Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery in the early eighteenth century in one of the Northern states. However, he came out better than most slaves as his owners thought well of him and gave him a good education. Ultimately this contributed to him being America’s first published black poet. Christopher Benedict tells the fascinating story of Jupiter Hammon.

A depiction of Jupiter Hammon.

A depiction of Jupiter Hammon.

He Being Thy Captive Slave

Sometimes history exists, like those who contribute mightily to it, right under your nose and yet hidden in plain sight.

I have lived on Long Island, with one brief exception, for my entire 44-year lifespan. However, it took until a few months ago for a good friend and fellow history buff to point out the fact that the first black poet published in America was born and buried on an estate a mere seven miles from where I now reside.

Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery on October 17, 1711, his father Obadiah and mother Rose both duty-bound in the indentured servitude of Henry and Rebecca Lloyd on the little peninsula called the Manor of Queens Village.

This title was rather more regal-sounding than the name which preceded it. Horse Neck, derived from the sixteenth century English equestrians from Huntington who stabled their steeds there, displaced the original designation bestowed upon it by the Matinecock Indians, Caumsett (translated as “place by sharp rock”), and would itself be later rechristened Lloyd Harbor as an ode to its 200 year-long residents.

The 1676 acquisition of Horse Neck by James Lloyd, an entrepreneurial Boston-based merchant, preceded its annexation to Oyster Bay of Queens County after he was officially granted its royal patent nine years later. Opting to stay in New England and look after business affairs firsthand, James instead leased this 300-acre plot to local farmers until gifting the neglected property to his son Henry, a 24-year-old shipper until then operating out of Newport, Rhode Island, who relocated and saw to the construction of his post-medieval Manor House (employing slave labor as well as hired hands paid with Bibles, needles, and other tradable commodities) in 1711, the year of Jupiter’s birth.

 

Firmly Fixed His Holy Word

While Jupiter still remains something resembling an enigma, next to nothing seems to be known regarding his parents, other than that Obadiah was literate and had made a number of unsuccessful escape attempts dating back to 1687 when he and Rose were among those comprising the first delivery of subjugated human cargo to the Lloyd estate.

As far as Jupiter is concerned, his warm feelings toward the Lloyd family were repaid in kind, as he was permitted not only personal living quarters within the Manor, but unfettered access to formal education. He attended classes alongside the Lloyd children and maintained a close enough relationship with the sons that he earned their affectionate nickname “Brother Jupiter”. 

Supplementing his fortune by continuing his father’s practice of renting parcels of land to be worked by tenant farmhands, Henry’s import/export business also flourished as never before. It often warranted unaccompanied journeys by the now fully grown Jupiter, working as a clerk when not tilling the fields surrounding the Manor House, into New York City to facilitate trade agreements, such was the unthinkable level of respect and trust established between master and servant.

How Jupiter’s Christian faith germinated is not clear, but it would be fed consistently and fervently throughout the decades, as would his general intellectual pursuits, cross-pollinating then blossoming into a historically significant 88-line poem, the first to be published in the yet-to-be liberated American Colonies by a person of African lineage.

An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries was printed and circulated as a one-sheet broadside in 1761 and contained the momentous byline, Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.

As the title suggests, it reads like a hymn with the opening stanza:

Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,

The only Son of God,

Redemption now to every one,

That love his holy Word,

Dear Jesus, we would fly to Thee,

And leave off every Sin,

The Tender Mercy well agree,

Salvation from our King.

 

When you consider other passages, however, innocuous sounding lines such as:

Ho, every one that hunger hath,

Or pineth after me,

Salvation be thy leading Staff,

To set the Sinner free.

Dear Jesus unto Thee we fly,

Depart, depart from sin.”

 

trace the written origins of Hammon’s concept of slavery, which he will soon after fill in with explicit detail and later come under scathing attack for, as almost sacramental atonement for misdeeds perpetrated against the heavenly father, the penance for which was subservience to the slave driver.

 

From Every Sinful Wound

Henry Lloyd died in 1763 and Jupiter, never emancipated, would afterwards live with Henry’s son Joseph, who had a Manor House of his own built on the estate three years later.

