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Price Realized: $253,000 With Buyer's Premium Show Hammer Price
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Sale 2058 Lot 322
WHEATLEY, PHILLIS. Autograph Letter Signed, to Obour Tanner, discussing the American Revolution. 2 pages, folded 4to sheet with integral address leaf; large area of paper loss to address leaf (not affecting text), separations at folds repaired with tape. Providence, 14 February 1776
About Phillis Wheatley
Born in Senegal, Phillis Wheatley (c. 1754-1784) was transported to Boston aboard the slave ship Phillis in 1761 and was purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. When she arrived she could not speak English, let alone read or write. Ill health and her apparent intelligence contributed to her being educated instead of being trained as a domestic. By 1767, when she published her first poem, she was fluent in English and even beginning to learn Latin and Greek.
In 1773, Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral - the first book of poetry published by an African American slave.
This was truly groundbreaking. It was so shocking that the preface included an "Attestation" by some of the leading men of Boston (including Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and John Hancock) affirming that she indeed wrote the poems. Even with this affadavit, Wheatley could not find a publisher in Boston who believed that a Black slave had written a book of poems, thus leading her to publish it in London.
Even Europeans, whose attitudes toward the natural capabilities of Africans had started to change, were shocked. An emissary to the Earl of Dartmouth, after visiting Wheatley wrote that upon watching her compose and write a poem that "I was astonished and could hardly believe my own Eyes."
The book gave her international renown. It also led her master to emancipate her shortly after the book's publication. Nevertheless, the coming of the American Revolution hurt her book sales and precluded the publication of a second book in America. She ended up marrying a fellow free Black (who would desert her just a few years later), gave birth to and lost several children, and died shortly thereafter in poverty, on the same day as the death of her last child.
While Wheatley was celebrated as a phenomenon at the time her book was published, her reputation has waxed and waned over the years. After dying in relative obscurity, her life was celebrated again by the Abolitionist movement, which used her as a prime example of the fallacy of African American inferiority. And while some have derided her poetry as being too Western and not outwardly anti-slavery, her accomplishments without question have since inspired numerous Black writers.
in many respects, she is the founder of the african american literary tradition.
About Obour Tanner
Very little is known about Wheatley's friend Obour (sometimes spelled Arbour or Abour) Tanner.
Like Wheatley, she was kidnapped in Africa and survived the Middle Passage. Sold to James Tanner (1733-85? a silversmith?) in Newport, she likely met Phillis in the summer sometime in the late 1760s, when the Wheatley family vacationed in Rhode Island with many wealthy Boston families.
Like Wheatley, Obour became a devout Protestant, and she was baptized by Samuel Hopkins on 10 July 1768. During the Revolution, Tanner left Newport due to the British occupation of the city, but returned after the war. On 14 November 1789, five years after Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation legislation (and five years after Hopkins barred slaveowners from his congregation), Obour married Barra Tanner -- no doubt a fellow slave belonging to James Tanner. She lived to old age, passing away on 21 June 1835 in Newport.
Evidence of the relationship between Obour and Phillis has rested solely on eight known letters written by Wheatley to Tanner. None of Tanner's letters to Wheatley are known to exist, nor are there any other known letters from Wheatley to another slave or free Black.
This Letter and the American Revolution
The American Revolution played a critical role in Wheatley's life as both a slave and free Black. The Wheatley family lived at the corner of King Street and Mackerel Lane, one block from the Old State House. This was the heart of pre-Revolution activism: the Boston Massacre took place literally steps from her door; Samuel Adams rallied patriots in the Old South Meeting House, to which she belonged; and at the end of her block was the harbor, near the site of the Boston Tea Party.
These events could not and did not go unnoticed by Wheatley, who wrote about the American cause in her poems. Among them was an October 1772 poem To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, written in honor of his appointment as the new British Secretary of State for the colonies: "No more, America, in mournful strain / Of wrongs and grievance unredressed complain: / No longer shall thou dread the iron chain / Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand, / Had made, and with it meant t'enslave the land."
She wrote the present letter at the very apex of the Independence movement. The Battle of Bunker Hill had taken place in June of 1775. That fall, Wheatley moved to Providence to escape war-torn Boston. In October, she penned her famous poem in honor of George Washington. When Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January 1776, just one month before this letter, it was the most passionate and persuasive argument for independence to have been written. Widely circulated, it caused a firestorm of patriotism.
