October 26, 2010

Wheatley: I have taken the freedom

From his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, George Washington received a letter from a 20-something named Phillis Wheatley, dated October 26, 1775. "Sir, she wrote, "I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem... Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress." Here is the poem, "To His Excellency General Washington":

...Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

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.

He did not respond for several months. Wheatley was a published poet but also a former slave. Washington, a Virginian plantation owner, must have hesitated at least in part because of a question of decorum. How does a slave-owner address a freed slave? Wheatley made the letter even more loaded by using the term, "I have taken the freedom."

But, Washington did, in fact, respond (eventually). "If you should ever come to Cambridge," he wrote, "...I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses." Though there is no evidence that "Miss Phillis" (as she was addressed by Washington) ever took him up on his offer, it is certainly impressive that the offer was made at all.


  1. I have known of Phyllis Wheatley for many years, but have never read any of her work. This piece is pretty poweful, considering that the American Revolution was hardly begun at this point (October 1775). Washington has been in Cambridge for only a couple of months; he has sent Arnold into the Maine wilderness to march on Quebec; and he is trying to turn the rough rabble of militia, minutemen, riflemen, and other ragtag wanna-be soldiers into a disciplined army that will stand up to the King's forces. This last task didn't really get done until von Steuben was recruited to drill Washington's army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778.

    Washington's relationship with his slaves was good - I believe he valued the relationship he had with his personal valet, William Lee. He did not like slavery, but had been born into a culture which prospered from it. He was very firm about retaining the family unit among his own slaves, refusing to sell any slave away from his or her family. It must have been a difficult conflict for slave owners who abhorred the system, yet were economically dependent upon it.

  2. Thanks for the impromptu history lesson! You missed the part about how Washington inherited an integrated army, then immediately cut loose all of the black people. He called them back only after he heard the British military was recruiting them.

    You make very good points, Brassworks, and I reiterate them often when discussing Washington and slavery. He is, after all, a product of his own times, and a Virginian at that. There's no need to clean him up: he was a slaveowner, and fought for freedom at the same time that he held people in bondage. That's that. Back on topic: it is speculated that his reply to Phillis Wheatley took so long because he really struggled.

  3. There's a play called "Reunion" which is about a post-Civil War theatrical troupe performing a Civil War story. In it, a black man complains to his wife that he is not allowed to enlist in the Union army (which was not allowed until 1863). Indignant, he says, "The black man was good enough to fight for George Washington, but he ain't good enough to fight for George MacClellan [controversial 1862 commander of Union armies]?"


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