Before the British occupation of Long Island, which was made possible by their victory over George Washington’s forces in August 1776, Joseph, a steadfast patriot, fled to Hartford, Connecticut with the other members of the Lloyd family (those who were not Tories) in addition to the Conklins of nearby Huntington.

Jupiter would remain in their company, and with them return once hostilities had ended and true independence won.

An Address to Phillis Wheatley appeared in 1778, in which one is left to wonder whether Hammon’s purpose is to flatter or chastise the “Ethiopian Poetess”.

“Come, dear Phillis, be advis’d

To drink Samaria’s flood,

There’s nothing that shall suffice

But Christ’s redeeming blood.

While thousands muse with earthly toys,

and range about the street,

Dear Phillis, seek for Heaven’s joys,

Where we do hope to meet.”

 

Wheatley herself wrote glowingly of a nearly evangelical deliverance from her native Africa, which she maligns as a “pagan land”, much as Jupiter’s imagery of “a dark abode” mirrors her sentiments here. Their thoughts of one another, whatever they may have been, are not known, and relegated to the oblique lines composed by Hammon.

 

The Blessing of Many Ready to Perish

Jupiter was invited to speak before a meeting of the African Society of New York City on September 24, 1786 and delivered an oration which was published the following year under the title An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.

The pamphlet was prefaced by an editorial assurance “To the Public” from “The Printers” that the following words “wrote in a better Stile than could be expected from a slave” were indeed those of the author, whose hand-written manuscript, they vowed, was “in our possession”.

Though he begins by intertwining the plights of the slaves and the Jews with a quotation from the apostle Paul that “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” he then turns an abrupt about-face.

“When I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of the most of you, I am pained to the heart.”

It is shocking to read Jupiter’s assertion that, “for my own part I do not wish to be free”, and though he softens the blow with the following sentiment, “I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free”, he comes full circle by resigning to the fact that “many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves.”

Confessing that, “I have had such desires, a sense of my own ignorance, and unfitness to teach others,” Jupiter (at just shy of 75 years of age) nonetheless says that he feels obliged “to call upon you, with the tenderness of a father and friend, and to give you the last, and I may say dying advice, who wishes your best good in this world, and the world to come.”

In the 250 years since Hammon’s writings have been available for public consumption and examination, Jupiter’s accomplishments as an educated slave and published poet have been eclipsed, particularly in the eyes of contemporary critics, and dimmed considerably by the ignominious upbraiding of his fellow, far less fortunate, slaves during this address.

The first point belabored during his presentation is “Respecting obedience to masters,” elaborating that, “we cannot be happy unless we please them. This we cannot do without muttering or finding fault.”

The second “particular I would mention is honesty and faithfulness,” Hammon continued. “We have no right to stay when we are sent on errands any longer than to do the business we were sent upon. All time spent idly is spent wickedly, and is unfaithfulness to our masters.”

Refraining from profanity, specifically taking “God’s holy name in vain”, Jupiter insists will enable those overseen by slave drivers in this world to slip the chains of Satan in the next and “sit with God in his kingdom as Kings and Priests, and rejoice forever and ever.”  

Even sexual gratification occurs to Hammon as an evil deed, as “the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God.”

Jupiter submits that “If God has put us in bad circumstances, that is not our fault and he will not punish us for it. If any are wicked in keeping us so, we cannot help it, they must answer to God for it. The same God will judge both them and us.” That said, he also professes, “If God designs to set us free, he will do it in his own time and way.”

 

To Taste Things More Divine

Both Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley have been taken to task for their beliefs (some may say apologies) of slavery being exercised upon African Americans as a biblical trial, out of which only the most virtuous will arise to reap Heavenly reward. Linked together as colonial sell-outs, if Phillis Wheatley was castigated as the Civil Rights movement’s “Aunt Jemima”, Jupiter Hammon became their “Uncle Tom”.