This 14 February 1776 letter begins by acknowledging receipt of Tanner's letter and continues, "I doubt not that your present situation is extremely unhappy, nor that you with wonder exclaim on the proceedings of nations that are fav.d with the divine revelation of the Gospel." While the reason for Tanner's unhappiness is not entirely clear, Wheatley is probably referring to the fact that Newport was a likely target for British aggression given its waterside location and the ire of the British against the inhabitants of the city for the 1772 burning of the British frigate The Gaspee.
The next sentence is a curious one, in which Wheatley separates herself from the Patriot cause. "Even I a mere spectator am in anxious suspense concerning the fortune of this unnatural civil contest." Her reference to the impending war as "unnatural" reflects British colonial thought as opposed to American revolutionary rhetoric. Perhaps Wheatley -- "a mere spectator" -- felt distanced from the Independence movement as a free Black or because of the importance of her British benefactors.
The letter continues with its most direct commentary on the Revolution: "Possibly the ambition & thirst of dominion in some is design'd as the punishment of the national views of others, tho' it bears the appearance of greater barbarity than that of the uncivilz'd part of mankind." This dichotomy between sovereignty and independence provides an interesting subtext, for it can be applied not only to the impending Revolution but to the institution of slavery as well.
Wheatley clearly saw a relationship between the two - because of slavery, she understood the Patriot cause. This is illustrated in the following stanza of the aforementioned poem to the Earl of Dartmouth: Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song ,/ Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung, / Whence flow these wishes for the common good, / By feeling hearts along best understood,--/ I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate / Was snatched from Afric's fancied seat: / What pangs excruciating must molest, / What sorrow labour in my parent's breast! / Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved, / That from a father seized his babe beloved: / Such such my case. And can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrranic sway.
Wheatley resolves the conflict between dominion and nationalism by leaning on her faith for deliverance in favor of America (and within the subtext, in favor of abolition), continuing the letter: "But let us leave the event to him whose wisdom alone can bring good out of evil & he is infinitely superior to all the craftiness of the enemies of this seemingly devoted country."
Wheatley concludes with an introduction of the bearer, a reference to a well-known free Black and regards to the Reverend Samuel Hopkins: "This is handed to you by Mr Lingo, with whome and Mr Quamine I passd the last evening very agreeably. Dutiful respects to Mr. Hopkins & family and believe me to be your affectionate P. Wheatley."
It is ironic that while she believed in American independence, the war would ultimately lead to her dying in poverty. The Revolution dashed all possibilities of her living as a free Black supported by her book sales.
Just two weeks after sending this letter to her friend Obour Tanner, Wheatley received a letter from George Washington, thanking her for sending him a poem in his honor and inviting her to meet him. She accepted his offer and met with him at his camp in Boston in March 1776. Little is known of the meeting, but one can only wonder at the conversation between America's first Black poet and the slaveholding leader of American independence.
Consigned by a descendent of Amasa Walker (1799-1875)
This letter has an interesting provenance that can be traced from the present consignor directly to Obour Tanner, by way of two ardent abolitionists, both involved with the Underground Railroad.
In 1863, historian Charles Deane published the seven other known Wheatley letters to Obour Tanner in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. A footnote in the journal indicates that copies of the originals came to his attention by Edward Everett Hale who had obtained them from Mrs. William Beecher of North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Mrs. Beecher, the footnote continues, received them directly from Obour Tanner, and in a letter to Hale she describes meeting the elderly, former slave in Newport in either 1833 or 1834.
William Beecher and his wife Katherine Edes Beecher lived briefly in Newport following his short stint as pastor in Middleton, Connecticut and before becoming the first pastor of the Putnam Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio. After being emancipated, Obour Tanner lived in Newport until her death in 1835. A devout Presbyterian, she no doubt knew William Beecher by his father Lyman Beecher's reputation as one of the country's leading Congregationalist ministers.
This letter was likely given to Amasa Walker, the great great grandfather of the present consignor, by Katherine Edes Beecher after she had moved to North Brookfield (circa 1856) but prior to giving copies of the other Obour Tanner letters to Hale. This would explain why it was not included in the 1863 publication.
