Phillis Wheatley is depicted in the frontispiece of the book, “Poems on Various Subjects,” published in 1773. A first edition of the book will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, planned for completion by late 2016.
Phillis Wheatley’s short life was marked by journeys – from freedom to slavery, from slavery to being the first African-American woman in the colonies to publish a book of poems, and from a renowned poet whose work was praised by George Washington and the Countess of Huntington to a tragic death from poverty and illness at the age of 31.
Phillis was born in 1753 in Senegambia in Africa and enslaved at age 7. She was taken to America on a ship named the Phillis and purchased in Boston by a wealthy merchant and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley. Phillis was named for the ship that carried her across the Atlantic and for the family that purchased her. John and Susanna were progressive for their time and had their oldest daughter begin Phillis’s education, teaching her to read and write. When they recognized her talent and intelligence, she was taken from domestic work and educated further. She could read Greek and Latin by age 11 and began writing poetry soon after. Phillis’s style was strongly influenced by the classic authors she read – Homer, Horace and Virgil, among others.
In 1773 Phillis took a journey to England with Nathaniel Wheatley, the son of John and Susanna. She was sent there for her health, and also because it was thought she might have a better chance of finding a publisher for her poetry in England than in Boston. In England she met with several socially prominent people, including Selina Hastings, Lady Huntingdon, a religious leader to whom Phillis dedicated her book, Poems on Various Subjects, published in England that year.
Back in Boston, Phillis’s fame grew, and in 1775 she wrote a letter and poem to George Washington. In her letter she wrote, in part, “Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in.” The last stanza of her poem reads,
“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!”
Washington invited Phillis to meet with him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1776. Later that year Thomas Paine published the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Phillis was still enslaved to the Wheatleys at this time. When John Wheatley died in 1778, he freed Phillis in his will. A few months later Phillis married John Peters, a free black grocer. They had two sons together but lived in poverty. Phillis could not find a publisher for another book, possibly because the war had become the nation’s focus. One son died, and her husband was imprisoned for debt. Now ill and poor, and fully exposed to the racism of the time, Phillis was able to find work only as a scullery maid in a boarding house, which finished the destruction of her health. She and her infant son died of illness there in 1784, just 31 years after her journeys had begun in Senegambia.