It is important to bear in mind that their personal experiences were unusual, if not unique, and differed drastically from the common hell on earth shared by many (mostly Southern) bondsmen and women. Neither Phillis nor Jupiter, both slaves of the Northern colonies, knew the weighty burden of shackles and chains, the mistrust or disgust of their masters, the sight and perhaps taste of their own blood drawn by the fist or the whip. While these conditions surely did not erode their capacity for empathy, it was a compassion channeled through a heavy current of pity rather than a true sense of commiseration.

And, as far as Jupiter’s seemingly condescending address is concerned, you will recall that Frederick Douglass likewise cautioned against woeful and wasteful pastimes, writing in his Narrative of the Life, “instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”

Not only is he buried in an unmarked grave on the Lloyd estate, but the year of Jupiter Hammon’s death was not recorded and, thus, open to historical speculation placing it most likely in 1806 (making him 85 at the time), but possibly as early as 1790. 

In February 2013, Julie McCown, a student of Cedrick May’s English class at the University of Texas Arlington’s College of Liberal Arts, was given an archival research assignment centered around Hammon’s Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, during which she and her professor would make a startling discovery.

McCown and May exhumed from the Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Library a never-published and thought-lost manuscript of An Essay on Slavery, written in Jupiter’s own hand. Dating to 1786, the 25-stanza poem is all the more remarkable for the somewhat more somberly defiant overtones not present in the address delivered that same year and conspicuously absent from his first published work a quarter of a century earlier. 

Our forefathers came from Africa

Tost over the raging main

To a Christian shore for to stay

And not return again.

Dark and dismal was the day

When slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by man.

 

What do you think of the article and the views of Jupiter Hammon? Let us know by leaving a comment below…

Sources

  • An Evening thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries by Jupiter Hammon (December 25, 1760)
  • An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley by Jupiter Hammon (August 4, 1778)
  • An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York by Jupiter Hammon (Carroll and Patterson New York, 1787)
  • An Essay on Slavery, With Justification to Divine Providence, that God Rules Over All Things by Jupiter Hammon (1786, published in June 2013 Yale Alumni Magazine)
  • UT Arlington Professor, Graduate Student Discover Poem Written by 18th Century Slave from New York (UT Arlington News Release, February 5, 2013)
  • Jupiter Hammon: A New Appraisal by George Wallace (http://www.poetry.about.com)
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1960, Belknap Press)
  • http://lloydharborhistoricalsociety.org

 

Phillis Wheatley was an amazing and intriguing woman who became a famous and noteworthy poetess in the latter eighteenth century. And what is most intriguing is that in an age of slavery and discrimination she was black. Here, Christopher Benedict tells her story…

The frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's  Poems on Various Subjects .

The frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

“Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too,

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

‘Their colour is a diabolical die.’

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain,

May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train”

 

This eight line poem was written in 1768 by a young woman of fourteen named Phillis Wheatley. That it, and some 145 others she composed, would alternately subject her to the chaotic complexities of renown and acclaim, the attention of British nobility and America’s Founding Fathers, a tribunal before Boston’s most esteemed magistrates, ministers, and men of letters, not to mention the dismissive scorn of later, more enlightened and less subordinate generations can be best understood by taking the very nature of her blurred identity into consideration.

Her forename was gleaned from Timothy Finch’s schooner the Phillis, which deposited the seven year-old “slender, frail female child” on the Boston wharf at Beach Street on July 11, 1761 after plundering Guinea’s Isles de Los, Sierra Leone, and Senegal (where she is believed to have lived) of its inhabitants for use as human merchandise in America’s slave trade. The assignation of Phillis’ last name would result from her having been purchased, sickly and nearly naked but for a bit of soiled carpet, by Susanna Wheatley “for a trifle” (fewer than £10) to serve as housemaid.

The home, owned by affluent tailor and merchant John Wheatley, was located near Massachusetts’ original State House and within easy earshot, in years soon to come, of the Stamp Act riots and later the Boston Massacre, claiming the life of the Revolution’s first known black martyr Crispus Attucks, which Phillis would document in verse with On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770.

