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David A. Alexander, Ph.D.
Copyright, 1984, 2004
Much of this information is taken from public records. Obviously, I do not have any copyright claim to that material. I am glad to make these edited versions available to my students and to the public.
David A. Alexander, Ph.D.--I Love to Teach!
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
Phillis Wheatley is generally recognized as the first significant black American poet. She was born some time around 1753, in Senegal, West Africa. At the age of eight she was captured by slave traders, brought to the American colonies, and sold to the Wheatley family of Boston, Massachusetts. The Wheatleys soon recognized her talents and gave her certain privileges unusual for a slave. They also allowed her to learn to read and write-this was a capital offense in some places. At the age of 14, she began to write poetry. In 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in England under the sponsorship of the Countess of Huntingdon. Wheatley's reputation then spread throughout Europe as well as America. Deaths in the Wheatley family left Phillis Wheatley alone. In April 1778, she married John Peters, a free black man, who failed in business and apparently also failed to support Phillis and her children. At the end of her life she was working as a hired servant. She died in poverty on December 5, 1784, in Boston, Mass.
In 1765, when Phillis Wheatley was about eleven years old, she wrote a letter to Reverend Samson Occum, a Mohegan Indian and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Wheatley's letter apparently led to a friendship with Occum, who was also a poet, and who later published a [Native American] hymnal. On March 11, 1774, Wheatley wrote Occum again, to comment on an indictment of slave-holding Christian ministers that he had written. Her letter was published in the The Connecticut Gazette.
Even though this was a short letter and Wheatley was a fairly young writer, she made several important moral and legal arguments regarding the institution of slavery. She appealed to the doctrine of natural rights, which had become the cornerstone of English political theory, as well as the English colonists' emergent cries for liberty and justice. Wheatley quickly decried the philosophical discrepancy in the colonists' position: “One thing is for sure-the cry for liberty, and the [lust] to exercise oppressive power over others-are diametrically opposed to each other.” She invoked a powerful dual argument-“the dispensation of civil and religious liberty are so inseparably [intertwined] that there is little or no enjoyment of one without the other.” Wheatley waxed poetic when she declared: “in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom-it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” In the end, Wheatley appealed to divine justice-that God will grant “deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honor” (also known as vengeance, upon conscienceless slave holders).
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
By Phillis Wheatley
The Connecticut Gazette
March 11, 1774
Reverend and honored Sir,
I have this day received your obliging kind epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in vindication of their natural rights. Those that [violate] them cannot be insensible that the divine light is chasing away the thick darkness which broods over the land of Africa and the chaos which has reigned so long is converting into beautiful order. This reveals more and more clearly the glorious dispensation of civil and religious liberty, which are so inseparably [intertwined] that there is little or no enjoyment of one without the other. Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less [intent on] their freedom from Egyptian slavery. I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom-it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance-and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same principle lives in us. God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honor upon all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward vile calamities [against] their fellow creatures. This I desire not for their hurt, but to convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct whose words and actions are so diametrically opposite. One thing is for sure-the cry for liberty, and the [lust] to exercise oppressive power over others-are diametrically opposed to each other. It definitely doesn't take a genius to figure this out.