"To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth"
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The 1773 publication of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects established her as a young prodigy and challenged the major justification for enslavement of Africans -- the European assumption of African inferiority.
In the 18th century, Europeans generally assumed that Africans were subhuman, lacking the intellectual capacity for such higher order pursuits as creative writing and mathematics; consequently, Wheatley's book was prefaced by testimonies to its authenticity from her master and from 16 of Boston's most respected citizens, thereby establishing a literary convention of sorts for works by African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite such testimonials, Thomas Jefferson was among those who questioned Wheatley's authorship.
One of the best-known poems in the collection is dedicated "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, Etc." Wheatley was heartened by the appointment of Dartmouth, whom she had met in London and knew to be a friend of the abolitionist Countess of Huntingdon and of the late Reverend George Whitefield, who had helped launch the Great Awakening.
The poem opens with hopeful optimism that under Dartmouth's "blissful sway," the colonies will see "Freedom's charms unfold" and experience an end to the reign of "wanton Tyranny" that "meant t'enslave the land." Those lines provide a subtle yet powerful segue into the next verse, in which she proposes that her "love of Freedom" (and by implication, that of the black Patriots) springs from the anguish Africans have known as slaves.
Illustration for Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley
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