Phillis achieved literacy through a combination of Susanna’s encouragement, the tutelage of the Wheatley’s teenaged children Nathaniel and Mary, and Phillis’ own natural desire for extracting sustenance from their English, Latin, Greek, and biblical lessons with an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

Such an impression did Phillis make on John Wheatley that he attested to her phenomenal scholarly advancement, noting that, “she, in sixteen months’ time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before” and “as to her writing, her own curiosity led to it.”   

In 1765, she had already committed to paper her first poem, To the University of Cambridge in New England, and had another, On Messrs Hussey and Coffin, submitted by Susanna to the Newport Mercury, published only two years later, the first by a black woman in America.

Susanna, who by this time had excused Phillis from her previously appointed chores to perfect her chosen craft, would facilitate the collection of her early works into a proposed book containing 28 titles through advertisements that ran through the February to April 1772 editions of the Boston Censor, a Tory newspaper. Owing to the popular misapprehension that a simple slave girl could have been in no way responsible for these supposedly original creations, few offers for the requested 300 subscriptions to fund the project came forth.

 

On Virtue

“I cease to wonder, and no more attempt

Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound

But, O my soul, sink not into despair,

Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand

Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head”

 

It is impossible to imagine the emotional state of Phillis, not yet twenty years old, only a little more than half of which had been spent as a kidnapped stranger in a strange land and even fewer familiar with its linguistic peculiarities, being asked to appear before a committee of eighteen of the colony’s most prestigious citizens to verify the authenticity of her writings and, in essence, become a spokesperson (quite literally) of her entire race.

In October 1772, at the urging of John Wheatley, Phillis was interrogated at length (most likely at Boston’s Town Hall) by an assemblage which included among its celebrated quilled pens and powdered wigs, those of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Green, and the Reverends Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, and Samuel Mather (son of Cotton Mather, who played a fringe role in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials).

Though there is no surviving transcript with which to flesh out the details of how they arrived at their conclusion, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all present, to the degree that when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was finally published the following year, Phillis’ book was printed with the following testimonial, bearing the signatures of all eighteen of her questioners:

We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

 

With skepticism rampant throughout the colonies, Susanna had gotten a copy of the manuscript in the hands of London publisher Archibald Bell by employing as a courier the captain of her husband John’s England-bound commercial trade ship. Phillis had already established a readership across the Atlantic thanks to the success of the widespread 1770 publication of On the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, her requiem for the recently deceased evangelical preacher, beloved both in the United Kingdom and its colonies. She would soon be accepted and treated as a celebrity, rubbing shoulders with royalty, having accolades and gifts heaped upon her by icons even in their own time and whose books today line our shelves and whose portraits adorn our currency. 

 

An Hymn to the Evening

“Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,

Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.

Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,

And through the air, their mingled music floats.”

 

So that she could personally supervise the publication of her book, Susanna sent Phillis, chaperoned by the Wheatley’s son Nathaniel, to London whereupon she was squired about town to see the sights, including a tour of the Tower of London with Granville Sharp, one of the first English abolitionists.

She was received by the Earl of Dartmouth, who gave her the five guineas necessary to purchase the collected works of Alexander Pope, and was presented with a folio edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost by one-day Lord Mayor Brook Watson.

Even Benjamin Franklin, who was in London grieving the case for peaceful independence on behalf of the American colonies before the classes of the British citizenry, from the highest to most humble, deviated from his schedule of oratory and article writing to spend time with Phillis. She thought highly enough of him that she intended to dedicate her next book to the bespectacled diplomat. 

A momentous meeting with King George III, for whom she had written To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in 1766 following his repeal of the Stamp Act, unfortunately did not occur as Susanna Wheatley’s health suffered a sudden decline, necessitating the immediate return of Phillis and Nathaniel. Susanna improved physically (for the time being) and, though Phillis would continue to live with them, she and John emancipated her shortly after her abrupt homecoming. A shipment of her books arrived at the New Haven customs office from London which she solicited by subscription, even imploring local publishers not to use them as a template from which to print and distribute copies of their own and, thus, undercutting her independent endeavor.

