When a London bookseller presented the manuscript of Phillis Wheatley's 1773 Poems on Various Subjects to the Countess of Huntingdon, the anti-slavery English noblewoman was reportedly "fond of having the book dedicated to her; but one thing she desir'd [was]...to have Phillis' picture in the frontispiece." The man commissioned to draw the likeness of Wheatley was Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African in service to Reverend John Moorhead, a neighbor and friend of the Wheatley family and pastor of the Church of the Presbyterian Strangers. Reverend Moorhead, along with fifteen other prominent Massachusetts citizens, had signed a testimonial that prefaced the manuscript. Scipio Moorhead not only painted portraits, but wrote verse as well. His artistic talents had been nurtured by the Reverend's wife, Sarah Moorhead, a teacher of art and drawing. His drawing of Phillis, said to be a fine likeness, was shipped to England to be engraved. When the book was published, it contained a poem, "To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works," in which Wheatley praised the artist and voiced her hopes that their collaboration would lead to his "immortal fame":
Still may the painter's and the poet's fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
American poet Phillis Wheatley probably was born in Senegal, Africa in the early 1750s. Her only written memory of Africa was of her mother performing a ritual of pouring water before the sun as it rose. When she was about 7, she became a commodity. She was kidnapped from her family, marched to the coast, sold to Peter Gwinn as slave cargo, and stowed on a ship called The Phillis for an unimaginable trip through the middle passage. When the dark ship finally reached its destination in Boston, the frightened little girl was sold at John Avery's slave auction to tailor John and his wife Susanna Wheatley on July 11, 1761. The prosperous Boston family named their new acquisition after the ship she arrived in; taught her English, Latin, and Greek; and treated her as a family member. The Wheatleys and their daughter, Mary, introduced Phillis to the Bible; and to 3 English poets – Milton, Pope and Gray. Phillis used her new language skills to write her own poetry.
A rare portrait of Phillis Wheatley shows her facing forward, wearing an evening dress and jewelry. The portrait appeared in Revue des Colonies in Paris between 1834 and 1842
In 1765, when Phillis Wheatley was about eleven years old, she wrote a letter to Reverend Samson Occum, a Mohegan Indian and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Despite the difference in their ages (Occum was born in 1723), Wheatley's letter apparently led to a friendship with Occum, who was also a poet, and who later published an Indian hymnal. On February 11, 1774, Wheatley wrote Occum again, to comment on an indictment of slave-holding Christian ministers that he had written. Wheatley strongly concurred with the argument put forth by Occum, writing that she was "greatly satisfied with your Reasons representing the Negroes" and thought "highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights." While she implored God's deliverance from "those whose Avarice impels them..." she hastened to add, "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." As she did in several of her poems, notably her ode to the Earl of Dartmouth, Wheatley used the letter to Occum as an occasion to point out the contradiction between the colonists' demands for freedom from Britain and their determination to uphold slavery. She wrote, "How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the Exercise of oppressive Power over others agree -- I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine."
She published her first poem at the age of 14. Her poem "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" appeared in the Newport Mercury in 1767. She was especially fond of writing in Pope's elegiac poetry style, perhaps because it also mirrored an oral tradition of her African tribal group. Both Europeans and Africans used poem and song as a lament for a deceased person. That she also was well-versed in Latin, which allowed her to write in the epyllion (short epic) style, became apparent with the publication of "Niobe in Distress."
She became a sensation in Boston in the early 1770s, when her poem elegy on the death of the extremely popular English-born evangelist George Whitefield gained wide circulation in colonial newspapers. Whitefield died September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Wheatley's elegy reached Selina Hastings of England, Countess of Huntingdon, who was a great admirer of Whitefield. The countess, in turn, sent Wheatley's poem to London papers, which reprinted it many times.
Because many found it hard to believe that a slave or a woman could write such poetry, in 1772, Wheatley received an attestation of authenticity from a group of Boston luminaries including John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, which was printed in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral released in London in 1773. The book was issued from London, because publishers in Boston refused to publish it. Wheatley and her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, had traveled to London, where the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped finance the publication.
