
“We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”
Soon after this, in 1773, Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London, becoming the first book of poetry published in the English language by a person of African descent. The printer Archibald Bell’s notice in the London Morning Post announced its publication in appropriately lofty terms: “The book here proposed for publication displays perhaps one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted genius, that the world has ever produced…. [T]he author is a native of Africa, and left not the dark part of the habitable system, till she was eight years old.”
It is not at all hyperbole to say that these developments were earthshaking. The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, was then in full swing, and discussions bearing on Reason, Liberty, the Nature of Man, etc., were underway in both America and Europe. In is this fertile environment, then, Phillis Wheatley became a cause célèbre. Voltaire wrote to a correspondent in 1774 that Phillis had proven the Blacks could write poetry. John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver a copy of some of his own writings to “the celebrated Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [Muses] and Apollo.” Gates writes that, with the publication of her book, Phillis, “almost immediately, became the most famous African on the face of the earth.”
While Phillis was in England, she met with several leading figures, including the Earl of Dartmouth; and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote of the meeting, “…I went to see the black Poetess and offer’d her any Services I could do her.” Apparently based on this, Phillis dedicated her second poetry book to him.
A happy outcome of all this, was that, following her return to America, the Wheatleys emancipated Phillis.
Thomas Jefferson: `Blacks Much Inferior’
As you might imagine, not everyone was willing at the time to accept Phillis, or indeed, Africans in general, and, in particular, African slaves, as equal, or even capable of the higher attributes of the human mind. After relating the success that followed Phillis’s tribunal and the publication of her book of poems, Gates steps back to report on the reactions of some of our most celebrated Revolutionary era Americans.
Among these was, notably, Thomas Jefferson—the reputed author of the most often quoted line of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” A French correspondent of Jefferson’s, François, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, who had written to his fiancée about Phillis, that she “learned English with unusual ease, eagerly read and re-read the Bible, the only book which had been put in her hands, became steeped in the poetic images of which it is full, and at the age of seventeen, published a number of poems in which there is imagination, poetry, and zeal….”
Jefferson expressed a quite different view: “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism,” he wrote. Furthermore, he wrote of blacks in general: “Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to whites, in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid, and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
But, Jefferson did not deny blacks all talent. In a passage that has echoed down to modern times he wrote: “In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time…. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.”
Jefferson, of course, was not alone in his views, which took a much more virulent form in the years leading up to the Civil War and following, right up to our own time. As Gates emphasizes, it was precisely this clash between the extraordinary accomplishments of Phillis Wheatley, and their impact on her time, and the views of those like Jefferson who could not accept the full humanity of blacks because, in large part, it would, by definition, require the emancipation of the slaves.
A further irony that Gates identifies, is that some American blacks in our own time, have even viewed Phillis as a race traitor, among them, the radical black poet Amiri Baraka. Gates notes: “…it’s striking that Jefferson and Amiri Baraka, two figures in American letters who would agree on little else, could agree on the terms of their indictment of Phillis Wheatley.” Nor was this irony lost on the great Civil War-era abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who, in a speech delivered during that war, in 1863, “argued that his contemporaries in the Confederacy selectively cited Jefferson’s pro-slavery writings when convenient, ignoring the rest. For Douglass, black Americans were the true patriots, because they fully embraced Jeffersonian democracy.”
Gates concludes: “If Wheatley stood for anything, it was the creed that culture was, could be, the equal possession of all humanity.”
In October 1775, as the Revolutionary War was getting underway, Phillis Wheatley sent a letter and poem to Gen. George Washington, at his military headquarters in Cambridge.
“I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of 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.”
A few months later, in February 1776, Washington responded:
“Your favor 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 panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor 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 a place in the public prints.
“If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom nature has so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great respect, your obedient humble servant.”
N.B. Special thanks are due to Colin Lowry, whose recent lecture on the period of American history leading up to the War of Independence first brought the existence of Phillis Wheatley to my attention.
- The kilt worn by Scottish Highlanders. ↑
- Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, Vincent Carretta, ed.; Penguin, 2001, provides the known written works, her letters and poems. ↑
- Sad to say, following Phillis’s emancipation, and the deaths of John and Susanna Wheatley, she was unable to support herself (after an apparently short-lived marriage) and passed away at age 31, alone and in poverty. ↑
- 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. Muse! Bow 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 think 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 peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
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 thirst 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.↑