What’s in the Book?

The Chapters

Phillis Wheatley statue at the Boston Women's Memorial, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston.

Phillis Wheatley statue at the Boston Women’s Memorial, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston.

1. July 11, 1761. Phillis lands in Boston after horrific Middle Passage. In the history of American slavery, out of all the untold millions who suffered the horrors of the Middle Passage, only one name can be associated with a particular slave ship, whose arrival date and destination in America are known. That name is Phillis Wheatley.

2. The little girl, supposed to be about seven years old, was purchased by the wealthy Wheatley family and went to live with them in Boston. Phillis’ land of origin thought to be Gambia.

3. 1638: first slaves arrive in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Slavery became legal in 1641. New England slavery evolved differently from slavery in the south. Phillis Wheatley and Sally Hemings were contemporaries. Hemings was born in Virginia about twenty years after Phillis was born in Africa. Both grew up in the American colonies as the new nation was forming. Both women experienced slavery under conditions that were far from typical. A psychological study of slave behavior by Professor Blassingame helps us understand the emotional lives and character of enslaved people.

4. August 1765: Stamp Act riots roil Boston as crowds erupt around the block from the Wheatley house.

5. She displays amazing progress in reading and writing. Her first effort at poetry was a short elegy to Mrs. Thacher, 1765. On Messrs Hussey and Coffin in 1767 was her first published poem.

6. Early poems On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell When Sick—1765; On Virtue, 1766; To The University of Cambridge, 1767; her most anthologized and controversial poem On Being Brought From Africa to America.

7. 1766: Stamp Act repealed. Wheatley’s To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty and America written in 1768. Anger over Parliament’s Townshend Acts sparks more civil unrest in Boston. To quell mass disturbances in Boston, Britain sends troops to occupy the city. In response, Wheatley wrote On the Arrival of the ships of War and the Landing of the Troops, now lost.

8. Rev. George Whitefield inspires The Great Awakening. Whitefield stayed with the Wheatleys when he was in Boston and knew Phillis. Her elegy On the Death of The Rev. Mr. George Whitefield—1770 receives wide coverage. Phillis sends copy of poem to Countess of Huntingdon in London. Record of a 1771 conversation between Phillis and an anonymous New York Gentleman reveals an in depth discussion of her religious faith.

9. Phillis writes her poems, An Address to the Atheist and An Address to the Deist in 1767. Phillis was baptized at Old South Church, August 18, 1771. She loved the Bible. Her two longest poems, Goliath of Gath and Isaiah LXIII were profound meditations on the meaning of scripture. Phillis often described the depth of her spiritual feeling in her private letters. We have eight letters from Phillis to her friend and fellow slave Obour Tanner, including one recently discovered in 2005.

10. Phillis makes astonishing progress in reading and writing, benefitting from exposure to classics. She writes her poem On Friendship, 1768. Phillis discusses her reading habits in her 1771 Conversation with a New York Gentleman.

11. What was Phillis Wheatley really like? Reports by relatives and visitors describe her personal qualities. An accurate physical likeness was captured in a 1773 portrait. She wrote about her illness in her letters. We have a documented account of her flirtatious relationship with the Gentleman of the Navy in a series of three poems published in 1774.

12. 1770: tensions rise between Loyalists and Sons of Liberty. Tory Ebenezer Richardson shoots 11-year-old Christopher Seider sparking a massive protest funeral. Phillis wrote On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder’d By Richardson, calling him “the first martyr for the cause.” The Boston Massacre, on March 5, took place around the block from the Wheatley home. Her poem On the Affray in King Street was published in the Boston Evening Post.

13. Phillis Wheatley’s first poem was an elegy. When twelve year old Phillis wrote about the sad deaths in a neighbor’s family, it was an effort to lift the spirits of those who suffered the pain of losing a loved one. Throughout her career as a poet, Phillis kept producing well-crafted elegies. It was her genre of choice. One third of the poems in her 1773 book are elegies.

14. Phillis Wheatley gains popularity through the phenomenon of Salon Cultures, groups of women meeting to share their writings. She writes her finest poems: On Recollection, On Imagination, Thoughts On The Works Of Providence, An Hymn to Humanity, An Answer to the Rebus.

