When George Washington was appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775 to take command of the fledgling American military forces, a young lady in Providence felt compelled to compose a patriotic poem and send it to him at his headquarters in Cambridge across the Charles River from Boston, then occupied by the British. The 43-line poem “His Excellency George Washington” was well received by George Washington not only because of its glowing tribute and encouragement, but because the poem acknowledged the imminent struggle for freedom and independence.
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.
The poem sagaciously and sanguinely predicted victory over the British:
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.
Shortly after receiving the poem George Washington wrote the young lady expressing his appreciation and extending an invitation to meet with her, and did so in March 1776. This is especially remarkable because that the shining light was Phillis Wheatley, an African slave who had been purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. She had come from West Africa (probably Senegal) when she was just 8 years old.
The Wheatleys encouraged their own daughter to tutor the slave girl in Greek, Latin and other subjects, and she mastered them so well that she was regarded as a prodigy. When she was only 12 years old she started to write poetry, and in 1773 she published a book of poetry which made her a world celebrity. In that year Wheatley made a literary tour to England and upon her return to Boston her master opted to manumit her.
Wheatley drew the favorable attention of America's founding fathers, including George Washington, who told her that "the style and manner [of your poetry] exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents." She is recognized as the first African-American woman to publish a book, and she is a cornerstone in African American literary heritage. Among other honors, the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C. is named for her.
The meeting between George Washington and Phillis Wheatley has been regarded as an early instance of racial tolerance and may have contributed to George Washington’s evolving attitude towards slavery. In 1776 he reversed an earlier decision and permitted the enlistment of black soldiers; eventually about 9,000 slaves joined the patriots. In his last will and testament Washington famously freed the slaves he owned, providing for the education and training of the young and lifetime support for those too old or unable to work. Indeed, Phillis Wheatley’s influence on George Washington may have been more momentous than she could have ever suspicioned.
Edgar A. Bates
George Washington Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution