J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

“I asked if she could write on any Subject”

Thomas Wooldridge was a British businessman who moved to St. Augustine after the Floridas became part of the British Empire in 1763. He got appointed as provost marshal, fort adjutant, and barrack master for the army base, and receiver general of quit rents for the civil government. The first jobs included some work, the latter none. Wooldridge married a local widow in 1768; she died two years later.

In 1769, Gov. James Grant started to maneuver Wooldridge out of his offices, so the man sent a plea for help to the Earl of Dartmouth (shown here). In November 1771 Wooldridge told Dartmouth that the governor hadn’t paid his salary. Since he was writing from New York, having left Florida without leave from his superiors, one can see the governor’s point. The following July, Grant’s successor suspended Wooldridge from his Florida posts.

Wooldridge went to London and tried to sell his positions, but the Secretary at War refused to accept his resignation under those circumstances. Wooldridge kept complaining to Dartmouth, and after he returned to North America he started sending reports on the political situation there. It looked like he had bet on the right horse when Lord Dartmouth became Secretary of State in the summer of 1772.

That October, Wooldridge was in Boston, where he encountered Phillis Wheatley. The next month, he sent his patron an account of their interactions:

While in Boston, I heard of a very extraordinary female slave, who had made some verses on our mutually dear deceased Friend [Rev. George Whitefield]; I visited her mistress, and found by conversing with the African, that she was no Impostor: I asked if she could write on any Subject; she said Yes; we had just heard of your Lordship’s appointment; I gave her your name, which she was acquainted with. She immediately wrote a rough Copy of the inclosed Address & Letter, which I promised to convey or deliver.

I was astonish’d, and could hardly believe my own Eyes. I was present while she wrote and can attest that it is her own production; she shew’d me her Letter to Lady Huntingdon, which I daresay, Your Lordship has seen; I send you an account signed by her master of her Importation, Education &c. they are all wrote in her own hand.

Pardon the account I have given you of this poor untutor’d slave, when, possibly, your precious time may be very ill bestowed in reading my scrawls
Along with his own letter, dated 24 November in New York, Wooldridge sent a letter and verses from Wheatley dated 10 October and a short biographical sketch credited to her owner’s son Nathaniel Wheatley and dated 12 October. (That would later be the basis of the biography that appeared at the start of her Poems on Various Subjects.)

Wheatley’s letter was printed in the 3 June 1773 New-York Journal, along with a further account of Wooldridge’s visit:
A Gentleman who had seen several of the Pieces ascribed to her, thought them so much superior to her Situation, and Opportunities of Knowledge, that he doubted their being genuine—And in order to be satisfied, went to her Master’s House, told his Doubts, and to remove them, desired that she would write something before him. She told him she was then busy and engaged for the Day, but if he would propose a Subject, and call in the Morning, she would endeavour to satisfy him. Accordingly, he gave for a Subject, The Earl of Dartmouth, and calling the next Morning, she wrote in his Presence, as follows…
(Both quotations come the 1988 edition of Wheatley’s works, edited by John C. Shields.)

Thus, we have a contemporaneous account of how Phillis Wheatley responded to a stranger skeptical about her ability to write poetry. We don’t have to imagine the details of a “tribunal” of eighteen Bostonians quizzing her in the Town House.

It’s a bit awkward that the evidence Wheatley produced was a tribute to a British government minister who soon became unpopular with Americans. But in the fall of 1772, Whigs held out hope that Dartmouth would change London’s colonial policies.

Phillis Wheatley composed her verses and letter for Lord Dartmouth just a few days before the date on the document in which Boston’s most elite gentlemen attested to her talents. Both steps were part of her preparations to have her poems published in London.

TOMORROW: Why not in Boston?

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