George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 23 of 57)
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diet effected such a radical change in the child for the better, that
Mrs. Wheatley changed her plans, and began to give her private
instruction. Eager for learning, apt in acquiring, though only eight
years old, she greatly surprised and pleased her mistress. Placed
under the instruction of Mrs. Wheatley's daughter, Phillis learned the
English language sufficiently well as to be able to read the most
difficult portions of the Bible with ease and accuracy. This she
accomplished in less than a year and a half. She readily mastered the
art of writing; and within four years from the time she landed in the
slave-market in Boston, she was able to carry on an extensive
correspondence on a variety of topics.

Her ripening intellectual faculties attracted the attention of the
refined and educated people of Boston, many of whom sought her society
at the home of the Wheatleys. It should be remembered, that this
period did not witness general culture among the masses of white
people, and certainly no facilities for the education of Negroes. And
yet some cultivated white persons gave Phillis encouragement, loaned
her books, and called her out on matters of a literary character.
Having acquired the principles of an English education, she turned her
attention to the study of the Latin language,[346] and was able to do
well in it. Encouraged by her success, she translated one of Ovid's
tales. The translation was considered so admirable that it was
published in Boston by some of her friends. On reaching England it was
republished, and called forth the praise of many of the reviews.

Her manners were modest and refined. Her nature was sensitive
and affectionate. She early gave signs of a deep spiritual
experience,[347] which gave tone and character to all her efforts in
composition and poetry. There was a charming vein of gratitude in all
her private conversations and public utterances, which her owners did
not fail to recognize and appreciate. Her only distinct recollection
of her native home was, that every morning early _her mother poured
out water before the rising sun_. Her growing intelligence and keen
appreciation of the blessings of civilization overreached mere animal
grief at the separation from her mother. And as she knew more of the
word of God, she became more deeply interested in the condition of her

At the age of twenty her master emancipated her. Naturally delicate,
the severe climate of New England, and her constant application to
study, began to show on her health. Her friend and mother, for such
she proved herself to be, Mrs. Wheatley, solicitous about her health,
called in eminent medical counsel, who prescribed a sea-voyage. A son
of Mrs. Wheatley was about to visit England on mercantile business,
and therefore took Phillis with him. For the previous six years she
had cultivated her taste for poetry; and, at this time, her reputation
was quite well established. She had corresponded with persons in
England in social circles, and was not a stranger to the English. She
was heartily welcomed by the leaders of the society of the British
metropolis, and treated with great consideration. Under all the trying
circumstances of high social life, among the nobility and rarest
literary genius of London, this redeemed child of the desert, coupled
to a beautiful modesty the extraordinary powers of an incomparable
conversationalist. She carried London by storm. Thoughtful people
praised her; titled people dined her; and the press extolled the name
of Phillis Wheatley, the African poetess.

Prevailed upon by admiring friends, in 1773[348] she gave her poems to
the world. They were published in London in a small octavo volume of
about one hundred and twenty pages, comprising thirty-nine pieces. It
was dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon, with a picture of the
poetess, and a letter of recommendation signed by the governor and
lieutenant-governor, with many other "respectable citizens of Boston."

* * * * *


As it has been repeatedly suggested to the publisher, by
persons who have seen the manuscript, that numbers would be
ready to suspect they were not really the writings of
PHILLIS, he has procured the following attestation,
from the most respectable characters in _Boston_, that none
might have the least ground for disputing their _Original_.

We, whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that
the Poems specified in the following page were (as we verily
believe) written by PHILLIS, a young Negro Girl,
who was, but a few Years since, brought, an uncultivated
Barbarian, from _Africa_, and has ever since been, and now
is, under the disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a family
in this town. She has been examined by some of the best
judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

_His Excellency_, THOMAS HUTCHINSON, _Governor_.
_The Hon_. ANDREW OLIVER, _Lieutenant Governor_.

_Hon_. Thomas Hubbard, | _Rev_. Charles Chauncy,
_Hon_. John Erving, | _Rev_. Mather Byles,
_Hon_. James Pitts, | _Rev_. Ed Pemberton,
_Hon_. Harrison Gray, | _Rev_. Andrew Elliot,
_Hon_. James Bowdoin, | _Rev_. Samuel Cooper,
John Hancock, _Esq_. | _Rev_. Samuel Mather,
Joseph Green, _Esq_. | _Rev_. John Moorhead,
Richard Cary, _Esq_. | _Mr_. John Wheatley, her master.

