Ancients, Moderns, and Africans: Phillis Wheatley and the Politics of Empire and Slavery in the American Revolution
Abstract

Phillis Wheatley exacerbated and made manifest the double meaning, and risks, of the classical and republican revival in the context of slavery. She did this, in part, by re-creating herself through the Greek and Roman classics—as a neoclassical poet—and by making the relationship of the patriots’ dilemma to the ancient and modern politics of slavery a key theme of her very public project. Wheatley’s own realization that she could address her African and enslaved experience as well as her captors’ prejudices and practices through an engagement with the Mediterranean heritage—a heritage seen by her captors as at once distant (ancient) and universal—was pivotal. Her profundity and political effectiveness derived not just from her classicism but from its studied inflection of her Africanism—and her womanhood. Ultimately Wheatley followed through on an increasingly complex set of analogies regarding time, space, empires, barbarisms, and liberties that proved useful in confronting the American Revolution as well as slavery


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