What Samuel Stanhope Smith had to say about Phillis Wheatley

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While most famous for authoring the 1776 Declaration of Independence and its eloquent articulation of the principles of freedom for all, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson is also well known for his public position that African Americans were intellectually inferior to White Americans. He made his views known in Notes on Virginia (1785).

One example of this is his critique of the famous African American poet Phillis Wheatley. She composed a tribute to George Whitefield, thoughts on the Providence of God, and a poem about being brought to America from Africa, among other notable verses. But Thomas Jefferson only gave her credit for her sincere religious beliefs.

Religion indeed has produced a Phillis 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….I advance it 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 of both body and mind.

The reader will note Jefferson’s equivocal credit of authorship to her volume of poems (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773). It was actually necessary for local civil and religious authorities to investigate whether she, as an African American slave, had the ability to write the poems ascribed to her. They concluded that she indeed the poet that she claimed to be, and their written testimony was included by the publisher in the preface to her book. But questions about her ability to skillfully write poetry lingered in the minds of some - precisely because she was an African American.

In 1787, the first to refute this argument by Jefferson about the supposed intellectual inferiority of African Americans in general, and Phillis Wheatley specifically, was Samuel Stanhope Smith in his Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (2nd ed. 1810).

In 2019, it seems anachronistic to acknowledge not only Phillis Wheatley’s ability as a poet, but also the equality of African Americans with White Americans on an intellectual basis. But in 1787, it was noteworthy for Smith to publicly challenge Jefferson’s views.

These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them…. The poems of Phillis Whately, a poor African slave, taught to read by the indulgent piety of her master, are spoken of with infinite contempt. But I will demand of Mr. Jefferson, or any other man who is acquainted with American planters, how many of those masters could have written poems equal to those of Phillis Whately?

Smith argued in his Essay for the doctrine of “[t]he unity of the human race, notwithstanding the diversity of colour, and form under which it appears in different portions of the globe.” In his view, differences between the peoples of different parts of the world should be understood as reflecting the conditions in which they lived. It should be understood by the modern reader of his Essay that Smith’s defense of the unity of all mankind regardless of skin color, though remarkable for its day, contains expressions which were dismissive of African culture.

Like Jefferson, Smith was a slaveholder. He was more moderate in his aim of gradual emancipation for slaves than his friend “Father” David Rice, who strived to ban slavery at the beginning of Kentucky’s statehood in 1792 — although Rice too was a slaveholder. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia also advocated the colonization of Africa by freed slaves; Smith’s own ideas on the subject helped lead to the creation of the African Colonization Society in 1816 - a project that was controversial among white and black American Presbyterians and others.

Few American Presbyterians of that era were consistent in their principles and practices regarding opposition to slavery — George Bourne, and Alexander McLeod and the RPCNA were notable exceptions. Bourne, in his 1816 volume The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, notes the contradiction represented by Samuel Stanhope Smith:

Dr. Smith exemplifies the difficulties, which a man must surmount, who endeavors to combine truth with error, and rectitude of principle with corruption of practice.

Yet, Smith’s defense of Phillis Wheatley was an important public statement of his position that African Americans are not “inferior” to whites. Wheatley, who was emancipated the same year that her poems were first published, once wrote a letter to Native American Presbyterian minister Samson Occom, in which she spoke of the universal love of freedom.

…in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. (Published in The Connecticut Gazette, March 11, 1774)

We may credit Samuel Stanhope Smith with defending the unity of mankind against the charge that African Americans were “inferior,” and using the example of Phillis Wheatley to demonstrate this, while yet decrying that this defense was ever needed, and also decrying Smith’s own inconsistencies regarding slavery.