Early American History Seminar: Mark Peterson, Iowa University

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, November 16, 2006

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Cutting off the Circulation: The Destruction of Phillis Wheatley’s Transatlantic World, 1763–1784”
Mark Peterson, Iowa University
Phillis Wheatley’s rise to transatlantic fame would have been impossible had she not been well positioned in the currents of cultural circulation around the Atlantic basin created by evangelical and reform-minded people throughout Britain’s expanding empire. Through a close reading of Wheatley’s poetry, set in the context of the shifting politics of her transatlantic connections, this paper traces Wheatley’s integration into this community and then its sudden destruction in the crisis of the American Revolution.

For the members of this community, which included the Earl of Dartmouth and the Countess of Huntington, international evangelists such as George Whitefield, and the Boston dignitaries who attested to Wheatley’s authorship, circulation was the key to the health, growth, and well being of the whole. Britain’s commercial empire transported people, commodities, ideas, and beliefs around an enormous network of contact and exchange, sorting out the world’s valuable “goods,” moving people and things to the places where they belonged, or where they were most needed. It is in this context that Wheatley’s famous and troubling poem, “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA,” makes the most sense. In many of her poems, the circulation of people, goods, and ideas around the Atlantic basin figures as a source of health, good fortune, and ultimately, redemption. This young displaced African staked her faith and her identity in the ultimate benevolence of a system of Atlantic circulation that she and her fellow evangelical reformers believed was designed for the improvement of the empire.

The imperial civil war that led to American independence was, from this point of view, a disaster and a tragedy. Massachusetts’ move from imperial colony to independent republic destroyed the networks of communication, trade, philanthropy, and reform on which Wheatley and her world had built their hopes. The circulation of people and goods was fatally interrupted, and it would take decades for Bostonians to rebuild new channels, by which time Wheatley herself was dead, and the leading figures in her transatlantic world had lost their power, gone into exile, or died as well. With their displacement, departure, and death, a promising vision of antislavery activism and evangelical reform that transcended the boundaries of local, regional, or national allegiances died as well.