The Museum of the American Revolution has acquired a rare printing of a letter denouncing slavery and asserting a universal love of freedom by Phillis Wheatley, widely regarded as the first Black American poet.
“In every breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom,” Wheatley wrote in her 1774 letter to Presbyterian minister and Mohegan Indian Samson Occom, who shared her views on the treatment of Black and Indigenous people in the American colonies.
This “love of freedom,” Wheatley said, “is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us.”
Kidnapped in West Africa and sold into slavery in Boston as a child, Wheatley was enslaved by the Wheatley family of Boston, learning to read and write, and encouraged to develop her gifts as a poet. This led, in 1773, to the publication of her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
She was released from enslavement shortly after publication of her book, and on April 1, 1774, the Connecticut Journal newspaper published on its front page the letter Wheatley wrote to Occom.
The Museum of the American Revolution acquired the extremely rare printing of the letter — Wheatley’s first publication following her emancipation — and has placed it on display where it can be viewed through July 4. The museum also has a very rare signed first edition of Wheatley’s book of poems, also on view.
“This extremely rare newspaper is a key text in the history of the American Revolution and the struggle for human equality more broadly,” Philip Mead, the museum’s chief historian, said of the Wheatley letter. “It is perhaps the clearest and most powerful, concise statement of the era in defense of a common love of freedom as the basis for racial equality.”
R. Scott Stephenson, head of the museum, said that “relatively few possessions connected to people of color from the Revolutionary era have survived” and can be utilized in exhibitions.
“That is what makes acquisitions like this newspaper printing so valuable to us,” he said. “We engage in object-based learning to make tangible connections to the people, events, and ideas from our Revolutionary past, so objects like these are foundational for us.”
Read the full letter from Phillis Wheatley to Reverend Samson Occum
Rev’d and honor’d Sir, I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and [r]eveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, — I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.