15. In 1771 and 1772, Phillis struggled with asthma. Mrs. Wheatley launched an effort to publish Phillis’ book of poems. Boston newspapers run her Book Proposal in April, May 1772 but it fails to get enough subscribers.

16. Phillis revises her poems and adds new poems. On May 25, 1772, Phillis was visited by Richard Cary, a follower of the Countess of Huntingdon, who reported to the Countess that Phillis was “virtuous, remarkable” and possessed “extraordinary genius.” Susanna Wheatley devised a shrewd public relations campaign to refine the poet’s image. She and Phillis persuaded eighteen of Boston’s most influential citizens to sign an attestation certifying the authenticity of Phillis’ poems.

17. Even though the “Attestation” declares that “She has been examined by some of the best judges,” there is no evidence that Phillis was subject to rigorous quizzing by a sitting panel. Such an examination would have been unnecessary because most of the men named in the “Attestation” knew Phillis personally and already had ample evidence of her abilities

18. August 27, 1772. Boston learns of the decision by Lord Mansfield that effectively abolished slavery in England. Phillis Wheatley almost certainly knew of the decision since it was covered in Boston newspapers and became “the talk of the town.”

19. Wheatley’s poem To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America remains one of her finest and most memorable. It contains her clearest, boldest condemnation of slavery so far. In all of Phillis Wheatley’s writings, “it is the only personal reference to her servitude.”

20. November 1772. Susanna Wheatley sent Robert Calef to London with Phillis’ manuscript to find a publisher. The Countess of Huntingdon was so pleased with the poems she agreed to have the book dedicated to her and requested that Phillis include a portrait.

21. April 1773. The Wheatleys decided that Phillis should go to London to promote her book. She produced and revised 23 new poems, considered some of her best work. Her poem To Maecenas a tribute to her patron, would serve as the book’s introductory poem. To Maecenas is a declaration of Wheatley’s determination to participate in Western culture as a legitimate member of the society in which she lived.

22. She wrote Farewel to America in tribute to Susanna Wheatley. It was her most direct expression of resistance to slavery. She finished her poem on May 7, 1773. The next day she sailed for London.

23. Phillis and Nathaniel Wheatley left Boston with Robert Calef on the London Packet on May 8, 1773. Her departure received considerable news coverage. While she was in London, Phillis was a guest of the wealthy John Thornton, follower of the Countess of Huntingdon.

24. Phillis arrived in London on June 17, 1773. Her London experience was one of the most detailed and documented periods of her life. She gave us a full report in her own words in her letter of October 18, 1773 to Col. David Wooster. Due to the recent Somerset decision, Phillis was legally free in London, as long as she stayed there.

25. In her letter to Col. Wooster she offers a “sketch of my voyage.” Phillis names some of the esteemed London Gentry she met, including Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies and one of the most famous Americans, Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps her most fateful contact during her time in London was Granville Sharp, the legal expert most responsible for the Somerset ruling of 1772.

26. Phillis was blown away by her London experience. Her hosts kept her constantly entertained, taking her to London’s hottest tourist spots. Her letter to Colonel Wooster offers a detailed itinerary of her London travels, including the tower of London, the Royal Menagerie at the London Zoo, the Armory, the Crown Jewels, Westminster Abbey, Saddler’s Wells and Cox’s Museum. Phillis raved to her friend Obour Tanner that the experience “fills me with astonishment.”

27. Some of the politically and socially prominent people Wheatley met in London gave her gifts. In her letter to Col. Wooster Phillis listed some of the books she received: Her stay in London ended abruptly on July 26, 1773 after six and half weeks.

28. While she was in London, Wheatley established relationships with leading abolitionists John Thornton, John Newton, Granville Sharp and a young William Wilberforce. Granville Sharp advised her on the complex legal issues around slavery and probably suggested that Phillis have her manumission put in writing with a copy going to Israel Mauduit, the London agent for the colonies.

29. Phillis Wheatley and the London Packet departed London on July 26, 1773 and remained at sea for seven weeks. While at sea, she wrote the poem Ocean which was lost to history for over two hundred years until the original handwritten manuscript turned up for auction in 1998.

30. Phillis Wheatley arrived back in Boston on September 13 and her return was widely reported in New England newspapers. Susanna Wheatley was seriously ill and not expected to live. Around that time, Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems went on sale in London to positive reviews. As a free woman, she would have to support herself by her book sales. Phillis displayed her acute business sense by recruiting her friends Obour Tanner and Col. Wooster with marketing as she eagerly anticipated the first shipment of her books.