* * * * *

The volume has passed through several English and American editions,
and is to be found in all first-class libraries in the country. Mrs.
Wheatley sickened, and grieved daily after Phillis. A picture of her
little ward, sent from England, adorned her bedroom; and she pointed
it out to visiting friends with all the sincere pride of a mother. On
one occasion she exclaimed to a friend, "See! Look at my Phillis! Does
she not seem as though she would speak to me?" Getting no better, she
sent a loving request to Phillis to come to her at as early a moment
as possible. With a deep sense of gratitude to Mrs. Wheatley for
countless blessings bestowed upon her, Phillis hastened to return to
Boston. She found her friend and benefactor just living, and shortly
had the mournful satisfaction of closing her sightless eyes. The
husband and daughter followed the wife and mother quickly to the
grave. Young Mr. Wheatley married, and settled in England. Phillis was
alone in the world.

"She soon after received an offer of marriage from a
respectable colored man, of Boston. The name of this
individual was _John_ Peters.[349] He kept a grocery in
Court Street, and was a man of handsome person. He wore a
wig, carried a cane, and quite acted out '_the gentleman_.'
In an evil hour, he was accepted; and, though he was a man
of talents and information, - writing with fluency and
propriety, and, at one period, reading law, - he proved
utterly unworthy of the distinguished woman who honored him
by her alliance."

Her married life was brief. She was the mother of one child, that died
early. Ignorant of the duties of domestic life, courted and flattered
by the cultivated, Peters's jealousy was at length turned into harsh
treatment. Tenderly raised, and of a delicate constitution,
Phillis soon went into decline, and died Dec. 5, 1784, in the
thirty-first[350] year of her life, greatly beloved and sincerely
mourned by all whose good fortune it had been to know of her high
mental endowments and blameless Christian life.

Her influence upon the rapidly growing anti-slavery sentiment of
Massachusetts was considerable. The friends of humanity took pleasure
in pointing to her marvellous achievements, as an evidence of what the
Negro could do under favorable circumstances. From a state of nudity
in a slave-market, a stranger to the English language, this young
African girl had won her way over the rough path of learning; had
conquered the spirit of caste in the best society of conservative old
Boston; had brought two continents to her feet in admiration and
amazement at the rare poetical accomplishments of a child of

She addressed a poem to Gen. Washington that pleased the old warrior
very much. We have never seen it, though we have searched diligently.
Mr. Sparks says of it, -

"I have not been able to find, among Washington's papers the
letter and poem addressed to him. They have doubtless been
lost. From the circumstance of her invoking the muse in his
praise, and from the tenor of some of her printed pieces,
particularly one addressed to King George seven years
before, in which she compliments him on the repeal of the
Stamp Act, it may be inferred, that she was a Whig in
politics after the American way of thinking; and it might be
curious to see in what manner she would eulogize liberty and
the rights of man, while herself, nominally at least, in

Gen. Washington, in a letter to Joseph Reed, bearing date of the 10th
of February, 1776, from Cambridge, refers to the letter and poem as
follows: -

"I recollect nothing else worth giving you the trouble of,
unless you can be amused by reading a letter and poem
addressed to me by Miss Phillis Wheatley. In searching over
a parcel of papers the other day, in order to destroy such
as were useless, I brought it to light again. At first, with
a view of doing justice to her poetical genius, I had a
great mind to publish the poem; but not knowing whether it
might not be considered rather as a mark of my own vanity,
than as a compliment to her, I laid it aside,[353] till I
came across it again in the manner just mentioned."[354]

This gives the world an "inside" view of the brave old general's
opinion of the poem and poetess, but the "outside" view, as expressed
to Phil's, is worthy of reproduction at this point.

CAMBRIDGE, 28 February, 1776.

MISS PHILLIS, - Your favor of the 26th of October did not
reach my hands, till the middle of December. Time enough,
you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But
a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing
to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will
apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming
but not real neglect. I thank you most sincerely for your
polite notice of me, in the elegant lines you enclosed; 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 head-quarters,
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

I am, with great respect, your obedient, humble servant,


This letter is a handsome compliment to the poetess, and does honor to
both the head and heart of the general. His modesty, so
characteristic, has deprived history of its dues. But it is consoling
to know that the sentiments of the poem found a response in the
patriotic heart of the _first soldier of the Revolution, and the
Father of his Country_!

While Phillis Wheatley stands out as one of the most distinguished
characters of this period, and who, as a Colored person, had no equal,
yet she was not the only individual of her race of intellect and
character. A Negro boy from Africa was purchased by a Mr. Slocum, who
resided near New Bedford, Mass. After he acquired the language, he
turned his thoughts to freedom, and in a few years, by working beyond
the hours he devoted to his master, was enabled to buy himself from
his master. He married an Indian woman named Ruth Moses, and settled
at Cutterhunker, in the Elizabeth Islands, near New Bedford. In a few
years, through industry and frugality, John Cuffe - the name he took as
a freeman - was enabled to purchase a good farm of one hundred (100)
acres. Every year recorded new achievements, until John Cuffe had a
wide reputation for wealth, honesty, and intelligence. He applied
himself to books, and secured, as the ripe fruit of his studious
habits, a fair business education. Both himself and wife were
Christian believers; and to lives of industry and increasing secular
knowledge, they added that higher knowledge which makes alive to
"everlasting life." Ten children were born unto them, - four boys and
six girls. One of the boys, Paul Cuffe, became one of the most
distinguished men of color Massachusetts has produced. The reader will
be introduced to him in the proper place in the history. John Cuffe
died in 1745, leaving behind, in addition to considerable property, a
good name, which is of great price.[356]

