Phillis Wheatley - Poet of the Revolutionary Era - "His Excellency General Washington"
Hi, I’m Christy Shriver.
And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the how to love lit Podcast. Today we conclude our series on the Foundational Documents of the United States by giving homage to one of America’s earliest poetic voices- the notable Phyliss Wheatley Peters. The second woman on the American continent to publish a work of literature, and the first African American woman to do so.
She truly is a remarkable woman, not just for her incredible intellect, which we’ll describe in just a moment, but for her ability to express a voice, in spite of all odds, in an era, where a voice like hers should never be heard. I was reminded of this last night when we were watching a PBS reality show called Manor House- it’s an interesting social experiment set in Britain where volunteers recreate the lifestyles of the stratified society of Edwardian London in an old Manor house that has been restored to its former glory. One of many things that struck me in watching these characters relate was how lower servants were NEVER to be seen by the ladies and gentleman of the house, and if by some horrible accident a lady walked when while a servant was cleaning, the servant was to retreat to a corner and immediately turn around standing frozen pretending not to exist until the lady walked out. We watched that happen and how demeaning it was for the maidservant (even though she knew she was playing a part- and she really wasn’t actually lower than the “lady’) and how uncomfortable it made the lady feel (who in reality was a middle class modern woman herself). The “lady’s’s comment was, I’m just glad I’m near-sighed and when I walk around the house without my glasses, I don’t actually see this happening a lot.
And that is an interesting metaphor and really great psychological point to make- she preferred to walk around near-sighted, not actually seeing what was happening because it made her feel uncomfortable, guilty or maybe even ashamed of what was happening. Well, today, we want to put on our own literary and historical glasses and shine a spot light on a remarkable American woman, celebrate her work, and give her voice the respect it deserves.
Exactly, extract her from the hidden corner of the room (to go back to our metaphor), and make the argument that this woman established herself as one of the earliest icons in the American canon- well ahead of her time and in spite of the most incredible odds.
So, the beginning- Phyliss Wheatley was born, we think, around 1753 in Gambia, Africa and captured by slave traders and brought to American in 1761. She said almost nothing herself about this period of her life. After arriving, She was sold immediately to the Wheatley family in Boston.
Of course, that’s already a sad sad start. She is seven maybe eight years old. What can you tell us about how this could have happened.
Well, there is no doubt this is a dark story. Gambia at this time is not an official colony of England, although it will become one during Wheatley’s life. The British had actually already abolished the slave trade in 1807 all over the British Empire, but obviously it was still going on. It is traditionally accepted that over 3 million Gambians were stolen. They were stolen, mostly by neighboring tribes, they were sold to African traders on the continent, who sold many to each other- for slavery was practiced all over the African continent, but the majority were sold to be sent the Americas. The most lucrative and simplest way to monetize a person you stole from a different tribe was to sell them to the Europeans for work in the Americas, both North and South. This accounts for, by far, the largest number of slaves. They were captured and taken across what is called the Middle Passage.
Of course, the earliest and best depiction of how this felt was written by another important name in African Literautre or perhaps Western literature- I think both groups of people could claim him- Olaudah Equiano. Originally a Nigerian who published his story in 1789 in England. He really was instrumental in bringing public awareness to this horrible reality. His book was extremely popular both in England and in the United States. It’s a difficult read; I had my kids do it one year over the summer, and that was a real struggle. Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because he describes his experience of being captive which I speculate would have been very similar to Phyliss’ experience. Let me read you a small excert from his account-
My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner: Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighboring premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us—for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbor but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape, till some of the grown people came and secured him. But, alas!, long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh.
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered; for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance; but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack.
Of course he’s going to go on later to describe the awfulness of the boat, and that cannot be understated- the awfulness of being stolen and disconnected from family, could be the worse horror.
Phyliss is at least three years younger than that, maybe four. Her arrival is only described in the first biography ever done of Wheatley which wasn’t until 1984. It reads she arrived “a poor, naked child” who had no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a filibeg”. And let me say, that the Wheatley’s got her for a bargain. They only paid 10 sterling for her (the going rate for a prime male slave was 35 sterling). But Phyliss was frail, had a fever, and looked like she might just not make it. Her mistress, Susanna Wheatley, (who had lost a child of her own daughter at age 8 )picked her from all the other females to work as a domestic. The name of the ship was the the Phillis- hence Sussana choose to name her new acquisition, phyliss Wheatley.
