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Phillis Wheatley. America’s First African American Poet. Phillis Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa (probably Senegal) about 1753 or 1754.

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Phillis wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

America’s First African American Poet

Phillis wheatley3
Phillis Wheatley

  • Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa (probably Senegal) about 1753 or 1754.

  • When she was about eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston where she landed July 11, 1761.

  • There John Wheatley bought her for his wife, Susanna, as a personal servant.

  • As was the custom of the time, she was given the Wheatley family's surname.

  • For a first name, she was given the name of the ship that had brought her to Boston, Phillis.

  • The Wheatley family taught Phillis English, Christianity, Latin, ancient history, mythology and classical literature.

  • The Wheatleys, clearly a family of culture and education, allowed Phillis time to study and write.

  • Her situation allowed her time to learn and to write poetry. Phillis Wheatley had fewer restrictions than most slaves experienced -- but she was still a slave.

  • On December 21, 1767, the Newport Mercury published the 14 year old’s first poem, a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea, and of their steady faith in God.

  • Her elegy for the evangelist George Whitefield in 1770, brought more attention to her including visits by a number of Boston's notables, including political figures and poets.

  • She published more poems each year and a collection of her poems was published in London on September 1, 1773 when she was 19.

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Phillis Wheatley

The introduction to this volume of poetry by Phillis Wheatley is unusual: as a preface is an "attestation" by seventeen men of Boston (including the Governor of Massachusetts) that she had, indeed, written the poems herself:

WE whose Names are underwritten, 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.

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Phillis Wheatley

  • Phillis dedicated the book to the Countess of Huntingdon in England.

  • The collection of poems followed a trip that she took to England. She was sent to England for her health when the Wheatley's son, Nathaniel, was traveling to England on business.

  • She caused quite a sensation in Europe.

  • She had to return unexpectedly to America when they received word that Mrs. Wheatley was ill.

  • Mrs. Wheatley died the next spring.

  • On October 26, 1775, well before American Independence was declared in 1776, Phillis Wheatley sent a poem she had written to George Washington, lauding his appointment as commander of the Continental Army.

  • The central theme of this poem is “freedom’s cause,” the colonies’ struggle for freedom from England, which General Washington was assigned to lead.

  • Like many other residents of Boston, Wheatley’s feelings for the British regime turned from obedient admiration to mild admonition, and finally, to support of the revolution.

  • The poem anticipates the future for the new republic, and praises the efforts of its military leader and first president.

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Phillis Wheatley

To His Excellency General Washington

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relatesHow 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 thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,Such, as so many, moves the warriors's train.

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 lightInvolved in sorrows and the veil of night!

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 disgraceThe 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.

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 honours, -we demandThe grace and glory of thy martial band.

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,Olive and laurel binds her golden hair;Wherever shines the native of the skies,Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.

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Phillis Wheatley

Cambridge, February 28, 1776.

Mrs. Phillis: 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

In honour 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.

  • If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

    • I am, with great Respect, etc.

Washington, as busy as he was with organizing the colonies to take on the British, sent a letter back to Wheatley thanking her for the poem and inviting her to visit him if she ever came to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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 panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.

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Phillis Wheatley

  • When her master died in March of 1778, she was freed. Mary Wheatley, the daughter of the family, died that same year.

  • A month after the death of John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man of Boston.

  • Having children, trying to support the family, losing two children to death, and dealing with the war's effects and a shaky marriage, Phillis Wheatley was able to publish few poems during this period.

  • She addressed several other poems to George Washington. She sent them to him, but he never responded again.

  • The two did meet in March of 1776, seven years before the war was finished and true independence was declared.

  • In April of 1776, the author and political philosopher Thomas Paine published Wheatley’s poem to Washington in The Pennsylvania Magazine.

  • Washington was roundly lauded in poems and prose after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783, but Wheatley’s poem was written when the war’s outcome was very uncertain, the British being the obvious favorites to win.

  • It can be said that Wheatley was the groundbreaker in beginning the Washington legend as the “father of our country.”

  • Eventually John deserted Phillis. In poverty and among strangers, on December 5, 1784, she died, and her third child died hours after she did. 

  • Her last known poem was written for George Washington.

  • When in 1773, Phillis Wheatley published her collection of poems entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, it was the first book of poetry published by an African American, and only the second book by a woman in what would become the United States.

  • Benjamin Franklin offered his services to her, as did many other high-ranking men in America.

  • Considering that Phillis Wheatley was bought at a slave auction in 1761, not able to read or write and incapable of speaking English, her work is truly astounding.


Photo of Phillis’ book of poetry:

Scipio Moorhead. “Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston.” Frontispiece engraving to Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: Printed for A. Bell, 1773; PS866.W5 1773 RBSC). Rare Book and Special Collections Division. LC-USZC4-5316 (color); LC-USZ62-40054 (black and white).

Library of Congress: Rare Book and Special Collections Division


Washington’s letter to Wheatley:

George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, February 28, 1776

The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress 1741-1799

Credit Line: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.


Photograph of George Washington:

The Prayer at Valley Forge / painted by H. Brueckner ; engd. by John C. McRae, New York : John C. McRae, c1866.

SUMMARYGeorge Washington praying under trees; military camp in background.

REPOSITORYLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Credit Line: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-4036 DLC


Phillis’ signature:

A letter from Phillis Wheatley to Dear Obour, Dated Boston, March 21, 1774.

Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 37, Folder 26b.

DIGITAL IDrbpe 0370260b