Brunswick welcomed Jim Basker — the Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History at Barnard College, Columbia University — to Baker Theater on Tuesday, April 9.
Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and founder and president of OxBridge Academic Programs, is this year’s Louise Lehrman Visiting Senior Fellow.
The Fellowship, established in 2013 by a gift from the Lehrman Institute, engages experts in American History to visit Brunswick, instilling in students a greater understanding of the rights, privileges, and duties of American citizenship.
Basker is the author of scores of books, essays, and educational booklets on various topics in English and American history and literature, including Amazing Grace: Poems about Slavery 1660–1810, Early American Abolitionists, and American Antislavery Writing: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation.
Basker’s lecture, entitled “Re-imagining the Founding Era: Washington, Wheatley, and American Patriotism,” examined the unlikely pairing of African-American poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley and George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the American forces during the Revolutionary Era.
Specifically, Basker shared Wheatley’s poem “His Excellence General Washington,” written in October 1775, to which Washington responded with a cordial and admiring letter five months later.
“If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favour[e]d by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations,” Washington wrote in February 1776.
Basker proposed that Washington’s connection with Wheatley may have impacted his evolving attitude about slavery and race, citing key sections of Washington’s Last Will and Testamentthat expressed his belief in a slave’s right to freedom and his or her capacity to be educated.
To Wheatley, in conclusion, Basker offered his highest praise.
“As the rare American poet — almost unique in her time, who had achieved fame in England and could have pursued her career there with more wealth and fame than in the colonies, who nonetheless gave all that up to return to America, where she risked everything to continue writing some of the most powerful and inspiring poetry of the Revolutionary War period — Phillis Wheatley deserves to be called the Poet Laureate of the American Revolution.”