The 1773 publication of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects established her as a young prodigy and challenged the major justification for enslavement of Africans -- the European assumption of African inferiority. In the 18C, Europeans generally assumed that Africans were subhuman, lacking the intellectual capacity for such higher order pursuits as creative writing and mathematics; consequently, Wheatley's book was prefaced by testimonies to its authenticity from her master and from 16 of Boston's most respected citizens, thereby establishing a literary convention of sorts for works by African Americans in the 18C and 19C. Despite such testimonials, Thomas Jefferson was among those who questioned Wheatley's authorship. One of the best-known poems in the collection is dedicated "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, Etc." Wheatley was heartened by the appointment of Dartmouth, whom she had met in London and knew to be a friend of the abolitionist Countess of Huntingdon and of the late Reverend George Whitefield, who had helped launch the Great Awakening. The poem opens with hopeful optimism that under Dartmouth's "blissful sway," the colonies will see "Freedom's charms unfold" and experience an end to the reign of "wanton Tyranny" that "meant t'enslave the land." Those lines provide a subtle yet powerful segue into the next verse, in which she proposes that her "love of Freedom" (and by implication, that of the black Patriots) springs from the anguish Africans have known as slaves.
Phillis' fame and the aging of her owners ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773, just as the British American colonies were contemplating a freedom of their own. She received a letter from General Washington, after she had written a poem to Washington, lauding his appointment as commander of the Continental Army. On February 28, 1776, Washington wrote to Wheatley, "I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be...the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents."
Though Benjamin Franklin received her, and Washington personally met with her as well, Thomas Jefferson refused to acknowledge her intelligence and skill. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he declared, "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley, but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."
Adopting classical styles, topics, neoclassical images, and scriptural allusions, allowed Wheatley to express a subtle critique of America's slaveholding colonies and emerging new republic. While she was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War, she felt slavery was the issue which kept Ameican whites, such as Jefferson, from true heroism. Wheatley wrote that whites could not "hope to find/Divine acceptance with th' Almighty mind" when "they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race."
In a letter which appeared on March 11, 1774, in the Connecticut Gazette, Wheatley wrote of the hipocricy of freedom-loving slaveholders, "God grant Deliberance...upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. 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 I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine."
On April 1, 1778, she married a free black Bostonian named John Peters. Initially this marriage produced 2 babies who died in childhood. Despite tragedy and poverty, Phillis continued to write poetry. In 1779, she advertised in the Boston Evening Post and General Advertiser, in hopes of finding a publisher for a volume of 33 poems and 13 letters. In the struggling post-revolutionary economy, this volume was never published. In September 1784, The Boston Magazine published under her married name, Phillis Peters, a poem "To Mr. and Mrs.----, on the Death of Their Infant Son;" and in December, 1784, it published "Liberty and Peace" celebrating the outcome of the Revolutionary War, once again using her married name. She may never have seen the poems published in December.
By this time, her husband had deserted her, forcing Wheatley to earn a living as a scullery maid in a Boston boarding house for destitute blacks. On December 5, 1784, she died there in poverty at the age of 31, probably from an infection or blood clot contracted while giving birth. Her third baby died only a few hours later. They were buried together in an unmarked grave. The Boston Independent Chronicle reported, "Last Lord's Day, died Mrs. Phillis Peters (formerly Phillis Wheatley), aged thirty-one, known to the world by her celebrated miscellaneous poems. Her funeral is to be this afternoon, at four o'clock, from the house lately improved by Mr. Todd...where her friends and acquaintances are desired to attend."
Before her death, she had addressed several other poems to George Washington. She sent them to him, but he never responded again. Her last known poem was written for Washington. After Phillis' death, her estranged husband, John Peters, went to the woman who had provided temporary shelter for Phillis and demanded that she hand over the manuscripts of the proposed second volume. After Peters received Phillis' manuscripts, the second volume was never seen again.