While there is no direct evidence of this gift, there is clearly a relationship between Beecher and Walker: both lived in North Brookfield in the 1850s-70s, both were in positions of leadership within the town's Union Congregational Church (which Walker helped establish in 1852) and both were active in establishing a Presbyterian following in Ohio in the 1830s-40s.
Perhaps more germane to the Wheatley letter, however, is the fact that both were ardent Abolitionists.
Amasa Walker, a noted Massachusetts politician and economist, helped form the Free Soil Party in the late 1840s because of his objection to slavery in the territories. According to Francis Amasa Walker's biography of his father, Amasa Walker's house in Oberlin, Ohio was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the time when he lectured on political economy at the college he helped found. In addition, Walker family lore has long held that his house on Main Street in North Brookfield was also a stop on the railroad.
At roughly the same time that Walker helped fugitive slaves in Oberlin, William Beecher's church in Zanesville, located just down the block from George Guthrie's house -- a known stop on the railroad -- was doing the very same thing. Abolitionism was very much a family affair for William and Katherine Beecher. Besides his own anti-slavery orations, William Beecher's younger brother was Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87), the Presbyterian minister best remembered for raising funds through his speeches to support armed opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act. And their sister, of course, was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who would publish Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851.
Thus, the line of provenance appears to be as follows: Phillis Wheatley sent the letter to Obour Tanner, who gifted it to Katherine Edes Beecher circa 1834, who then gave it to Amasa Walker circa 1860, and by descent to the present consignor.
Census of the known letters
Prior to the discovery of this letter, there were only 19 known letters written by Wheatley located in institutions in America and Great Britain - each published in the various modern editions of the Writings of Phillis Wheatley.
As previously mentioned, seven of those are to Obour Tanner, of which six are located in the Massachusetts Historical Society. While copies of the seven letters were given to the MHS in 1863, the actual letters were gifted to the Society after Katherine Edes Beecher's death in 1877. The seventh letter is located in the Charles Roberts Collection in the Magill Library of Haverford College. How he obtained the letter is unknown, but given the fact that Beecher had already given away at least one of the letters to Walker, it seems likely that she gifted this letter to someone else after 1863 (who in turn gave or sold it to Roberts).
Also located at the MHS and first published in 1979 was a 1773 Wheatley letter to David Wooster found in the Hugh Upham Clark papers. In addition, those papers contain a 1778 Wheatley letter to his wife Mary Wooster.
Three of the other Wheatley letters are written to her benefactor Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. These are located in the Huntingdon Papers at Westminster College, Cambridge. Presumably, these are the only letters written to the Countess, considering the integrity of the collection and the fact that exactly three letters to the Countess are listed in Wheatley's 1779 prospectus for her second book of poems and letters (which was never published).
Also located in Great Britain are four Wheatley letters to another benefactor, the wealthy philanthropist John Thornton. These letters, owned by the Earl of Leven but located in the Scottish Records Office in Edinburgh, were discovered in 1974.
The Staffordshire Records Office, in Stafford, England holds the only known Wheatley letter to William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth.
The remaining two letters are probably the last ones to change hands, but the details of their sale are unknown. Both letters from 1774 are written to Samuel Hopkins and are located in the Gratz Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Chamberlain Collection at the Boston Public Library. As both Gratz and Chamberlain were actively collecting at the turn of the 20th Century, it seems likely that they were purchased directly from a Hopkins descendent at that time. However, neither collection has any information on their provenance.
We could not find a single instance of a Wheatley letter appearing at auction in America recorded in American Book Prices Current, going back to its initial publication in 1895.
Importance of the Letter
This letter is an entirely new discovery -- it was not previously known to exist and has never been published.
The content of the letter is extraordinary, providing further insight into Wheatley's support for American independence, while providing the modern reader with an anti-slavery subtext.
Furthermore, the provenance of this letter is in and of itself an amazing story, bridging the gap between Wheatley's life as a slave and the movement for Abolition that revived her as a hero.
Finally, Wheatley letters are extremely rare. Indeed, this may be the only one in private hands and is, in many respects, the holy grail of African Americana manuscript material.Price Realized (with Buyer's Premium) $253,000