Well, history is a mixed bag of praise and condemnation for the family’s treatment of Phyliss and there is a LOT of scrutiny of this family for their treatment of Phyliss- because it was so unusual. They educated her, they valued her, they elevated her and open doors for her that were not open to almost anyway else- and I’ll give you just a little example, Phyliss was given as many candles as she needed so she could stay up and work on her writing as late as she wanted- how unusual for a world where almost 50% of the white female population could not even write their own names. However, they also benefited from her genius and it served them as she served them, so make what you will of that. Susanna at least was kind and generous towards her.
To their credit, in some sense, they did recognize that Phyliss was extremely unusual, especially curious, and “obviously precocious” to use the phrase, Mary, Susanna’s daughter (who was around 10 years older than her) used to describe her. Of course on the other hand, Susanna had purchased her because she wanted to purchase for herself a companion now that her own children were getting older and moving out into the world, so maybe out of nobility, maybe out of a desire to have an educated companion- we can’t determine motives this long after, but we do know, she tasked Mary with educating this little girl who didn’t speak a word of English. Now, you have to remember that in Boston at this time, the population was 15,000 people, 1000 were black, only 18 were free and ZERO went to school, but at the same time, it wasn’t yet illegal to educate black slaves. In the north, most slaves were house slaves and if you openly starved or mistreated them, you were looked at as a bad person- even among slaveholders. .
And let’s drop in a little historical timeline context....Phyliss drops into the united states as a little girl in the early 1760s at age 7-8. Within the next ten years this is going to transpire in the US.
March 1775 – Patrick Henry’s Speech
April 1775 – Battle of Lexington and Concord
May 1775 – Washington is made commander of the continental army
May-December – several battles have occurred
October 1775 – Wheatley writes her poem for Washington
It’s amazing really, when she got here she could not speak one word of English, although there is no consensus what she did speak, maybe she was from the Fulani tribe, maybe she wasn’t. But, within 16 months of her arrival (and remember her age) she could read the Bible, as well as Latin and Greek classics. She had studied geography and even astronomy. I’d say that rivals pretty much any modern student. I’ve even heard that by the end it, her education rivaled most Harvard educated men of her day- impressively. By the age 11, we already have her first known piece of writing- which I think is not only amazing- but truly sweet. She wrote a letter to a family friend by the name of, a Native American missionary named Samson Occum to raise money to fund the education of Native Americans in New England. – if you can believe a little slave girl who was the only black girl who could read would be advocating for another people- incredible, but I want to bring up something just as remarkable. Occum and she apparently struck up a friendship and in 1774, she wrote him again. This letter, Garry, is more famous. I want to read this to you and just tell you that an 11 year old read it. What do you think?
Rev'd and honor'd Sir,
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign'd so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and [r]eveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures.
Well, first of all the language is incredibly complex. And she clearly has read the Bible and many of the same texts as Jefferson, Madison and the revolutionaries, but because of her circumstances, she as a young African woman, can understand these concepts in ways the others cannot. This little girl has a clear central vision of God’s call to freedom-
for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance;
I love that line. Wow!
I agree completely. And she writes this in 1774 trying to convince the man who would found Darthmouth College that the Revolutionaries advocating for their own freedom while upholding slavery in American were living an untenable contradiction. Because the Wheatley’s were so well-connected, Phyliss seemed to have a lot of conversations about these kinds of things with very important people. And she could go head to head with them talking about the ideas of Descarte and Rousseau. There is a lot of documentation, that unlike any other slave I’ve ever heard of, she would be invited to dinner parties with the Wheatley’s. They woldn’t let her sit at the main table with the family, she’d have this little table over in the corner, but she was expected to engage all their guests in conversations. Her opinion was requested and expected. She was to debate and engage not just the women but the MEN of her day on this intellectual level.
Again, what a minefield that must have been- and what she must have thought about this arrangement- where she is clearly not an equal- but yet not a slave- she is an other- a non-sexualized entity perhaps. Of course, what I find most fascinatsing about what you described to me is what she was able to GLEAN from that- and that we can see in her writing. She learned to use their language- the language of religion- and she also learned to use the language of American rhetoric- she knew these men honed in on the value of liberty and she makes use of this to get admission into their world. Her poetry is patriotic and it’s religious.
