Thursday, October 8, 2015

October 8, 2015: Before the Revolution: Wheatley to the Earl of Dartmouth

[October 7th marks the 250th anniversary of the convening of the Stamp Act Congress, one of the most significant moments in pre-Revolutionary American history. So this week I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy three such pre-Revolution moments, including the Congress itself on Wednesday. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the best scholars of this period, past and present!]
On the poetic letter that both anticipates the Declaration and helps us remember a vital figure.
No American creative writer (unless we define Thomas Paine’s pamphlets as creative writing, but despite Paine’s unquestionable rhetorical talents I would call those texts political documents first and foremost) played a larger role in the developing American Revolution than did African American slave and poet Phillis Wheatley. As I highlighted in this post, Wheatley’s poetic celebration of and subsequent meeting with General George Washington represent two interconnected, exemplary Revolutionary moments. And her 1773 poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” about a portion of which I wrote in this post on Wheatley’s seemingly contradictory poetic constructions of slavery and race, comprises perhaps the single clearest literary argument for the unfolding Revolution, anticipating quite strikingly the language of the Declaration of Independence.
That’s particularly the case with the poem’s most overt argument for independence, contained in one long sentence that takes up the final five lines of the ten-line second stanza: “No more, America, in mournful strain/Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,/No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,/Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.” Although the poem as a whole is addressed to a specific English audience member (on whom more in a moment), in this crucial section Wheatley shifts her address to all of “America,” personifying this developing political entity as “thou” and making the case for “the Goddess … Fair Freedom” (the similarly personified subject of the poem’s opening stanza) as the logical and necessary mechanism through which to push back on and overturn all of the negative elements included in this sentence (wrongs, grievance, iron chain, Tyranny, lawless hand, enslavement). Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” has been described as a direct predecessor to the Declaration, but to my mind no text fits that description better than Wheatley’s poem.
Wheatley’s addressee is quite different from the Declaration’s, however. While the latter text is aimed at King George III, not to convince him of anything so much as to use a critique of the king to make the case for independence, Wheatley’s poetic letter seeks precisely to persuade her singular audience member of the value and necessity of freedom. That audience member was William Legge, the 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1772 and 1775, and a man whom Wheatley had met in London and believed sympathetic to the cause (perhaps in part because of his opposition to the Stamp Act). Legge did not succumb to Wheatley’s poetic charms, and by 1776 was entirely opposed to the Revolution and an ardent supporter of the use of military force to quash it. Yet nevertheless, he—like Wheatley’s address to him—reminds us that the English community in this period was no more unified nor certain of its future than was the American. And in his contributions toward the founding of Eleazar Wheelock’s evangelical college for Native Americans, an institution that would become Dartmouth College, Legge also illustrates the complex, multi-layered relationship that so many in England had toward the colonies and their peoples.
Last pre-Revolutionary post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Pre-Revolution moments you’d highlight?

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