In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was first published, slavery and the slave trade had been an integral part of Boston’s economy for over a century. The fact that Wheatley emerged from this world as the first published African-American writer in North America, and only the second woman poet, reveals the complex and often contradictory nature of Boston’s Puritan heritage. Deriving its economic prosperity and cultural capital from the trade, exploitation, and enslavement of African and Native American bodies, Boston was also home to the Old South Meeting House, birthplace of the American Revolution and sanctuary for early republican thinkers like Samuel Adams. While the Old South, in turn, supported the Boston Tea Party, many of its congregants, including the Wheatley family, owned, traded, and profited from slavery. These contradictions – the existence of enslavement and the persistence of racial inequity in a city that perpetuated the notion of human equality and republican government – characterized Phillis Wheatley’s literary career, as well as her relationship to the Congregationalist tradition in which she studied.
Phillis Wheatley was born on the Western coast of Africa around 1753, although her exact birth date and nativity are unknown. While recent scholars place her origins in present-day Gambia, her approximate age is based on the fact that, when she arrived in Boston aboard the slave ship Phillisin 1761, she was missing her front baby teeth, a sign that she was around seven years old when she was enslaved. When local merchant, John Wheatley, purchased the child, he named her Phillis after the ship in which she was kidnapped, and gave her to his wife, Susannah, as a personal servant. Within a few years of her arrival, however, Phillis Wheatley revealed her precocious intellect – as one biographer noted, she very early “endeavored to make letters upon the wall with a piece of chalk or charcoal,” and voraciously read biblical, Greek, and Latin texts, despite the fact that English was not her first language. The Wheatleys provided her with local Congregational tutors and forbade her from manual labor, and within just four years of her arrival, the future poet was immersed so deeply within Boston’s ministerial elite that she sent a letter to Mohegan minister and scholar, Samson Occom.
Although many historians long assumed that Susana Wheatley formed an attachment to Phillis and allowed her daughter to tutor the child, Phillis Wheatley most likely learned through the family’s personal and political connections to Boston’s Congregationalist ruling class at the Old South Meeting House. Founded in 1669 by dissenters from John Winthrop’s original First Church in Charlestown, the Third Church moved to the Old South Meeting House in 1729, where the building’s central location and spacious congregation became a center around which Boston’s political and cultural history evolved. In addition to the Wheatleys, members of the Old South Church included leading colonial American intellectuals whose personal libraries, and connections to Enlightenment thinkers across the Atlantic world, provided Phillis Wheatley access to the most influential Western texts of the time. Thomas Prince, for instance, was a minister at the Old South Church who lived near the Wheatleys; his library of over 1500 books was one of the largest in colonial America, and he left it to the Church when he died. Prince’s Harvard College classmate and friend, Joseph Sewell, was John Wheatley’s spiritual advisor and minister at the Old South, which gave Phillis access to one of the eighteenth century’s most comprehensive libraries. Another Harvard graduate and Congregational minister, Mather Byels, lived directly across the street from the Wheatley mansion, and his personal library, also one of the largest in colonial North America, descended from his famous uncle, the Puritan thinker Cotton Mather. Through John Wheatley’s personal connections with this intellectual elite, Phillis was tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Eizabethan verse. In December, 1767, still in her early teens, Phillis Wheatley used her access to such intellectual discourse to launch a public career when her first poem appeared in the Newport Mercury.
Despite her immersion in a predominantly elite, white, and male environment, Phillis Wheatley was part of New England’s vibrant African-American community. Although less than 2% of Massachusetts’ population was of African descent, by the 1760s, over 10% of Boston’s population was black. Unlike Wheatley, many of these people were free, and some even managed to forge kinship and familial ties to Native American communities outside of Boston proper. In Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, African Americans, both enslaved and free, created America’s first black-led community organization, the African Union Society. Although Wheatley was not a member, her closest friend, an enslaved woman named Obour Tanner, helped found the society, while sharing Wheatley’s devotion to the Congregational Church. At least seven letters between the two women survive in the historical record, indicating that Wheatley’s ties to African-American New England influenced her life and writing just as strongly as Boston’s white elite. Additionally, the only surviving portrait of Phillis Wheatley, commissioned by England’s Countess of Huntingdon, was based on an engraving by African painter, Scipio Moorhead. As a show of thanks, and in a thinly veiled encouragement of African achievement, Wheatley wrote a poem in Moorhead’s honor that appeared in her Poems on Various Subjects.
As one of the Revolution’s most popular poets, Wheatley wrote verse in honor of both King George III, who she praised for repealing the Stamp Act in 1768, and Evangelical Minister and Methodist Church founder, George Whitefield. Despite her prolific literary output, however, a Boston court challenged Phillis Wheatley’s authenticity in 1772. At the trial, Boston luminaries like John Hancock and Governor Thomas Hutchinson doubted whether an African woman could possibly produce such work. After the Court attested to her authenticity, Phillis Wheatley was emancipated and eventually traveled to London, where she met that city’s Lord Mayor, and from which she mailed a poem to George Washington in honor of his Continental Army. Although himself a slaveowner, who resisted enlistment of Black and Native Americans in the Colonial military, Washington met personally with Wheatley in October, 1775, while he was stationed in Cambridge. By the time the War ended, Wheatley, left impoverished after John Wheatley’s death, married a black man, John Peters, and tried, unsuccessfully, to earn a living through her writing. She died in 1784, just one year after the Massachusetts Court ruled that slavery and involuntary servitude were incompatible with the State’s Constitution.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.