Indeed, one of her earliest is called “America” where she says, “Thy Power, O Liberty, makes strong the weak”. There is hope there in those lines. I see youthful idealism in a lot of her writings, that perhaps America will be what these men say it will and it will apply to her. She had every reason to believe that it might. She seems to be ambitious and she seems to want to make a political and literary name for herself, and in these early years- she’s using the power structures of the day in her own way to make that happen. One thing that I find incredibly clever is that almost a third of her poems are elegies- she memorialized people who died. Of course, we don’t know why, but I do find that particularly smart- if that isn’t a way to endear yourself to people’s loved ones, I don’t know what is. Probably her most famous poem was dedicated to George Whitefield, and that’s eventually what got her recognition to be published, but I’m getting a little head of the story.
If we do look at Wheatley as a political person, it certainly makes her independent in her view of herself and not so different than other black poets of her day which many people don’t even know about. I think the two most famous are Lucy Terry and Jupiter Hammond who today are studied because we have a renewed interest in revisiting colonial history through a different lens. But Lucy specifically composed poetry about Africa- things that were relevant to Africans probably more interesting honestly, but sadly- except for one poem called “A Bar’s Fight” are all gone. Nobody knows anything about her outside of history circles. Hammon, is a little more famous, he is the first African-American to publish anything in the Americas- but unlike Wheatley or even Lucy Terry, he was never ever to leverage his talents into gaining his own freedom, something Wheatley was able to do.
I like looking at Wheatly like that because, to me, it creates a view of her, not as a sell-out to the white establishment, but a person who leveraged her talents to make a place for herself. I do want to point out that one of Jupiter Hammon’s surviving poems is named “An Address to Miss Phyliss Wheatley, Ethiopian poetess, in Boston, who came from Africa at eight years of age, and soon became acquainted with Jesus Christ.”
Well, readers may wonder what you’re talking about when you talk about how her writing is controversial when you compare the way she writes compared to how African Americans were writing or even feeling at the time- Read for us that famous controversial poem that she wrote at age 15 titled “On Being Brought from Africa.” She has been totally slammed for this.
I’ll read the poem.
What do you think- at first pass it seems she’s called Africa Pagan- and that she’s so grateful to have been stolen and brought here to America to be “saved”.
True- but like all poetry- don’t read it just once- and I think there’s more to it than that. Remember, almost every single person who is reading this poem owns slaves. Remember, almost every single person she elegized owns slaves- let’s look at it rhetorically as well as poetically.
First poetically- it’s in iambic pentameter- very clever- that was considered good writing at the time. Today we may think it’s sing songly- but it was a style people like. She wrote in heroic couplets- that means every two lines rhymed. Even today- when I ask my students to write a poem for me- if I give them no guidance- this is what they write- heroic couplets- they just think that’s what a good poem is- and actually, it takes me almost an entire year to break that entrenched concept.
So, why do I bring that up? I think this is rhetoric and she’s making a case that Black people are people too- as horrible as that is to say.
The worse line in the whole poem is this line, “Their colour is a diabolic die”- that’s in quotes meaning- that’s what you people think of us- but that’s not what God thinks. When she references the black race she uses the word “sable” and that word “sable” even today has connotations of nobility, beauty, a sable coat is a status symbol and are extremely expensive.
I want to think she’s using their own logic against them- when she says if you truly believe you did me a favor by bringing me over and introducing me to Jesus- then by your own logic, you admit that I’m a person. I may be refined. I’m going to heaven. I’m worthy. Now what do we do that- I’ll tell you this, if your first premise is black people are beautiful; your second premise is they are worthy for Jesus to save and bring to heaven- then the conclusion that must follow is—then I must treat them with as much beauty and worthy as Jesus.
Wheatley in this peom doesn’t directly connect those dots, but she comes close- and listen- she’s 15 years old. She’s reading this to pwerful people; she’s a slave. I think it’s bold.
