In 1772, a group of prominent Bostonians was asked to attest to the authenticity of a collection of the poems of Phillis Wheatley. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, seven ministers – 17 people in all – investigated the poet. They then swore that Phillis Wheatley had written the poems she claimed.
Why all this fuss? The reason was that up until then, the vast majority of people did not believe an 18-year-old black slave girl could be a literate, skilled poet. In sending her poems off to London in search of a publisher, Wheatley’s supporters wanted to verify their authenticity lest anyone doubt it.
The unusual examination of her work by New England’s leading men was nearly as astounding as the unusual journey that brought Phillis Wheatley her fame.
She was born in 1753 in Western Africa, probably Gambia.
At age 7, she was brought to America (likely kidnapped) and sold into slavery. Bostonian John Wheatley bought her for a housemaid to his wife, Susannah. They named her Phillis after the ship that brought her to New England.
Phillis soon struck the Wheatleys as exceptionally smart and talented, however. The Wheatleys’ two children, Nathaniel and Mary, began teaching her their lessons in Greek and Latin. They also helped her to learn read the classics.
Phillis was a quick study. The Wheatleys soon poured their energy into giving her an education instead of training her as a housemaid.
By 1770, Wheatley had published several poems in the newspapers, including an elegy to Rev. George Whitfield, an extremely popular Newburyport Methodist minister who died unexpectedly.
Wheatley traveled to England in 1772 and had her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, published, which made her the first woman African slave to become a published poet. Her fame gained her a meeting with the Lord Mayor of London among others, and she became a celebrity among anti-abolitionists who were delighted both by her work and the message it sent: that black Africans were not intellectually inferior to white Europeans.
The idea of a slave poet was not popular among slaveholders. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, dismissed Wheatley’s work. She was merely parroting the work of white poets, he suggested, and said the work “published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”
And what did this young woman have to say? Her poetry was largely conventional, praising God and pointing out that Africans could be converted to Christianity and saved.
But she went beyond the traditional, too. She wrote to George Washington while he was in Cambridge during the early days of the American Revolution, and the future president invited her to visit.
In another poem, written to the Earl of Dartmouth, principle secretary for North America, she touched on the roots of her passion for liberty — her own slavery.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat
. . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
A Complicated Legacy
Wheatley left a complicated legacy, however. In one poem she seems grateful for her enslavement as it led to her discovering Christianity.
Sadly, Wheatley had little chance to flesh out her thinking or beliefs. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, she lost her English patrons. Though she was freed upon the death of Jonathan Wheatley in 1774, she struggled financially in the tough economy of the American Revolution.
She married a grocer, John Peters, himself a free black man. Despite being previously quite prosperous, he too encountered financial troubles following the war and went to prison for his debts.
Shortly after her husband went to prison in 1784, Phillis Wheatley and her only child died.
This story last updated in 2022.