Author Picture
8 May 1753 - 5 December 1784

A poet, born in Africa about 1753; died in Boston, Mass., 5 Dec., 1784. She was brought here from Africa in 1761, and her only recollection of her early life was that of her heathen mother worshiping the sun at its rising.

She was bought from the slave-market by John Wheatley, of Boston, and soon developed remarkable acquisitive faculties. She became a member of his family and was educated by his daughters. In sixteen months from her arrival she could read English fluently, soon learned to write, and also studied Latin. She visited England in 1774, where she was cordially received, and after her return to Boston she corresponded with the Countess of Huntingdon, the Earl of Dartmouth, Rev. George Whitefield, and others, and wrote many poems to her friends. She addressed some lines and a letter to Gen. Washington on 26 Oct., 1775, which were afterward published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, or American Monthly Museum, for April, 1776. In a reply, under date of 2 Feb., 1776, Gen. Washington writes: “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you inclosed; and, however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem had I not been apprehensive that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters. I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.”

A few days before the British evacuated Boston she visited the Revolutionary camp and was received with marked attention by Washington and his officers. Thomas Jefferson said that her verses were beneath criticism.

In 1775 the Wheatley family was broken up by death, and, after attempting and failing to support herself, she married in 1778 a colored man named Peters, who, according to different accounts, was a grocer, lawyer, or barber. This marriage proved unhappy, and Peters became reduced in circumstances. During the Revolution they resided in Wilmington, Del., and they afterward returned to Boston, where they lived in wretched poverty. Among the attentions that she received in London was a gift from the lord mayor of a copy of Paradise Lost, which was sold after her death, and is now in the library of Harvard.

Her publications are An Elegiac Poem on the Death of George Whitefield, Chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon (Boston, 1770); Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, to certify which an attestation was addressed to the public and signed by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, John Hancock, Rev. Samuel Mather, John Wheatley, Andrew Eliot, and others (London, 1773; 3d ed., Albany, 1793; republished as The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1801; 2d ed., Walpole, N. H., 1802; 3d ed., with a memoir, Boston, 1834); and Elegy Sacred to the Memory of Dr. Samuel Cooper (1784). The Letters of Phillis Wheatley were printed privately by Charles Deane from the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1864).

 

A Biography from
Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1889