It’s definitely a delicate line to walk. And it’s a political line, and I amazed at how she was able to walk this line- both with the Americans and with the British. Remember, these two groups are not getting along all that well, but Phyliss manages to get her work printed in England as well as in America- maneuvering skillfully between these two groups. The earl of Dartmouth, Thomas Woodbridge, definitely a man who believed in the class system came to Boston and wanted to meet Phyllis. This is what he said, “While in Boston, I heard of a very extraordinary female Slave, who made verses on our mutually deceased friend; I visited her mistress and found by conversing with the African that she was no imposter. I asked if she could write on any subject; she said yes; we had just heard of your Lordships appointment; I gave her your name, which she was well acquainted with. She immediately wrote a rough copy of the included address and letter, which I promised to convey or deliver. I was astonished and could hardly believe my eyes. I was present when she wrote, and can attest that it is her own production.’
And it was her ability to charm the political movers of her day, specifically within the Methodist church. And she did charm them, although not without the help of Susanna who basically promoted her and promoted her until finally she landed the a particularly powerful patron, the countess of huntington in Londonm that helped her secure publication for her first book of poetry, not in Boston where it was rejected, but in London in 1773- it’s also in this book that we have the only real picture of Phyliss as the Countess insisted it be in the book. This is. Remarkable feat for any woman- a American woman had not published a book since Anne Bradstreet (140 years earlier) And I’m sure on that trip, Phyliss thought she had made it. She was celebrated. She met all kinds of royalty. She got to visit Westminster Abbey, the royal Observetory, The Tower of London- all kinds of amazing places- and remember she’s only 18. She was treated almost as an equal really. Her book sold well in both England and Scotland. It made her a celebrity- truly. But most importantly, it really opened the door to her emancipation- because her fame put a lot of pressure on the Wheatley’s to free her. Basically this trip won her her freedom. It is entirely possible that she would have just stayed over in London, but Susana’s health is in steep decline, so she comes back to America. This, in retrospect might have been a personal mistake. For one thing, she had to turn down her invitation to meet the King as well as Countess Huntington who had made all this happen for her.
Well, there is no doubt things went downhill fast, and a lot of that, honestly had a lot to do with the American Revolutionary War- it’s not a great time to be a poet. But the story goes that Wheatly arrives back in the US before her book even gets published, so she wasn’t even one of the first ones to have a copy. She leaves in July. Arrives in the US in early September. I do want to remind you that, just this cost her. We hadn’t mentioned the political situation, but there was legal precedent for slaves who entered England to be free
- and there is poetic evidence that Phyliss knew this when she went over there. She calles England “Health, celestial dame- health in that particular poem referencing Freedom…for thee Britania, I resign New England’s smiling fields.”…well, now she’s giving up all that. But she goes back, still trying to market her book while caring for Suzanna. . On October 18, Phyliss writes “ Since my return to America, my master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom, the instrument is drawn , so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the executors, adminstrators of my master, and secure whatsoever she be given me as my own.”
Suzznna dies on March 3 of 1774 leaving Phyliss to fend for herself. Neither of Suzanna’s children care to take care of her. Her husband lets her live with him but by October, she is set free except with nothing and at the worst possible time to be on the street.
Her most famous poem comes at this time. It’s written “To His Excellency, General Washington.” It’s my favorite one of hers, honestly. It’s dated October 25, 1775- this is not an awesome time for the Ameicans in the war. They had no reason to believe they were going to win for sure. But, there is also no one more prominent at the time on the American side than George Washington. I know this is speculation, but I don’t claim to be a historian, but I truly believe she must have hoped the General Washington would publish the poem and help launch her career again. This strategy is what had worked in the past. It’s what she knew to do. She sent him the poem in a personal letter. He wrote the following letter back- which is quite an honor, but if it were me, I’d be disappointed. Garry want to read it.
from George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, 28 February 1776
To Phillis Wheatley
Cambridge February 28th 1776.
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 panegyrics, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great 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 place in the public Prints.1
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored 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,
Yikes- well there it is- no, I’m not publishing it, but it is wonderful. Shall we read it. I do want to point out a few things to look for because anytime we read something this old, it’s so easy to get lost in the language.
The first thing you MUST understand is that Wheatley invented a classically styled goddess of the American Revolution named “Columbia”. To me this is so cool because Columbia is a word we just throw around all time time and nobody even knows what it’s about.
True, there’s Columbia pictures, Columbia University, The Columbia Space Shuttle.
