The Poem That Changed Washington’s Mind

Shortly after the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the American military forces, he began a systematic policy for barring black men from military service.

Black soldiers had already distinguished themselves in the patriotic cause. But as a Southern white plantation owner, Washington was understandably alarmed at the idea of giving arms to black freedmen and slaves; the prospect of a slave uprising must have been ever before him. And while there is no record that the common white soldier in New England objected to serving alongside black soldiers, many of the upper-class officers believed it dishonorable to include blacks, whether slave or free.

So in November of 1775, Washington issued a general order that excluded all black men from enlisting.

Yet in December of the same year, he suddenly reversed his policy. He issued another order, allowing free black men the right to enlist in the army.

It was a surprising, rather contrary move, and a rare instance of George Washington changing his mind about anything, ever. The change was apparently not for practical reasons, such as needing more soldiers or the concern that blacks would join the English cause. In writing to John Hancock about his decision, Washington explained that it was due rather to the numbers of black soldiers who had approached him to complain of their dissatisfaction at being excluded.

For the first time in his life, Washington had responded in a fair way to an appeal from free black men. What happened to change his mind?

Shortly before Christmas of 1775, Washington received a letter in the mail at his headquarters in Cambridge. Enclosed in the letter were forty-two lines of elegant verse in flawless iambic pentameter. Full of classical allusions, the poem concluded:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

The lines were written by the woman who was, at that time, the most famous slave in America.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black person, and only the third American woman, to publish a book of poems. Born in Africa, she was purchased at around age six by the wife of a wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, Susannah Wheatley. While shopping for slaves at the dock, Mrs. Wheatley became captivated by the tiny, wretched child she saw there, dressed only in a scrap of carpet. She purchased the little girl, took her home, nursed her back to health, and gave her the name Phillis, after the name of the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis had been intended for a household servant, but she soon showed signs of an uncommon intelligence, so the family’s teenaged daughter took it upon herself to teach the child to read and write. Soon she was learning Latin, and by the age of nine was occasionally acting as the family secretary. She began writing poetry just four years after her arrival in Boston, and at seventeen gained wide attention in the colonies for her elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield. Three years later a collection of her poems was published in London.

Washington was extraordinarily moved upon receiving Wheatley’s letter and poem. So moved, in fact, that he broke the rules of social contact between masters and slaves. He wrote a letter back to her, inviting her to visit him in Cambridge.

It was shortly after meeting Phillis Wheatley that Washington made the extraordinary decision to allow blacks to enlist in his army.

(Wiencek 198-215)

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