George Washington’s connection to enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley illustrates “a telling example of his moral complexity and capacity for humanitarian understanding,” argues Adam Meehan, a doctoral candidate in Literature at The University of Arizona. Wheatley was brought to Boston from West Africa at only seven years of age. Uncommon to the practices of the time, Wheatley was formally educated, tutored by her owners’ daughter in subjects such as Greek, Latin and poetry. At just twelve years old, Wheatley began writing poetry and her works became well-known by the time she was eighteen.
In December of 1775, soon after his appointment to lead the Continental Army, Washington received a letter from Wheatley that included an ode written in his honor. The poem must have struck Washington as it prompted the only known letter that he wrote to a slave. In his letter, Washington extended an invitation for Wheatley to meet at his Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters.
Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington
The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington is a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. Periodically, encyclopedia entries will be highlighted on this blog.
Read the letters written between Phillis Wheatley and George Washington. What is so remarkable about these letters? Why did it take George Washington so long to respond to Phillis Wheatley?
- Phillis Wheatley to George Washington (October 26, 1775)
- George Washington to Phillis Wheatley (February 28, 1776)
Historians are divided over the question of whether Phillis Wheatley visited George Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Do you believe Phillis Wheatley ever took up his offer? What evidence is there to support your position?
The following document is the poem Phillis Wheatley enclosed in her letter to George Washington.