31. In April 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act taxing British tea. In October, news broke that British tea was coming to America. Seven ships sailed from London carrying hundreds of chests of tea. November 28: the Dartmouth under Captain Hall was the first of the tea ships to arrive. Phillis Wheatley’s books had arrived with Captain Hall on the Dartmouth. The only thing preventing her from claiming her books was the turmoil over the tea.

32. When Phillis said that she expected her books to be delivered by Captain Hall “in 8 or 10 days,” she was probably repeating what she had been told. Nathaniel Wheatley probably worked out an arrangement with Dartmouth owner Francis Rotch to transport Phillis’ books to Boston. Phillis managed to take possession of her books just days before the Patriots dumped the remaining cargo into the harbor in what would become memorialized as the Boston Tea Party. On December 1, town leaders allowed the crew to unload all cargo except the tea. On December 16, men dressed as Indians boarded the three ships and dumped 342 chests of tea in Boston Harbor.

33. Phillis begins her marketing campaign as the first American advertisement appeared in the Boston Gazette on January 24, 1774. She enlisted friends to help her sell books, Obour Tanner and Rev. Samuel Hopkins in Newport, Rev. Samson Occom in New Haven, and Deborah Cushing in Philadelphia. She continued to nurse a dying Susanna Wheatley until she passed on March 3, 1774. In private letters to friends, Phillis revealed her deep sense of loss.

34. Ideas promoting liberty and natural rights spread as the colonists clamored for liberation from British tyranny. The passion for freedom collided with the reality of slavery. Boston’s black community was emboldened to assert their rights as free Englishmen. Phillis Wheatley was probably hopeful for the future of freedom and the imminent end of slavery in Massachusetts.

35. Phillis Wheatley wrote her strongest and most direct condemnation of slavery in a February 11, 1774 letter to Rev. Samson Occom that was published in newspapers throughout New England. In one of the most eloquent lines she ever wrote, Phillis Wheatley stands on the authority of Divine Law to speak for all humankind in a damning rebuke of the atrocity of slavery.

36. Parliament passed the “Intolerable Acts” closing Boston Harbor on June 1, 1774. Phillis received her last shipment of 300 books shortly before the blockade was to start. After the blockade went into effect, Boston faced food shortages and economic strangulation. Phillis remained in Boston, living with the Wheatleys, who considered her part of the family. In 1774, her first year as a free woman on American soil, Phillis Wheatley declined an offer to serve as a missionary in Africa, committed to pursue her ambition as a writer in America.

37. Early in 1775 British troops occupy Boston. On April 19 British launch incursion into Lexington and Concord to destroy suspected patriot weapons supply. The rebels ambush the British on the North Bridge in Concord. British sustain heavy losses as they retreat to stronghold in Boston. By morning on April 20 thousands of rebel fighters arrive from all over New England surrounding the British in Boston. The siege of Boston had begun.

38. After the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, and the start of the siege of Boston by rebel forces, thousands of residents fled in panic. Boston became a ghost town. The Wheatleys joined the exodus from Boston, abandoning their King Street mansion for Providence, Rhode Island. Phillis stayed in Providence with Rev. John and Mary Wheatley Lathrop. Patriot forces took control of the hills outside Boston. On June 17, 1775, the British began their assault, overrunning rebel positions on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. Despite taking the hill, British forces suffered devastating casualties.

39. In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, formed the Continental Army and named George Washington as commander in chief. When General Washington arrived in Cambridge in July 1775 to take command of the troops, the people of Boston could see an end to their nightmare. In October 1775, Phillis Wheatley wrote the most consequential poem of her career. Her poem offered an allegorical innovation that can be credited to Phillis Wheatley. Her reimagined depiction of “Columbia” became the first personification of America, enduring as a national icon until the mid-twentieth century.

40. George Washington, one of the biggest slave owners in Virginia, owned over 300 slaves. Washington was a hard taskmaster, expecting his slaves to work dawn to dusk every day and was known to encourage beatings. Later in his life he expressed antislavery sentiments in private but remained silent about slavery in public. After his death, his will made him the only Founding Father who freed all the slaves he owned.