Richard Dalton, Esq., of Boston, owned a Negro boy whom he taught to
read any Greek writer without hesitancy. Mr. Dalton was afflicted with
weak eyes; and his fondness for the classics would not allow him to
forego the pleasure of them, and hence his Negro boy C├Žsar was
instructed in the Greek.[357] "The Boston Chronicle" of Sept. 21,
1769, contains the following advertisement: "To be sold, a Likely
Little negroe boy, who _can speak the French language_, and very fit
for a Valet."

With increasing evidence of the Negro's capacity for mental
improvement, and fitness for the duties and blessings of a freeman,
and the growing insolence and rigorous policy of the mother country,
came a wonderful change in the colony. The Negroes were emboldened to
ask for and claim rights as British subjects, and the more humane
element among the whites saw in a relaxation of the severe treatment
of the blacks security and immunity in war. But anti-slavery sentiment
in Massachusetts was not born of a genuine desire to put down a wicked
and cruel traffic in human beings. Two things operated in favor of
humane treatment of the slaves, - an impending war, and the decision of
Lord Mansfield in the Sommersett case. The English government was
yearly increasing the burdens of the colonists. The country was young,
its resources little known. The people were largely engaged in
agricultural pursuits. There were no tariff laws encouraging or
protecting the labor or skill of the people. Civil war seemed
inevitable. Thoughtful men began to consider the question as to which
party the Negroes of the colony would contribute their strength. It
was no idle question to determine whether the Negroes were Tories or
Whigs. As early as 1750 the questions as to the legality of holding
Negroes in slavery in British colonies began to be discussed in
England and New England. "What, precisely, the English law might be on
the subject of slavery, still remained a subject of doubt."[358] Lord
Holt held that slavery was a condition unknown to English law, - that
the being in England was evidence of freedom. This embarrassed
New-England planters in taking their slaves to England. The planters
banded for their common cause, and secured the written opinion of
Yorke and Talbot, attorney and solicitor general of England. They held
that slaves _could_ be held in England as well as in America; that
baptism did not confer freedom: and the opinion stood as sound law for
nearly a half-century.[359] The men in England who lived on the money
wrung from the slave-trade, the members of the Royal African Company,
came to the rescue of the institution of slavery. In order to maintain
it by law in the American colonies, it had to be recognized in
England. The people of Massachusetts took a lively interest in the
question. In 1761, at a meeting "in the old court-house," James
Otis,[360] in a speech against the "writs of assistance," struck a
popular chord on the questions of "The Rights of the Colonies,"
afterwards published (1764) by order of the Legislature. He took the
broad ground, "that the colonists, black and white, born here, are
free-born British subjects and entitled to all the essential rights of
such."[361] In 1766 Nathaniel Appleton and James Swan distinguished
themselves in their defence of the doctrines of "liberty for all." It
became the general topic of discussion in private and public, and
country lyceums and college societies took it up as a subject of
forensic disputation.[362] In the month of May, 1766, the
representatives of the people were instructed to advocate the total
abolition of slavery. And on the 16th of March, 1767, a resolution was
offered to see whether the instructions should be adhered to, and was
unanimously carried in the affirmative. But it should be remembered
that British troops were in the colony, in the streets of Boston. The
mutterings of the distant thunder of revolution could be heard. Public
sentiment was greatly tempered toward the Negroes. On the 31st of May,
1609, the House of Representatives of Massachusetts resolved against
the presence of troops, and besought the governor to remove them. His
Excellency disclaimed any power under the circumstances to interfere.
The House denounced a standing army in time of peace, without the
consent of the General Court, as "without precedent, and
unconstitutional."[363] In 1769 one of the courts of Massachusetts
gave a decision friendly to a slave, who was the plaintiff. This
stimulated the Negroes to an exertion for freedom. The entire colony
was in a feverish state of excitement. An anonymous Tory writer
reproached Bostonians for desiring freedom when they themselves
enslaved others.

"'What!' cries our good people here, 'Negro slaves in
Boston! It cannot be.' It is nevertheless true. For though
the Bostonians have grounded their rebellion on the
'immutable laws of nature,' yet, notwithstanding their
resolves about freedom in their Town-meetings, they actually
have in town 2,000 Negro slaves."[364]

These trying and exasperating circumstances were but the friendly
precursors of a spirit of universal liberty.

