On the Revolutionary possibilities yet inescapable inequalities captured by a brief Cambridge conversation.
In 1775, young Bostonian, slave, and poetic genius Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem celebrating the appointment of George Washington to the role of General of the newly formed Continental Army. Never shy about sharing her unique voice and perspective with the wider world, Wheatley then sent that poem, “To His Excellency George Washington,” to the General, along with a letter extending her best wishes and defending her work as the natural result of the “sensations not easy to suppress” that Washington’s appointment had produced. Washington received the letter while at Valley Forge for the winter, wrote back to compliment her on her work, and extended an invitation for her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge. And in March 1776, that unique meeting took place, a half-hour conversation between the talented young slave and the general, future president and father of his country, and Virginia slaveowner.
It’s not clear to me that Washington knew Wheatley was a slave when he first read the poem and wrote his letter in response (although most sources that comment on the letter, including the biographical piece at the Mount Vernon website to which the last hyperlink above connects, suggest he did already know). But in any case he of course knew her status by the time she visited his headquarters, making the meeting a brief and purely symbolic but still striking exemplification of the kinds of Revolutionary possibilities expressed in different form by the Massachusetts slaves who used the Declaration of Independence to petition for their freedom. That is, this new Revolutionary America, as Wheatley herself wrote so eloquently in her “Earl of Dartmouth” poem, seemed to embody and envisage something more than just taxation with representation or an escape from King George’s grievances; it seemed to represent the possibility of freedom, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, of opportuities for identity and community that could go beyond any and all existing realities.
And yet. Even if we don’t go to the meta-level of Edmund Morgan’s magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), which convincingly argues for the thorough interdependence between those two concepts, the Wheatley and Washington meeting highlights the period’s inequalities just as much as its ideals. There are for example the hugely different trajectories of the two figure’s lives after this meeting: Wheatley was one of the few slaves lucky enough to escape that status (when her master died and freed her), but she lived in desperate poverty for her remaining few years before dying at the age of 31 in 1784; Washington became, well, George Washington. But even the meeting itself, this symbolic gesture of American community, can and must be complicated by the contexts around it: by Washington’s slaves back in Virginia; by the slavery (relatively benign though it was) to which Wheatley returned after the meeting; by, for that matter, the slaves who no doubt worked at or around the army’s Cambridge headquarters. Both Wheatley and Washington were very good at embracing and extolling the American ideals—which made them two talented Revoluntionaries, in their very distinct but complementary ways—but remembering them forces us to confront the limits as well as the possibilities of those ideals.
Next conversation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to these figures and this moment? Other Black History Month connections you’d share?
I'd suggest Zora Neale Hurston, not only for her most known work "Their Eyes Were Watching God" but for her extensive work with the WPA during the Great Depression and cultural/folklore fieldwork.ReplyDelete
Thanks Matt! Couldn't agree more, and Hurston's conversations with Franz Boas (which took place over many years, during her undergrad and grad studies at Barnard and Columbia) would make for a great focus as well.ReplyDelete
IMPORTANT PPS. In a FB thread about Wheatley's poem and Washington's response, scholar John L. Bell writes:ReplyDelete
"There's no question that Gen. Washington invited Wheatley to visit him. However, there's no evidence from 1776 that she accepted that invitation. She was both a celebrity and a curiosity, but no letters from Washington or his aides nor newspaper accounts mention such a meeting. When Wheatley made an attempt to publish a second book in the 1780s, she didn't mention having met Washington, and she was a savvy marketer. The first statement that they met appeared in J. B. Lossing's book on Revolutionary traditions in the mid-1850s with no source for the information, and Lossing stated that Wheatley spent the siege in Chelsea, Massachusetts, not (as period documents suggest) in Rhode Island. The best source on Wheatley's life now is Vincent Carretta's biography, not noted in the Mount Vernon entry's bibliography."