Resource

Abolition and Revolution

This poem by Phillis Wheatley demonstrates how enslaved and free Black people saw the American Revolution as an opportunity to end the systematic oppression of Black people in the colonies.

Oval frontispiece portrait of African American Phillis Wheatley and her Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, illustrating the poetess with a book and inkwell at her side and a quill in her hand.
Phillis Wheatley, Front piece

Phillis Wheatley, Front piece from Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773). New-York Historical Society Library.

The 1778 handwritten letter from Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wooster including a poem commemorating the recently killed General Wooster.
Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wooster

“Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wooster,” July 15, 1778. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Document Text

Summary

Madam
I received your favor by Mr. Dennison inclosing a paper containing the character of the truly worthy General Wooster. It was with the most sensible regret that I heard of his fall in battle, but the pain of so afflicting a dispensation of Providence must be greatly alleviated to you and all his friends in the consideration that he fell a martyr in the Cause of Freedom –
I received your letter with the article about General Wooster’s death from Mr. Dennison. I was so sorry to hear he was killed in battle. The sadness you feel at this act of God must be lessened by the knowledge that he died fighting for freedom.
From this the muse rich consolation draws
He nobly perished in his Country’s cause
His Country’s cause that ever fired his mind
Where martial flames, and Christian virtues joined.
How shall my pen his warlike deeds proclaim
Or paint them fairer on the list of Fame —
Enough, great Chief — now wrapped in shades around
Thy grateful Country shall thy praise resound —
Though not with mortals’ empty praise elate
That vainest vapor to the immortal State
Inly serene the expiring hero lies
And thus (while heavenward roll his swimming eyes):
“Permit, great power while yet my fleeting breath
And Spirits wander to the verge of Death —
Permit me yet to point fair freedom’s charms
For her the Continent shines bright in arms
By thy high will, celestial prize she came —
For her we combat on the field of fame
Without her presence vice maintains full sway
And social love and virtue wing their way
O still propitious be thy guardian care
And lead Columbia through the toils of war.
With thine own hand conduct them and defend
And bring the dreadful contest to an end —
Forever grateful let them live to thee
And keep them ever Virtuous, brave, and free —
But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind —
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race;
Let virtue reign — And those accord our prayers
Be victory ours, and generous freedom theirs.”
The hero prayed — the wandering spirit fled
And sought the unknown regions of the dead —
Tis thine fair partner of his life, to find
His virtuous path and follow close behind —
A little moment steals him from thy sight
He waits thy coming to the realms of light
Freed from his labors in the ethereal skies
Where in succession endless pleasures rise! —
You will do me a great favor by returning to me by the first opportunity those books that remain unsold and remitting the money for those that are sold — I can easily dispose of them here for 12Lmo each – Please send me any books you haven’t sold and the money you’ve collected for those you did sell. I can sell them here for a good price.
I am greatly obliged to you for the care you show me, and your condescension in taking so much pains for my Interest — I am extremely sorry not to have been honored with a personal acquaintance with you — if the foregoing lines meet with your acceptance and approbation I shall think them highly honored. I really appreciate all the support you’ve given me. I’m sorry we’ve never met in person. If you like my poem, I will be honored.
I hope you will pardon the length of my letter, when the reason is apparent — fondness of the subject and — the highest respect for the deceased — I sincerely sympathize with you in the great loss you and your family sustain and am sincerely

Your friend and very humble servant
Phillis Wheatley.
Queenstreet
Boston July —
15th. — 1778

I hope you’ll forgive how long this letter is when you realize it is inspired by my respect for your husband. I send you and your family my sympathy.

“Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wooster,” July 15, 1778. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Background

Phillis Wheatley was born around the year 1753 in West Africa. When she was seven or eight years old, she was forced to endure the Middle Passage, and when she arrived in Boston, she was sold to John and Susanna Wheatley. They named her Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa.

Phillis was a brilliant child, and her owners encouraged her to learn to read and write. Phillis proved to be a very talented poet. John and Susanna were proud of her work, and they began publishing it in newspapers in 1767. These early works made her the first African woman published in the colonies. But even as Phillis’s fame grew, she was still enslaved. Her owners and readers loved her work, but they still viewed her as property.

By 1772, Phillis had enough poems to make a book, but she could not find an American publisher for it. So, the Wheatleys sent Phillis to London with their son to find a publisher, and in 1773, her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, made its debut. It was widely praised.

Publishing a book was not