41. Washington arrived in Cambridge in July 1775 He had to confront the issue of black soldiers then serving among his troops. Even though the New England militia accepted blacks as comrades at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Washington resisted recruiting black soldiers, barring them from service. Disappointed in the fighting ability of his army and enraged by Lord Dunmore’s proclamation to grant freedom to any slave who enlisted for the British, Washington reversed his ruling. Black soldiers were accepted into the Continental Army where they served with distinction and bravery throughout the war.

42. With British-occupied Boston surrounded, Washington grew frustrated by the standoff. Then, in early February, Washington received a surprising morale boost. He found the letter and poem that Phillis Wheatley had sent in October. On February 28, 1776, Washington wrote the most extraordinary letter of his career thanking her for her letter and poem and took the extraordinary step of inviting the poet to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge. It was, according to Washington biographer Joseph Ellis, “the only occasion in his correspondence when he directly addressed a slave.”

43. We can assume that when Phillis Wheatley received the letter she would want to move heaven and earth to journey to Cambridge and meet the General. The only account of a meeting between the black slave poet and the General was written seventy-four years later by journalist Benson Lossing in 1850. How did Lossing get his information about Phillis Wheatley’s visit to George Washington?

44. In 1848, journalist Benson Lossing began writing a series of narrative sketches featuring scenes made famous by the American Revolution. His research brought him to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he visited the mansion George Washington used as his military headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776. Lossing arrived at the house on October 6, 1848 and interviewed the owner, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Evidence shows that Longfellow had access to individuals who were in a position to know about the Wheatley visit and easily could have been Lossing’s source.

45. Before George Washington moved into the house in Cambridge, it had been home to an African-American family. When Washington arrived in July 1775, the black Vassall family, formerly the Vassall’s slaves, lived on the grounds. Several members of the family easily could have witnessed the visit of Phillis Wheatley. Their son, Darby Vassall, born in that house in 1769, probably told the story to Longfellow. Longfellow could have heard the Wheatley story from his friend G. W. Greene, grandson of Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s Generals.

46. Washington and his generals devised a daring plan to occupy Dorchester Heights. Beginning on March 2, 1776, the rebels bombed British occupied Boston. On the night of March 5, the rebels occupied and fortified Dorchester Heights, putting their cannons in range of the British navy in the harbor. General Howe decided to abandon the city. That was the situation in Cambridge at the time Benson Lossing says Phillis Wheatley arrived there, “a few days before the British evacuated Boston.” After the British evacuated Boston on March 17, many of the refugees returned, including Phillis Wheatley. She was probably there on July 18, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence, recently arrived from Philadelphia, was read to the crowd at the Town House around the block form the Wheatley home.

47. Phillis Wheatley was back in Boston by December 1776 when she heard the news that Washington’s second in command, General Charles Lee, had been captured by British troops. Phillis was inspired to write On the Capture of General Lee to show her support for the American cause. The poem was not published during her lifetime and remained hidden for decades. On the Capture of General Lee was published in 1863 after it was found among Bowdoin’s papers.

48. November 1777: Captain John Paul Jones, later to become one of our greatest war heroes (“I have not yet begun to fight!”) wrote a letter to Phillis Wheatley seeking her approval for his own original poems. Long Island slave Jupiter Hammon, the first black poet published in America (1760), published his poem An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly, Ethiopian Poetess, in Boston, in 1778. In 1782, the first deeply personal response to Phillis Wheatley was written by native African and former slave Ignatius Sancho.

49. The wealthy John Wheatley died on March 12, 1778 but his will made no mention of Phillis Wheatley. Three weeks later, Phillis Wheatley made a decision that would change her life when she agreed to marry John Peters. She moved into his Queen Street house in Boston. They were married in November.

50. The marriage of Phillis Wheatley and John Peters began well. Peters ran a grocery store in Boston and the family lived in one of Boston’s most prestigious neighborhoods. In 1778 she wrote On the Death of General Wooster after learning that her friend David Wooster had been killed on the battlefield against the British. It was her clearest statement yet of what she believed the War for Independence was all about. She wrote a personal prayer during her pregnancy, Sabbath, June 13, 1779. It was the only reference Phillis ever made to any of her children. Wheatley family member Margaretta Oddell claims that she gave birth to three babies but there are no records confirming they ever existed.

