Phillis Wheatley’s life after slavery was not an easy one. Her life changed drastically during her trip to London with her owner John Wheatley. She gained popularity for her poetry to the point that her British supporters criticized John Wheatley for still ‘owning’ her. It was also the turning point in her life that eventually lead to her freedom upon the death of Mrs. Susanna Wheatley. Need to catch up? Read about The Early Life of Phillis Wheatley.
While in London, Phillis Wheatley’s popularity grew.
She visited a number of important people in London, including abolitionists’ patron the Earl of Dartmouth, poet and activist Baron George, philanthropist John Thorton and Benjamin Franklin. She also met Sir Brook Watson who, in 1796, became the Lord Mayor of London.
Her reception was surprisingly good. She wrote to a friend that it was with “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.”
Phillis Wheatley was also supposed to meet King George III but they had to leave before it could be arranged because Mrs. Wheatley was ill and they had to return.
Phillis Wheatley was set free in 1774, three months before Mrs. Susanna Wheatley passed away.
When Mrs. Wheatley passed away on 3 March 1774, Wheatley lost not just her friend and patroness, but a number of her other supporters as well; apparently their support was contingent on Mrs. Wheatley. However, it is thought by scholars that she remained with the family as they had been more family than owners.
Once freed, Phillis was placed in the tenuous position of a freed black both socially and economically. She lived in a struggling country during wartime, and after with post-war depression. Her patrons had died. Mr. John Wheatley and Mary Wheatley both passed, in 1774, not long after Mrs. Wheatley. Nathanniel Wheatley married and moved to England. The great loss of connection and family damaged her already tenuous health.
On 1 April 1778, much to the concern of close friends, Phillis married John Peters.
Described as charming, with the manners of a gentleman, Peters was also considered shiftless, arrogant, and proud by reporters. He would call himself Dr. Peters with no degree to back it up, practiced law without a degree, and bounced around between jobs.
They moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts shortly after their marriage to avoid the fighting during the war. Eventually they moved back to Boston. The post-war economics, which free black merchants were ill-equipped to compete in, combined with Peters unwillingness to work led them increasingly into poverty and debt.
Wheatley was forced to work as a charwoman and take care of herself while Peters tried to find employment and hide from creditors. She ended up sick and living in a poor, rundown part of town in dirty conditions.
During their marriage it is believed that they had three children. None of these children survived infancy.
Phillis Wheatley continued to write poetry, published individual poems, and maintained correspondence.
Phillis Wheatley purservered with her poetry even while huddling in poverty. She tried to get her second volume of poetry published, which she called 300 pages in Octavo. It would have included 33 poems and thirteen letters and would have been dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, Americans did not support her poetry and wouldn’t publish her volume. The lack of financial backing made it extremely difficult to publish anything under her own name during her lifetime.
In 1784 she did publish, under the name Phillis Peters, a pamphlet entitled Liberty and Peace, a 64 line poem which celebrates the victory of the United States (referred to as “Columbia”) over England. On 2 January 2 1784 she published An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of that Great Divine, The Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, shortly after his death. And, in September 1784 Ms. Wheatley published in the “Poetical Essays” section of The Boston Magazine with “To Mr. and Mrs.________, on the Death of their Infant Son.” It is widely thought by scholars that she wrote this about the loss of her own son.
Phillis Weatley’s death and legacy.
At the age of 31, due to childbirth complications, Phillis Wheately died alone on 5 December 1784. Her last surviving child died and was buried with her. At the time of her death, her husband was in jail for poverty.
A prolific poet having written at least 145 poems, much of her unpublished poetry was lost after her death. Only two dozen of her letters survived.
For me, though, I will always be that little girl sitting on a dock holding the biography of Phillis Wheatley in my hand. I didn’t know at the time how great her influence would be, nor that I too someday would have several hundred poems to my name and live the life of a poet.
Explore The Poetics of Phillis Wheatley in our next blog and learn a bit more about the poems themselves.
The Researcher’s Gateway