Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral By Phillis Wheatley, 1816

About the Project

Phillis Wheatley Peters (c. 1753 – 1784) was born in West Africa and captured by slave traders as a child, whereupon she was sold to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts. She was named after the slave ship on which she was transported to the Americas and the name of her enslavers, but her surname of Peters is that of the man she married in 1778—John Peters, a free man of color.  The story of the discovery of her talent by the Wheatley family is oft told—they taught her to read and write, and by age fourteen, she had begun to write poetry that was soon published and circulated amongst the elites of late eighteenth century America and Great Britain. Her first and only volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), was published in London with the assistance of wealthy abolitionists. Peters’ poetry brought her renown in abolitionist circles as proof of the humanity of those of African descent and the inhumanity of the institution of slavery.  The Wheatleys manumitted Peters in 1773 under pressure from critics who saw the hypocrisy in praising Peters’ talent while keeping her enslaved. They died within a few years of this decision, and Peters soon met and married grocer John Peters. Her life afterwards was indicative of the troubled freedom of African Americans of the period, who were emancipated but not fully integrated into the promise of American citizenship. Peters was also affected by the loss of all three of her children—the birth of the last of whom caused her premature death at age 31 In 1784. Despite being feted as a prodigy while enslaved, the emancipated Peters struggled to find the support necessary for producing a second volume of poetry and her husband’s financial struggles forced her to find work as a scullery maid—the lowest position of domestic help. Posthumous publications of Peters’ poetry in various anthologies and periodicals solidified her image as a child poet for the benefit of abolitionist activism and African American cultural pride in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the twenty-first century, the accumulation of this collection is a restoration of Peters the woman and the influence of her poetry and activism today.

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