51. In the fall of 1779 she decided to collect her poems for a second book. She chose thirty two previously unpublished poems along with her tribute to Washington, already in print and dedicated the book to Benjamin Franklin, “The First American,” hoping to attract subscribers. Her new book would feature her best work yet, demonstrating the self-assured artistry of an accomplished poet. Of the thirty three poems listed in her 1779 Proposals, only seven survived. The remaining twenty six poems have been lost to history.

52. Between 1779 and her death in 1784 much about Phillis Wheatley’s life remains a mystery. In the early 1780s the Peters family moved out of Boston to Wilmington, a small country town north of the city. Life became more difficult as business reversals put John Peters in debt. Documents showed that John Peters spent time in Debtors Prison.

53. While she was in Wilmington, Phillis Wheatley probably heard of two 1781 court cases that abolished slavery in Massachusetts. By the 1790 census, Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to report the number slaves as zero. Phillis had returned to Boston with her young children by December 1783 when Reverend Dr. Samuel Cooper died. It was another devastating loss for Phillis. He was one of her strongest supporters, a valued counselor and an inspiration. Her elegy, An Elegy Sacred to the Memory of that Great Divine, The Reverend And Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, was featured in the eight page funeral program.

54. Boston commemorated the Treaty of Paris ending the war and finalizing independence with a day of celebration on February 27, 1784. Phillis Wheatley probably was there, joining in the festivities. After the celebration, Phillis Wheatley wrote her most triumphal ode to America. Liberty and Peace exuded buoyant optimism, reveling in a newly bright future flushed with the hope of freedom, proudly hailed the birth of the United States of America as a free and independent nation. Phillis Wheatley had been writing poetry to honor and inspire American patriots for sixteen years. Even if Phillis Wheatley had not written any other poems celebrating the American Revolution, Liberty and Peace would merit serious consideration as one of the great literary achievements of this young nation. Liberty and Peace was her last known poem.

55. 1784 was a banner year for the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Eight of her poems were published including two new poems. Not since her 1773 book did more of her works appear in print. One poem was inadvertently misattributed to Phillis Wheatley. An Elegy on Leaving was actually written by English poet Mary Whateley and published in her 1764 book. Records indicate that John Peters went to prison for debt in 1784. Struggling to find a way to support herself and her one remaining child, Phillis placed an advertisement for another proposal for a second volume of her writings in the September 1784 issue of the Boston Magazine. The advertisement featured a previously unpublished poem, To Mr. and Mrs. – On the Death of Their Infant Son, an elegy. It was her last effort to publish her second book of poems.

56. Three months after her book advertisement appeared with her last published poem, Phillis Wheatley was dead. Her body of work was now complete. She had been writing and publishing poems since 1767 in a career spanning seventeen years. She published at least forty six poems and a book that was well received at home and abroad. Despite her popularity and critical praise, no American publisher was willing to support her literary efforts. She died along with her one remaining child on Sunday, December 5, 1784. A brief obituary ran in the Boston newspapers. Wheatley scholar William Robinson believes that Phillis Wheatley was buried in an unmarked grave at the Old Granary Burial Grounds.

57. Shortly after her death, the heartfelt Elegy on the Death of a Late Celebrated Poetess by anonymous author identified only as “Horatio” appeared in The Boston Magazine . It was one of the finest tributes ever written for Phillis Wheatley. Two months after Phillis Wheatley died, her husband tried to reclaim her outstanding manuscripts and handwritten poems. The manuscript for her 1779 book was being held for Phillis by a member of the Wheatley family identified as Elizabeth Wallcutt’s daughter Lucy. John Peters reclaimed her manuscripts but soon they disappeared. Evidence suggests that Phillis Wheatley’s unpublished poems were still available in 1849 when a literary critic revealed that they were being held by the family of Founding Father Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia.

58. On October 26, 2003, the Boston Women’s Memorial was dedicated as Boston’s newest landmark depicting three notable Boston women—Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone and Phillis Wheatley. The Phillis Wheatley statue is modeled after her only known image, the portrait in her book. Inscribed on the pedestal are lines from her letter to the Reverend Samson Occom: “In every human breast God has implanted a Principle which we call love of freedom,” along with lines from On Imagination and her poem to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat.”