February 10, 2011

Washington and Wheatley: a parcel of papers

From his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, General George Washington wrote to his one-time aide-de-camp Joseph Reed on February 10, 1776:

I recollect nothing else worth giving you the trouble of, unless you can be amused by reading a letter and poem addressed to me by Miss Phillis Wheatley. In searching over a parcel of papers the other day, in order to destroy such as were useless, I brought it to light again. At first, with a view of doing justice to her poetical genius, I had a great mind to publish the poem; but not knowing whether it might not be considered rather as a mark of my own vanity than a compliment to her, I laid it aside till I came across it again in the manner just mentioned.

Phillis Wheatley, a former enslaved woman, had written the slave-owning Washington a letter and poem back in October 1775. Her published poems had caused a sensation, particularly in England, in part due to some skepticism that she was capable of writing so well. Her poem "To His Excellency General Washington" offered encouragement in his heaven-blessed endeavors:

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.

Washington took some time considering how to respond to Wheatley. He finally wrote her a letter at the end of February, thanking her for the poem and inviting her to visit him at headquarters. No evidence exists that she took him up on the offer. That same home which Washington used as his headquarters continued its connection to poetry; decades later, it became the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is now open to the public.

*Recommended reading: Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings (Penguin Classics, 2001)

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