the American Revolution Museum in Philadelphia recently acquired an original from April 1, 1774 Connecticut Journal newspaper reprinting a letter from the recently freed poet Phillis Wheatley to the Mohegan Indian poet and Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Samson Occom.
The letter highlights the contradiction between the ideals invoked at the founding of the country and the realities of slavery. Working within a historical tradition of resistance writing in the United States, Wheatley invokes the same lofty principles of liberty and equality that justified the revolution to defend universal rights rather than the privileged few.
Born in West Africa, Wheatley was enslaved as a child and transported to Boston, where she served the family of merchant and tailor John Wheatley. She was taught to read and write by members of the Wheatley family, extraordinarily rare for an enslaved woman at the time. By the age of 18, she was already seeking to publish a collection of 28 poems in Boston and London, quickly becoming the first African-American author to publish a book of poetry.
Wheatley had exchanged letters with Occum beginning in 1765, when she was just 11 years old. Occum, who was 30 years her senior, has been a traveling preacher who first converted to Christianity during the Great Awakening and became the first Native American to write an autobiography. Able to read and speak Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Occom would surely have been a beacon to young Wheatley, who had embedded on an unusual education in the Bible, English literature, and the Greek and Latin classics.
Wheatley’s poetry often celebrated the deep love for the fledgling country, but castigated it for its delay in perpetuating the institution of slavery. Filled with biblical allusions, Wheatley’s writings often urged the country to question whether it was upholding Christian principles.
In the letter published by the Connecticut Journal, Wheatley puts the slavery business to shame by boldly comparing slavery in America to pagan ancient Egypt: No Way, For In Every Human Breast God Has Implanted a Principle, Which We Call Love of Liberty ; he is impatient with Oppression, and is out of breath with Deliverance; and with the permission of our modern Egyptians, I will affirm that the same Principle lives in us.
Wheatley wrote of his desire to convince the revolutionary settlers of “the strange absurdity of their conduct whose words and deeds are so diametrically opposed”.
The reprint of the journal will join a signed copy of the first edition of Wheatley’s 1773 collection Poems on various subjects, religious and moral – the first book of poetry by an African-American woman – which is currently also on display at the Museum of the American Revolution.
“What was so powerful to us about the printing of this letter in this newspaper is that it is a correspondence between two people of color on the eve of the outbreak of war, reflecting on the great contradiction that is at the heart of the foundation, which is a struggle for freedom, at a time when chattel slavery is still practiced,” Museum of the American Revolution President Dr. R. Scott Stephenson told Hyperallergic He called it “unusual” for a newspaper of the time to publish writings like this in its pages.