Well, Wheatly just made it up- right here. Maybe it was use before this, I can’t find much reference to the term. I’m confident she popularized it. What she does in this poem is use the word Columbia in reference tpo the United States. She says, “Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write. Meaning I’m going to write you a little bit about America, but I’m making her a girl. I’m also not just making her a feminine form of a land cluster- I’m going to elevate this girl into an an embodiment of freedom. I’m going to create a mythology around it.
And you must remember, this is a girl who had spent all of her education studying mythology. She knew a lot about and here, she’s going to make up her own mythology but this mythology is about America- not the real America, because that didn’t exist. It’s 1775. It’s what she WANTS it to be and she’s going to write her thoughts of what America should be to the General who may make it happen.
So, with that idea in mind- let’s read it.
It does read very Greek-like. The references to olives and laurels and then the Greek God of wind, Aeolus- storming in the night.
Exactly, I’m glad you bring that. In terms of structure, there are five stanzas. Everything is written in iambic pentameter and heroic couplets- that’s her style. She never drops the rhyme. And she litters it with all these Greek sounding references. It’s the idea that there is nobility- god-like nobility in what Washington is doing- even if in reality- he’s covered in mud with his soldiers all dying of small pox and exposure.
Another thing to point out is that it’s addressed to this heavenly choir- the Celestil Choir in the first stanza- then in stanza 3 she addresses the Muse- remember in Greek mythology- the muses are dieties that give artists inspirstion for creation. She’s saying- look muse- look at Columbia- look at Washington- let me tell you about this amazing guy. Read on through stanza 4.
Garry read’s this part.
This next stanza is where Wheatley takes her biggest risk. Remember, this is the girl who almost met King George in person. She has been treated like a celebrity in England= but she is going to take sides here. She sides with the Americans. Before the war is over, she is not only going to say, I think the Americans are going to win, she says Britannia (obviously a personification of Britain) is going to droop it’s head- she references Britannia’s thirst of boundless power- yikes. And the reason she pins her hopes on Columbia in this fight is that, it appears she’s still a true believer in the cause.
Read this stanza until tne end of the poem.
Garry read’s til the end.
She says, “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.” Since she’s already referenced the French when she says, “Gallic powers”- there is little doubt- the French are part of the ones watching, even as they help America fight.
When she says, “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side thy every action let the goddess guide.”- she is not acknowledging the greatness of the land west of the Atlantic- she’s acknowledging the ideals she upholds to be imagined in this personified Columbia.
It is a dream she was never going to see realized in her lifetime. After the revolution Wheatley moves into a lot of hardship. As we all know, the story of freedom is just getting started, and African-americans, even famous ones, are at the bottom of the social ladder. Times are devastatingly hard as we talked about last week with the constitution- Wheatley had married a man, John Peters, three months after emancipation, but it seems her marriage wasn’t a happy one. Finances were a big problem and John actually ended up in debtors prison leaving Phyliss to work apparently pregnant as a scullery maid- that’s the hardest work there was. She had three children who all died- the last died with her due to complications with childbirth.
I can only imagine was was heartbroken at a dream that was lost- But as we look back at her 200 years later, I have to say that she was the muse that helped bring to life the idea of Columbia- not the nation, but the vision- she saw it. She saw it in it’s idealized form, and perhaps, it’s safe to say, she even influenced it. Washington was a slaveholder who did emancipate his slaves upon his death- and there were others who understood the contradiction of this new place. As Wheatley points out in lines 5-6 of the poem, the world was watching the American experiement- this idea of creating a Columbia is much larger than just the United States- and it seems little pHyliss Wheatley had some insight into this perspective- it’s challenges but future potential.
The phrase “first in peace” is THE most famous phrase in this poem and was used later at Washington’s funeral.
The renowned quote appears shortly before the conclusion of Henry Lee's 3,500 word eulogy in a longer passage extolling Washington's contributions to the nation: “First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen,
I guess, as we close out this series on American historical documents, it’s appropriate that we not only end talking about the first American president, but it’s appropriate to look at him through the beautiful personification of one of the first muses to understand not just America’s potential in regard to liberty- but the potential of this idea across the globe- sweet phyliss.
Well, that’s a wrap- next week- we are going to cross the ocean back to Europe- but this time, we’re going to fly over England and land in the Czech Republic to talk about one of Eastern European’s most anthologized existentialist (if you want to call him- that, he didn’t-) but the enigmatic Franz Kafka and the reading of his great Novella The Metamorphosis.