Phillis Wheatley’s poem on tyranny and slavery, 1772

A primary source by Phillis Wheatley

“To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth” by Phillis Wheatley, in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, London, 1773, page 73. (GLC06154)Born in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery as a child. She was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston in 1761. The Wheatleys soon recognized Phillis’s intelligence and taught her to read and write. She became well known locally for her poetry. Through the Wheatley family, Phillis came into contact with many prominent figures.

In October 1772, Thomas Woolridge, a British businessman and supporter of William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, asked her to write a poem for Legge, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. Entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” the poem reflects the colonists’ hopes that Dartmouth would be less tyrannical than his predecessor. Wheatley then declares that her love of freedom comes from being a slave and describes being kidnapped from her parents, comparing the colonies’ relationship with England to a slave’s relationship with a slave holder:

    Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

This poem was printed in her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773. With this book’s appearance, Wheatley became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book.

Click here to read the complete poem. 

Excerpt

    . . . No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’enslave the land.

    Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Questions for Discussion

Full content is available to our community and Affiliate School members only. To view it, please apply for your school to be an Affiliate School, sign up to be a community member, or log in.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments