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By William H. Benson

The Parallel Lives


Roger Williams VS. Cotton Mathers


Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley and Billy Lee

Two African-American slaves from the eighteenth century: Phillis Wheatley and William “Billy” Lee. The first a woman, the second a man. The first a poet, the second a valet. The two received their freedom from their respective owners, and they each knew George Washington.

First, Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753 or 1754, but when a child of 7 or 8, slave traders kidnapped her, sold her into slavery, and transported her to North America aboard the ship “The Phillis.” John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston purchased her in mid-July of 1761.

They gave her the name Phillis and asked their eighteen-year-old daughter Mary to tutor Phillis, who displayed a superb talent for learning English and Greek and Latin, for reading the Bible and classical works, and for composing poems. They encouraged the child’s literary talent.

In 1773, when Phillis turned 20, the Wheatley’s sent her to England, accompanied by their son Nathaniel, and there Phillis found a publisher willing to print her collection of poems that she entitled “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”

It was the first book written by an enslaved Black woman of America.

After Phillis returned to Boston in the fall of 1773, John and Susanna Wheatley set her free.

On Oct. 26, 1775, Phillis wrote a letter to General George Washington and enclosed a poem about him, entitled “His Excellency, General Washington.” Bold and daring she was.

In the cover letter she wrote, “I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance.” Note that her fifth word is “freedom.”

In the poem, she begins, “Celestial choir! enthroned in realms of light, Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.” Then, she ends the poem,

“Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.”

On Feb. 28, 1776, Washington wrote back to Phillis Wheatley, saying, “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines You enclosed. If you should ever come to Cambridge, I should be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses.”

The historical record is unclear if Washington understood then that Miss Wheatley was a former slave. It is also unclear if Washington ever met the poet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he and his army were holding a siege upon Boston that soon drove off the British army.

Phillis Wheatley passed away on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31.

Second, William Lee was George Washington’s slave and valet for two decades, including the years when Washington led the colonial army in a war with Great Britain, 1775-1783. “Billy” Lee rode his horse beside the general, and also set up and took down their tent.

In addition, Billy attended to Washington’s stack of papers, held onto his spyglass, combed his hair, laid out his clothes, mailed his letters, and delivered his messages. He was Washington’s manservant, and the two lived for “more than seven years in close proximity during the war.”

After the war, Billy hoped to continue to serve Washington in New York City, after voters elected Washington as the nation’s first president, but by then Lee’s knees were worn out, and he no longer could act as Washington’s valet. Washington sent him back to Mount Vernon.

There, Billy made shoes “in the small cobbler shop behind the greenhouse.”

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon. By his will, he set free one slave of the 317 slaves working then at Mount Vernon, and that was Billy Lee. Washington also stipulated that Billy was to receive “an annual allowance of $30 for the rest of his life, noting,

“This I give him for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”

Billy Lee remained at Mount Vernon until he too passed away in 1810.

Two former slaves to reflect upon during Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley and William “Billy” Lee. Also, a former President to consider on President’s Day: George Washington.

National Freedom Day and Black History Month

On Feb. 7, 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a professor of history, announced that he would celebrate and highlight for the first time ever a single week devoted to African-American history, and he called it “Negro History Week.”

He selected the second week in February because of its proximity to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, Lincoln on Feb. 12, and Douglass on a day in February.

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Frederick Douglass’ “Slaveholder’s Sermon”

On May 11, 2017, the newly-elected U.S. President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as chair, and Kansas State’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair.

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Assertion is not evidence

On May 11, 2017, the newly-elected U.S. President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as chair, and Kansas State’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair.

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Older Posts

Assertion is not evidence

Assertion is not evidence

On May 11, 2017, the newly-elected U.S. President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as chair, and Kansas State’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair.

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Unique words in history

Unique words in history

December 16 marked the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, when colonial Bostonians dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded three ships—Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver—split open 340 chests filled with tea, and dumped their contents into Boston’s harbor.

This defiant act was directed as a protest against Parliament’s insistence that the consignees of the tea in the American colonies pay an import tax, to keep afloat the struggling British East India Company, which brought the tea to the colonists.

The colonists were angry. They paid taxes to their

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Secession and Abraham Lincoln

Secession and Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln faced an absolute calamity on March 4, 1861, the day when Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office to Lincoln at his inauguration.

Already seven states from the South had seceded, or withdrawn, from the Union because voters had elected Lincoln President of the United States. Southern voters believed that Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery into western territories, like Kansas and Nebraska.

South Carolina voted to secede on December 20, 1860, forty-four days…

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Election of 1864

Election of 1864

Throughout the year of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln believed that he would lose the election in November. He admitted in August, “I am going to be beaten, and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.” The odds were stacked against him.

Plenty of voters in the Union had reason to despise, even hate, Lincoln.

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Tunnels and war coincide

Tunnels and war coincide

People burrow into the subsoil, build tunnels, plus storage rooms, and stockpile food and water, for one reason, and that is to stay alive. Atop the ground, in the open air, in the sunshine, they feel oppressed, insecure, and poised to die or suffer an injury.

On July 4, 1863, thirty-one thousand Confederate soldiers, trapped inside Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River, surrendered to the Union’s commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, on the forty-eighth day of Grant’s siege of that town.

During the siege, civilians had dug some five hundred caves into the hillsides, and fitted them out with “rugs, beds, and chairs.” One cave dweller said, “We were in hourly dread of snakes. The vines and thickets were full of them.”

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What can I achieve with Greek mythology?

What can I achieve with Greek mythology?

What is the good that comes from knowing even a little about the ancient Greeks’ religion?

I prefer to learn of actual people who once lived in a historical setting, a time and a place. Greek mythology, instead, is a collection of make-believe fantasy stories I would like to know more of, but I find it hard to gain much traction from them, practical use. I wonder.

Mark Twain disparaged the whole notion. “Classics,” he said, “are the books that everybody wants to claim to have read, but nobody wants to read.”

After all, Greek religion is mythology, a series of stories about the gods and the goddesses whom the Greeks believed resided on or near Mount Olympus.

They included a dozen Olympians: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Her

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William Benson

One of University of Northern Colorado’s 2020 Honored Alumni

William H. Benson

Local has provided scholarships for history students for 15 years

A Sterling resident is among five alumni selected to be recognized this year by the University of Northern Colorado. Bill Benson is one of college’s 2020 Honored Alumni.

Each year UNC honors alumni in recognition for their outstanding contributions to the college, their profession and their community. This year’s honorees were to be recognized at an awards ceremony on March 27, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak that event has been cancelled. Instead UNC will recognize the honorees in the fall during homecoming Oct. 10 and 11……

Newspaper Columns

The Duodecimal System

For centuries, the ancient Romans calculated sums with their clunky numerals: I, V, X, L, C, D, and M; or one, five, ten, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000. They knew nothing better.

The Thirteenth Amendment

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and by it, he declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s Proclamation freed some 3.1 million slaves within the Confederacy.

The Fourteenth Amendment

After Congress and enough states ratified the thirteenth amendment that terminated slavery, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law declared that “all people born in the United States are entitled to be citizens, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” The Act equated birth to citizenship.

The New-York Packet and the Constitution

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian, published her newest book a month ago, These Truths: A History of the United States. In a short introduction, she describes in detail the Oct. 30, 1787 edition of a semi-weekly newspaper, The New-York Packet.


Mr. Benson’s writings on the U.S. Constitution are a great addition to the South Platte Sentinel. Its inspiring to see the history of the highest laws of this country passed on to others.

– Richard Hogan


Mr. Benson, I cannot thank you enough for this scholarship. As a first-generation college student, the prospect of finding a way to afford college is a very daunting one. Thanks to your generous donation, my dream of attending UNC and continuing my success here is far more achievable

Cedric Sage Nixon


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– Extra Times


  • Thomas Paine vs. George Whitefield
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson vs. Joseph Smith
  • William James vs. Mary Baker Eddy
  • Mark Twain vs. Billy Graham
  • Henry Louis Mencken vs. Jim Bakker