In England the decision of Lord Mansfield in the Sommersett[365] case
had encouraged the conscientious few who championed the cause of the
slave. Charles Stewart, Esq., of Boston, Mass., had taken to London
with him his Negro slave, James Sommersett. The Negro was seized with
a sickness in the British metropolis, and was thereupon abandoned by
his master. He afterwards regained his health, and secured employment.
His master, learning of his whereabouts, had him arrested, and placed
in confinement on board the vessel "Ann and Mary," Capt. John Knowls,
commander, then lying in the Thames, but soon to sail for Jamaica,
where Sommersett was to be sold.

"On the 3rd of Dec., 1771, affidavits were made by Thomas
Walklin, Elizabeth Cade, and John Marlow, that James
Sommersett, a Negro, was confined in irons on board a ship
called the _Ann_ and _Mary_, John Knowls commander, lying in
the Thames, and bound for Jamaica. Lord Mansfield, upon the
prayer of the above subscribers, allowed a writ of _habeas
corpus_, requiring the return of the body of Sommersett
before his lordship with an explanation of the cause of his
detention. On the 9th of Dec., Capt. Knowls produced the
body of Sommersett in Court. Lord Mansfield, after a
preliminary examination, referred the matter to the Court of
King's Bench, and, therefore, took sureties, and bound
Sommersett over 'till 'the 2nd day of the next Hillary
term.' At the time appointed the defendant with counsel, the
reputed master of the Negro man Sommersett, and Capt. John
Knowls, appeared before the court. Capt. Knowls recited the
reasons that led him to detain Sommersett: whereupon the
counsel for the latter asked for time in which to prepare an
argument against the return. Lord Mansfield gave them until
the 7th of February. At the time appointed Mr. Sergeant Davy
and Mr. Sergeant Glynn argued against the return, and had
further argument 'postponed' till Easter term,' when Mr.
Mansfield, Mr. Alleyne, and Mr. Hargrave argued on the same
side. 'The only question before us is whether the cause on
the return is sufficient. If it is, the Negro must be
remanded; if it is not, he must be discharged. The return
states that the slave departed and refused to serve,
whereupon he was kept to be sold abroad. So high an act of
dominion must be recognized by the law of the country where
it is used. The power of a master over his slave has been
exceedingly different in different countries. The state of
slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being
introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by
positive law, which preserves its force long after the
reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was
created is erased from memory. It is so odious that nothing
can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever
inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I
cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of
England, and therefore the black must be discharged.'"

The influence of this decision was wide-spread, and hurtful to slavery
in the British colonies in North America. It poured new life into the
expiring hopes of the Negroes, and furnished a rule of law for the
advocates of "freedom for all." It raised a question of law in all the
colonies as to whether the colonial governments could pass an Act
legalizing that which was "contrary to English law."[366]

Notwithstanding the general and generous impulse for liberty, the
indissoluble ties of avarice, and the greed for the unearned gains of
the slave-trade, made public men conservate to conserve the interests
of those directly interested in the inhuman traffic.

"In an age when the interests of trade guided legislation,
this branch of commerce possessed paramount attractions. Not
a statesman exposed its enormities; and, if Richard Baxter
echoed the opinions of Puritan Massachusetts, if Southern
drew tears by the tragic tale of Oronooko, if Steele
awakened a throb of indignation by the story of Inkle and
Yarico, if Savage and Shenstone pointed their feeble
couplets with the wrongs of 'Afric's sable children,' if the
Irish metaphysician Hutcheson, struggling for a higher
system of morals, - justly stigmatized the traffic; yet no
public opinion lifted its voice against it. English ships,
fitted out in English cities, under the special favor of the
royal family, of the ministry, and of parliament, stole from
Africa, in the years from 1700 to 1750, probably a million
and a half of souls, of whom one-eighth were buried in the
Atlantic, victims of the passage; and yet in England no
general indignation rebuked the enormity; for the public
opinion of the age was obedient to materialism."[367]

Humane masters who desired to emancipate their slaves were embarrassed
by a statute unfriendly to manumission. The Act of 1703[368] deterred
many persons from emancipating their slaves on account of its unjust
and hard requirements. And under it quite a deal of litigation arose.
It required every master who desired to liberate his slave, before
doing so, to furnish a bond to the treasurer of the town or place in
which he resided, in a sum not less than fifty pounds.[369] This was
to indemnify the town or place in case the Negro slave thus
emancipated should, through lameness or sickness, become a charge. In
case a master failed to furnish such security, his emancipated slaves
were still contemplated by the law as in bondage, "notwithstanding any
manumission or instrument of freedom to them made or given." Judge
Sewall, in a letter to John Adams, cites a case in point.

"A man, by will, gives his Negro his liberty, and leaves him
a legacy. The executor consents that the Negro shall be
free, but refuseth to give bond to the selectmen to
indemnify the town against any charge for his support in

Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 23 of 57)