Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Wendell Phillips,
Silver-Tongued Orator and Reformer

Next to William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips was the most forceful opponent of the system of human slavery in the United States. He was not a born reformer, like Garrison. He did not leap into the saddle from the start. The feeling of hatred to slavery grew in him stage by stage, though when it was fully developed he was the mate of Garrison in his detestation of the system. These two men did not stand alone—there were many who thought as they did; but for years they bore the brunt of the fray, keeping the fight alive till the mass of the people of the North joined their ranks.

Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, November 29, 181 I. He was not born to poverty, like Garrison, his father being a man of wealth and distinction, of sense and judgment. His wise motto in training his children was, "Ask no man to do anything that you are not able to do for yourself." Inspired by the spirit of this saying, his son Wendell sought to train his hands in work, and it is said that by the time he grew up there was hardly any trade in New England that he did not know something about.

He began his education in Boston's famous old Latin School, and from there went to Harvard College, where he graduated in 1831. John Lothrop Motley, the historian, graduated in the same class, and they had the reputation of being two of the handsomest and most elegant young men in Boston, with a place ready for them in the best society. Each had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, to apply the old saying, but each found something better to do in life than chew upon that spoon. There was work to do in the world, and they were the kind of men to take their full share of it.

After his graduation Phillips entered upon a course of legal study in the Cambridge Law School, and at the age of twenty-three was admitted to practice in the Boston courts. This took place in the period when the country first began to be stirred up upon the question of the abolition of slavery. For several years William Lloyd Garrison had been thundering away against slavery in the columns of The Liberator, and a band of devoted men and women were gathering round him, ardent pioneers in the cause of the liberty of the slave; but the great mass of the people held themselves aloof.

At first Phillips took little interest in this subject. He had early shown himself an orator of unusual powers, but he was concerned as yet with his profession, which probably occupied most of his time and thoughts. He had his social duties also, as a young man occupying a position in Boston's best society. While the demands of the former occupied his business, those of the latter occupied his leisure, hours, and the handsome and attractive young lawyer and orator had very likely little time for thoughts of reform. But he was soon to be awakened.

What first set him to thinking strongly upon the socially tabooed subject of anti-slavery was the attack upon Garrison in October, 1835, by the mob of "gentlemen of property and standing." He doubtless looked upon this act as a shameful outrage, and was brought by it into sympathy with the reformers, for in the next year, 1834, he became a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He went farther than this in his newly-developed opposition to slavery: he relinquished the practice of the law, being unwilling to act under an oath to support the Constitution of the United States while it recognized the institution of slavery.

Though he took this decided step, he did not become active in the advocacy of the new cause until an event occurred that stirred him to the depths of his soul. The anti-slavery sentiment was growing all through the North, but the great mass of the people were on the side of the slave-holders, the abolitionists were few, and their leaders were widely insulted and threatened. The hostile feeling grew to tragic heights in 1837, when Elijah P. Lovejoy, publisher of an abolition paper at Alton, Illinois, was attacked in his office by a pro-slavery mob and murdered while defending his press.

This murder sent a wave of horror throughout the land. It made abolitionists of hundreds who had been lukewarm before. In Boston Dr. Channing called a meeting of indignation at Faneuil Hall, which was attended by many who had been indifferent or even opposed to the reform movement, but were not ready to countenance murder. Speeches were made denouncing the murderers, and all seemed of one mind about the crime, until Mr. Austin, Attorney-General of the State, rose and made a vigorous speech on the other side, saying in the course of his remarks that Lovejoy had died as the fool dieth, and comparing the mob at Alton with the men who threw the tea into Boston harbor.

There were many in the audience ready to applaud these sentiments, and when Wendell Phillips, known to be an abolitionist, arose to reply, hisses came from the more violent. He was not the man to be cowed by a hiss. He began with these stinging words:

"When I beard the gentleman lay down principles that placed the murderers of Alton side by side with Otis and Hancock, with Quincy and Adams, I thought these pictured lips "—pointing to their portraits, which hung upon the walls—" would have broken into voice to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead l "

There were no more hisses. Those words, vibrant with the feeling that moved the speaker's heart, took the throng captive. They remembered what brought them there, indignation against the ruffianly band that had murdered an American citizen while defending one of America's cherished institutions, the freedom of the press. All listened with bated breath as Phillips, in a burst of indignant and powerful eloquence, rebuked the sordid spirit of those who dared to defend a crime against the liberty of speech and the rights of humanity. Rarely had so eloquent a speech been heard within those walls, and no doubt it had a strong effect upon his hearers. Dr. Channing often afterwards spoke of it as "morally sublime."

From that time on there were no half-way measures with Wendell Phillips, no dallying with his subject. He gave his whole heart and soul, his wealth, his profession, his place in society, for the cause he had made his own. The moneyed aristocracy of Boston closed its doors against him, but he never faltered. He made himself poor by his generous aid to the cause, and devoted to it the greater part of the money he made by lecturing. He even refused to vote or to call himself a citizen of the United States so long as its Constitution recognized the slave system. His powers of oratory were so marked that he drew large audiences wherever he appeared, and to hear Wendell Phillips became an event in any one's life. The money his lectures brought him he scarcely regarded as his own so long as the anti-slavery cause stood in need.

Garrison was an older man than Phillips. He was the great anti-slavery pioneer, and the younger man looked up him as his chief. The one with pen, the other with voice, ardently advocated the cause of the slave, and they exerted a powerful influence in converting the host of the northern people into opponents of human slavery. Like Garrison, Phillips believed that a dissolution of the Union would be the most effectual means of gaining freedom for the slaves, and what he thought he did not hesitate to say. He gave his life and strength to the great work he had made his own, and kept at it with the energy of a giant until the war came and the cause was won.

During the war Phillips condemned the administration as dilatory in the cause of emancipation, and he opposed Lincoln's re-election. After the war was closed Garrison wished to disband the American Anti-Slavery Society, of which he had been president for more than thirty years; but Phillips would not listen to this. It must keep together until the negro was given the right of suffrage, he said. He succeeded Garrison as its president, and kept this position till 1870, when, its work fully done, the society disbanded.

Emancipation of the slave was Phillips's one great thought, but it was not his only thought. There was scarcely any reform he did not work for. The cause of women's rights enlisted his heartiest sympathy. He was an earnest advocate of the rights of the Indians, who had been robbed and oppressed. The frequent sufferings of the working class stirred his noble soul. He became an ardent supporter of temperance, and even of State prohibition of strong drink, and was nominated for Governor of Massachusetts on the Prohibition ticket in 1870. He also was strongly enlisted in the Greenback movement—the issue of an irredeemable paper money by the Government.

On all these subjects his voice was heard, and for many years he lectured also to admiring audiences on topics of history and literature. He could always command a large audience, whatever his subject, for the fame of the "Silver-Tongued Orator "was almost world-wide.

A gentleman always, was Wendell Phillips, manly, dignified, courteous, winning the respect of all with whom he came in contact, while his unyielding devotion to the cause he had made his own in time elicited the admiration even of his opponents. Never had there been a sturdier reformer or a nobler character. The power of steady, persistent agitation which he displayed he acknowledged he had learned from the example of Daniel O'Connell. He had learned it well.

In 1881 Harvard College, which had always held aloof from her noble son in consequence of his unstinted denunciation of what he held to be public evils, so far relaxed as to invite him to make the address on the centennial anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It was a distinct and valued triumph to the veteran agitator. His voice was last heard in public on December 28, 1883, and on the 2d of the following February he died.