Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) was born in Senegal, Affrica.  At around 8 years of age, Phillis was kidnapped by some of her own countrymen, who sold her into slavery.   She was eventually brought to Boston, Massachusetts when she was around 12 years of age. 

People in the Northeastern colonies, tended to “purchase” enslaved people, as well as contract with immigrants, to work as indentured servants as domestic helpers, farmers, and laborers in businesses.  These workers were housed and fed in exchange for their labor, usually, a seven-year period, then released as free men and women.

In 1761, John Wheatley purchased young Phillis to assist his wife, Susanna, with domestic duties.  Phillis adopted the Wheatley surname, and Susanna and her children taught Phillis to read and write in English.  In her early teens, Phillis’ studies included literature, ancient history, theology, Greek, and Latin.

Phillis showed an early aptitude for writing poetry.   By age 14, one of her poems had been published in the Newport Mercury, and she began writing a draft for her poem to students of Harvard University encouraging them to recognize the importance of setting good examples to future generations – excerpts follow: 

                                                                                       To the University of Cambridge, in New England

                                                                                             … It wasn’t long ago that I left my native Africa,
                                                                                        A land full of human error and the misery of slavery…
                                                                                     Make the most of your opportunities while you have them,
                                                                                             Students, and work hard in every hour – because
                                                                                            Your behavior, good or bad, will be reported to God.
                                                                                          Make sure that you reject the corrosive influence of sin,
                                                                                                            And never let your guard down… 

This poem, along with a collection of her other works entitled, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 when Phillis was in her early twenties, making her one of the first colonial women to be a published author. 

Along with other patriots and supporters of the colonial efforts to achieve independence from the British monarchy, in 1775 Phillis wrote several poems in honor of General Washington:

                                                                                           His Excellency, George Washington

                                                                                      Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
                                                                                 Enough thou know’st them in the fields of flight.
                                                                                    Thee, first in peace and honore – we demand
                                                                                       Thy grace and glory of thy martial hand.
                                                                                       Fam’d for thy valor, for thy virtues more,
                                                                                     Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

Phillis sent her poems to Washington at his Cambridge, Massachusetts’ headquarters and was invited to meet Washington in 1776.

Having been released from her domestic responsibilities, Wheatley married John Peters, another emancipated servant and they lived in Boston, Massachusetts.  They had three children, none of whom survived infancy.  Possibly due to a previous illness, Phillis Wheatley passed away at the age of 30 on December 5, 1784.