George Washington and Phillis Wheatley

George Washington, as military leader of Colonial America, received numerous accolades from the adoring public during the Revolutionary War, but, according to historian Ron Chernow, nothing could match the tribute from a Boston woman named Phillis Wheatley, who sent him a flattering poem in October 1775. In polished poetry she wrote: “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.” The young poetess praised America as “the land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!” It was remarkable because Phyllis, a twenty-twoyear- old slave, had been seized in Africa as a child and sold to Bostonian tailor John Wheatley, “as a personal slave for his wife.” The Wheatley’s soon recognized the girl’s gifts, “schooled her in Scriptures and classics and allowed her to live with the family.” In 1773, she published a collection of verse, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Moral.” “The volume made her the most celebrated black person in America.” Washington, a large slave owner, replied cordially to Phillis, despite his recent reviling of Virginia’s Royal Governor “as diabolical for promising freedom to deflecting slaves to the British side.” Washington wrote to Phillis, thanking her for the elegant lines she sent him, “As undeserving I may be …of your great poetical talents.” Washington invited Phillis to visit with him, writing, “I shall be happy to see a person whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am with great respect your obed(ient) humble servant.” (Coming from a slave owner)

Washington received Phillis warmly at his headquarters, observing “that he had never met any black person on such terms of social equality.” Together with the powerful Revolutionary ideals, Washington began a transformation, “even though he still had a distance to travel on the slave issue.” Contrary to many of his peers (including Jefferson), upon his death, Washington provided for freedom and financial support for all his slaves, to take effect upon Martha’s death. No waiting for her death, Martha freed all of George’s slaves.

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