As heady as 1773 was for Phillis, the following year would prove just as sobering, bringing as it did the British occupation of Boston, the death of Susanna, and the resulting grief-stricken flight of John to points unknown. Phillis left for a time as well, living with the Wheatley’s daughter Mary and her husband in Providence until just before the Redcoats had been driven out of Boston.

A handwritten letter was sent by Phillis in October 1775 to Continental Army headquarters in Cambridge, MA addressed to the subject of her poem His Excellency General Washington, a copy of which was enclosed, “though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies”.

Four months later arrived a personal reply wherein George Washington apologized for “the seeming but not real neglect” of his delayed response while self-deprecatingly worrying over “however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric”. His effusive praise is augmented by an invitation for Phillis to call upon him, adding that “I shall be so happy to see a person so favored by the Muses”.

She did, weeks later, journey to from Boston to Cambridge where the General and his officers lavished their attentions upon her and Washington pledged to reprint her poem, a promise he made good on when it appeared in the March 1776 Virginia Gazette. Thomas Paine followed suit, publishing her ode to General Washington in the April edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette

 

An Hymn to the Morning

“Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display

To shield your poet from the burning day,

Calliope awake the sacred lyre,

While thy sisters fan the pleasing fire.”

 

Voltaire lent his endorsement to Phillis Wheatley’s work and she was sent a package from John Paul Jones, just prior to his embarking for Paris aboard the warship Ranger, containing praise of her writing along with hand selected copies of his own. 

Francois, the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, whose request for statistical information on the American colonies inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, had read Phillis’ verses, “in which there is imagination, poetry, and zeal”.

Jefferson, a slaveholding Francophile who would later be lionized by no less than Frederick Douglass, bristled at this praise being accorded the talents of an indentured servant (a black one, anyway-and heaven forbid, a woman - as he pointedly excused from the conversation former European slaves and prisoners Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus) who could never qualify as the white man’s cerebral equal.

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry...Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whatley (his spelling), but it could not produce a poet.

 

She is thereby reduced to a functional automaton capable of reading and, perhaps, comprehending Milton and Pope, the Athenians and Romans, but, creatively, of no better than their soulless mimicry.

Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances,” supposed Jefferson’s vile but not unoriginal claim, “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

 

It is noteworthy, illustrates Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, that “Wheatley’s freedom enslaved her to a life of hardship.” Fame brought no fortune to Phillis, who married John Peters, a free black man whom Gates describes as a “small-time grocer and sometime lawyer”, in 1778. Their years together were ones of financial and personal strife compounded by the deaths of two infants and the failures of Peters’ business ventures, landing him in debtor’s prison and stranding Phillis at home with another unwell child.

Although a handful of New England newspapers did publish some of her last poems, she was unable to gather subscriptions sufficient to cover the printing costs of her second book and, to add to her humiliation, was forced to take work as a scullery maid.

Phillis Wheatley, only thirty years old, died on December 5, 1784 and was followed a little over three hours later by her infant son. Her own widowed husband was the first to soil her literary legacy by selling the only copy of her manuscript, which to this day has never been found.

Her reputation was called severely into question by black radicals during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, when Wheatley was denigrated as “an early Boston Aunt Jemima”, “a colonial handkerchief head”, and reflective of “the nigger component of the Black Experience”.

The spark of this controversy ignited a contemporary reevaluation of her life, beliefs, and writings. Although her prestige is still open to debate and her physical remains are in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston, Phillis Wheatley was selected in 1993 for inclusion in the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, whose bronze sculptures thoughtfully consider one another from a triangular formation.

 

“Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,

At morn’ to wake more heav’nly refin’d,

So shall the labors of the day begin

More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.”

 

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Sources

  • The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates (Basic Civitas Books, 2003)
  • Negro Poetry and Drama by Sterling Brown (Westphalia Press,1937)
  • A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson (Random House, 2009).
  • Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1, edited by Yolanda Williams Page (Greenwood, 2007)
  • Benjamin Franklin Holds Up a Looking Glass to the British Empire (Schiller Institute, September 2012)
  • http://www.cityofboston.gov