Black History Month honors Black Americans and their contributions every February. Presidents’ Day is the official observance of George Washington‘s birthday on the third Monday of February. One story combines them.
In February 1776, Gen. George Washington read a “letter and poem addressed to me by Mrs. or Miss Phillis Wheatley” at his camp in Cambridge, Mass. Despite coming to Boston as a child and being sold into slavery in 1761, by this time Wheatley had become the first published African American. A wealthy British patron in England had published her poetry in 1773 in a book called “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
How did Wheatley become an educated, gifted writer? The Wheatley family had intended to train her as a domestic servant but when she took an interest in learning to write and read, they made a counter-cultural decision and educated her in classic literature and the Bible. She reminded them of one of their daughters, who’d died as a child.
Wheatley began writing poems, such as lyrical obituaries for people in Boston, as a young teen. Though she wasn’t freed from slavery until she reached adulthood, her writings reflected her free agency as a free thinker who transformed politically like many others around her. At first she was a loyalist who wrote a poem to King George III.
“May George, beloved by all the nations round, Live with heav’ns choicest constant blessings crown’d!” She wrote. “Great God, direct, and guard him from on high, and from his head let ev’ry evil fly! And may each climb with equal gladness see a monarch’s smile can set his subjects free.”
Two years later she was grieved when the king’s redcoats killed five colonists down the street from her home. Her poem memorializing the victims appeared in the newspaper. This was the beginning of her transformation. After the Revolutionary War started in 1775, Wheatley’s allegiance and politics had fully switched to the patriot side, as her poem to Washington reveals. Overflowing with a belief in freedom and liberty, she wrote a poem Washington, the new commander in chief of the Continental Army.
Wheatley depicted America as a female goddess named Columbia, “Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light, Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write. While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms, she flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.”
Expressing her hope for personal freedom — which she received — and for America’s freedom, she wrote, “The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!”
She embodied the hopes of her countrymen and countrywomen. “Shall I to Washington their praise recite? Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight . . . Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more, Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!”
The poem concluded with Columbia leading Washington and the army. “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.”
Then she made a counter-cultural decision and mailed the poem to him. How did Washington, a slave owner, respond?
“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents,” he wrote Wheatley on Feb. 28, 1776.
While he was afraid to directly ask a newspaper to publish the poem because it would look like he was trying to promote himself, he saw the value of giving “the world this new instance of your genius.”
He asked a secretary to send the poem to the newspapers. From Philadelphia to Virginia, newspapers published her poem and noted its presentation to Washington.
Though there’s no evidence that Wheatley met Washington, he invited her to meet him.
“If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations,” Washington wrote, ending his letter to Wheatley the same way he did anyone else. “I am, with great respect, your obedient humble servant.” Shortly after this, Washington drove the British from Boston and moved on to New York.
The result of this poem and exchange was two-fold. Wheatley’s poem showed her political transformation. It also showed Americans that Washington accepted Wheatley, a Black woman, and appreciated her talents.
Her letter and poem also influenced Washington, challenging his views on slavery. Wheatley’s education and skills proved the capabilities of Black Americans. Through the Revolutionary War, he also met men who opposed slavery, such as the Marquis d Lafayette. Washington’s views on slavery incrementally changed over his lifetime, leading him to make a counter-cultural decision near the end of his life to free his slaves and lament slavery as a subject of regret.
Wheatley also influenced the overarching story of abolition. After Wheatley’s death, abolitionists republished her poetry to raise money and build awareness for the cause of abolishing slavery. An advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy in July 1791, noted that the sale of Wheatley’s poems would add “a weight in the scale of human rights.”
The letter exchange between Washington and Wheatley is a fitting remembrance for both Black History Month and Presidents’ Day.