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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Monday, December 31, 2012

Thomas Jefferson Reviews Phillis Wheatley

I’ll turn from my own book reviews to one by Thomas Jefferson, a small part of his Notes on the State of Virginia.

By 1782, when Jefferson reworked that manuscript into book form, emancipation advocates like Dr. Benjamin Rush and Voltaire were using Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to argue that people of African descent had shown they were capable enough to deserve freedom.

Jefferson disagreed with that aesthetic judgment about Wheatley’s work, at least in part because he disliked the conclusion it led to. While he continued to aver that slavery was wrong, he used that book to argue that whites were biologically and intellectually superior to blacks. That included literary talent, Jefferson wrote:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.

Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.

Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head.
Ignatius Sancho (1729?-1780) was a British man of African ancestry who served in the household of the Duke of Montagu, kept a shop, and published books on music. He supported the Crown during the Revolutionary War. Sancho’s letters were collected and published in London two years after his death—so Jefferson must have pronounced upon them quickly when he “somewhat corrected and enlarged [his Notes] in the winter of 1782.”

Jefferson’s comments betrayed some confusion in his mind as he sought reasons to dismiss the evidence of Wheatley’s talent. On the one hand, he hinted that she didn’t actually write the “compositions published under her name.” On the other, he claimed that their poor quality reflected on her intellect, which meant she had to have written them. Either way, of course, he could derogate her.

Even as Jefferson insisted that blacks’ love “kindles the senses only, not the imagination,” he used the word oestrum, meaning a “period of sexual readiness,” to refer to a poet’s inspiration—a rather sensual image. He praised love poetry but chose Pope’s spiteful satirical Dunciad as his yardstick.

As for Sancho’s letters doing “more honour to the heart than the head,” when Jefferson wrote his dialogue of “my Head & my Heart” in a letter to Maria Cosway as he tried to seduce her in 1786, he ended up favoring his own heart.


Robert S. Paul said...

But but but, insert apologist claims here and rant about 'man of his times', &c.

John L Smith Jr said...

Another case in point of why I feel Jefferson is the most complex character in the first string of Founders. A racist maybe by modern terms, but in his time - an enigma certainly. I wonder if at times T.J. saw his own contradictions?

J. L. Bell said...

Rhetoric like this makes me feel that Jefferson did sense his contradictions, at least subconsciously, but (like most of us) would have denied or compartmentalized them to make life easier. Of course we'd like him and everyone else involved in the nation's founding to be right all the time, but the Founders' struggles make them more interesting.

Robert S. Paul said...

I think 'American Sphinx' shows that he was aware of a lot of his own contradictions. It's a littled dated now, I guess, but it's still a pretty great read.

Anonymous said...

The more I learn about Jefferson the less I like him. -- Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

We often start from the position of Jefferson as being so much smarter and more perceptive than the ordinary person, so he has nowhere to go but down.

John L Smith Jr said...

In Stephan E. Ambrose's book of essays "To America", he goes on and on of how very disappointed he was in Jefferson and in his obvious contradictions. He slams TJ for never putting his money (his investment's worth in slaves)vs. where his mouth was (proclaiming freedom and liberty). I understand Ambrose's disgust, but like J.L. says - Jefferson was caught in that no-man's land of real life self-denial. Jefferson in that regard then was like each of us today. Human.

Mal Kiniry@anromeda.rutgers.edu said...

Wheatley's poetry is really not very good, but it's bad in an accomplished way that should make it the subject of criticism rather than "beneath the dignity" of it. It would be hard to distinguish from the equally conventional poetry of literary men with whom Jefferson rubbed Elbows. Put her poem "To His Excellency George Washington" next to Philip Freneau's "To the Memory of George Washington." Tie Jefferson up and make him--or anyone--identify who wrote which. Yet he trusted Freneau to be his editorial mouthpiece.

not Bridget said...

I'm reading An Imperfect God; George Washington, his slaves and the creation of America. We've seen how GW began life with attitudes typical of a Tidewater planter.

Early in the War, he began to accept that Black troops could be valuable. And he wrote a very complimentary letter to "Miss Phyllis"--thanking her for the poem she wrote about him. Apparently she visited his HQ.

Of course the poem's style is very much of the day--but she showed intelligence & learning; GW was truly impressed. Eventually, he freed his slaves in his will; late--but no other Southern slaveholding president did as much.

From other studies of Jefferson, it's become evident that he was one of the very first to give a "scientific" explanation for the inferiority of non-white people.

Washington's experiences taught him; Jefferson closed his mind as the years passed....

J. L. Bell said...

Washington invited Wheatley to visit him, but there's no evidence that she took him up on that offer—no statement from either of them, no remark on their meeting from others when it would surely have been remarkable.

But you're right that Washington changed his mind over the years while Jefferson wrote a lot about the issue but grew less flexible as the decades passed.

Unknown said...

We should not assume that Jefferson only wrote to express his opinion, and not to shape the opinions of others. Moreover, pace not Bridget, he actually made a compelling case that science could not determine inferiority--

"The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously [58] combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them."

--and then argued for it anyway:

"I advance it, [264] therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."

A Twitter friend describes it as a rhetorical knuckleball or spitball.

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with Jefferson and his argument. I feel that African Americans deserve just as many rights as whites do especially since Phillis was so talented with her poetry and the way she expressed herself and her life through her works.

Anonymous said...

I feel like he has a right to his opinion, but I don't agree with him. I am glad he felt that slavery was wrong, but then to go as far as saying that whites are, "biologically and intellectually superior" is very rude.