The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia has recently acquired an original April 1, 1774 Connecticut Journal newspaper reprinting a letter from recently manumitted poet Phillis Wheatley to Mohegan Indian poet and Presbyterian minister Reverend Samson Occom.
The letter foregrounds the contradiction between the ideals invoked at the country’s founding and the realities of slavery. Working in a storied tradition of resistance writing in the United States, Wheatley invokes the same lofty principles of freedom and equality that justified the revolution to argue for universal rights rather than just for a select 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 time she was 18 years old, she was already seeking to publish a collection of 28 poems in Boston and London, soon becoming the first African American author to publish a book of poetry.
Wheatley had exchanged letters with Occum beginning in 1765, when she was only 11 years old. Occum, who was 30 years her senior, was an itinerant 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 in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Occom surely would have been a beacon to the young Wheatley, who had embarked on an unusual education in the Bible, English literature, and Greek and Latin classics.
Wheatley’s poetry often celebrated profound love for the nascent country yet castigated it for its backwardness in perpetuating the institution of slavery. Thick with Biblical allusions, Wheatley’s writing often also urged the country to reckon with whether it was living up to Christian principles.
In the letter published by the Connecticut Journal, Wheatley casts shame on the enterprise of slavery by boldly comparing enslavement in America to pagan ancient Egypt: “perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian Slavery: I don’t 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.”
Wheatley wrote about her desire to convince revolutionary colonists of “the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and actions are so diametrically, opposite.”
The newspaper reprint will join a signed first edition copy 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 view at the Museum of the American Revolution.
“What was so powerful for us for this newspaper printing of this letter is it’s a correspondence between two people of color on the eve of the outbreak of the war, reflecting on the great contradiction that’s at the heart of the founding, which is a struggle for liberty, in an era in which chattel slavery is still practiced,” President of the Museum of the American Revolution Dr. R. Scott Stephenson told Hyperallergic. He called it “unusual” for a newspaper at the time to publish writing like this in its pages.
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