Phillips, Wendell

views updated May 18 2018

Phillips, Wendell 1811–1884

Wendell Phillips, antislavery leader and crusader for the rights of women, labor, and the oppressed everywhere, was born November 29, 1811, “the child,” as he put it, “of six generations of Puritans” (Phillips 2001, p. 26). His father was the first mayor of Boston. His mother was Salley Walley, daughter of a Boston merchant. When Phillips was fourteen, he attended a meeting conducted by the famous revivalist Lyman Beecher. Shortly before his death, Phillips said, “From that day to this, whenever I have known a thing to be wrong, it has held no temptation. Whenever I have known it to be right, it has taken no courage to do it” (Korngold 1950, p. 111). He attended Boston Latin School, distinguishing himself as an athlete, and Harvard College, graduating with high honors in 1831. According to biographer Ralph Korngold (1950), he was “six feet tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered and with a soldierly bearing.” A college friend described him as “the most beautiful person I had ever seen… a young Apollo.” All his life he conducted himself like an aristocrat, “always well-dressed—not a speck on his clothing” (pp. 119–120). He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1833 and was admitted to the bar the next year. He opened a law office, but his heart was not in it. Later he said that, left to follow his own course, he should have studied mechanics or history.

Phillips was fond of telling friends that his wife, the former Ann Terry Greene, whom he had met while he was in law school, had converted him to abolitionism. In 1835 he witnessed a mob determined to lynch William Lloyd Garrison leading him up the street with a rope around his neck. It was not that episode but another that won him to the cause of abolition. In November 1837 abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Alton, Illinois, while trying to defend his printing press from a mob. The following month, at a public meeting at Faneuil Hall called to discuss the case, Phillips, angered by the speech of the Massachusetts attorney general, who defended the mob and condemned Lovejoy as “presumptuous and imprudent,” took the floor and delivered an address that linked the right of free speech and the antislavery cause. His address won over the audience, most of whom had started out hostile, and led to his being immediately recognized as one of the outstanding orators of the day. He would later come to be known as “the golden trumpet of abolition.”

Phillips gave up his law practice, such as it was, because he found it impossible to take an oath to defend the Constitution, regarding it as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell,” a description used by many abolitionists. For thirty years he labored in the ranks of the abolitionists. Whereas most northerners opposed slavery, they hated abolitionism more. Business interests depended on slave-grown cotton and sugar, and laborers feared the sudden appearance of a million former slaves in the labor market. As a result, abolitionists regularly found themselves the targets of violent mobs. Phillips carried a pistol to defend himself. His family responded to his course by seeking to have him declared insane. “We do not play politics,” he declared. “Anti-slavery is no half-jest with us; it is a terrible earnest, with life or death, worse than life or death, on the issue” (Phillips 2001, p. 51).

In addition to speaking, Phillips wrote, traveled, and organized for the cause. He helped popularize the slogan “No union with slaveholders,” part of a strategy aimed at bringing down slavery by removing northern support. Phillips frequently addressed northern audiences as “fellow subjects of Virginia,” reminding them that it was their taxes that paid for the armed force that held down the slave. “All the slave asks of us,” he declared, “is to stand out of his way, withdraw our pledge to keep the peace on the plantation, withdraw our pledge to return him” (Phil-lips 2001, pp. 14–15). At rallies he asked his audiences to pledge never to return the fugitive who set foot on northern soil, and he himself took part in efforts to defend fugitives by direct action, in defiance of federal law.

When South Carolina and other states announced their secession from the Union, Phillips and other abolitionists were outcasts, living under threat of attack from northern mobs who blamed them for the breakup of the nation. Yet as the Civil War continued and it became increasingly clear that no policy of conciliation could lure the seceded states back into the Union, public opinion turned. Over the winter of 1861–1862, five million people heard him speak or read his speeches calling for emancipation, the enlistment of black soldiers, and an active military strategy. When he visited Washington, the vice president welcomed him to the Senate chamber, the Speaker of the House invited him to dinner, and the president received him as a guest. He had gone from pariah to prophet.

When the Thirteenth Amendment passed in December 1865, some abolitionists, including Garrison, concluded that their work was done. Phillips disagreed, believing that their work was not over until full equality was guaranteed. He assumed formal leadership of the Anti-Slavery Society and continued his efforts on behalf of the freedpeople. While not forgetting the slave, he took up new issues. He ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1870 on the Labor Reform ticket, resisting the anti-Chinese campaign that had gained the support of many labor reformers. He joined the International Working-men’s Association and declared his support for the Paris Commune of 1871.

Summarizing his career, Phillips said he had “worked 40 years, served in 20 movements, and been kicked out of all of them” (Phillips 2001, p. 27). He died on February 2, 1884. His death was announced in newspapers across the country. His funeral was a state occasion, with offerings sent from workers, Irish, and other groups whose cause he had championed. Thousands waited in line for a last look at him. Two companies of black militia, marching to the roll of muffled drums, served as an honor guard (Korngold 1950, p. 397). A statue of him stands by the Boston Public Garden.

SEE ALSO Abolition Movement.



Phillips, Wendell. 1968 [1863]. Speeches, Lectures, and Letters. Boston: James Redpath Publishers. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press.

_____. 1969 [1891]. Speeches, Lectures, and Letters. Second Series. Boston: Lee and Shepard. Reprint, New York: Arno Press.

_____. 2001. The Lesson of the Hour: Wendell Phillips on Abolition and Strategy. Edited by Noel Ignatiev. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr.


Korngold, Ralph. 1950. Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Boston: Little Brown.

Martyn, W. Carlos. 1891. Wendell Phillips: The Agitator. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

Stewart, James Brewer. 1986. Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Noel Ignatiev

Phillips, Wendell (1811-1884)

views updated May 14 2018

Wendell Phillips (1811-1884)



Beacon Hill. Bostonians looking back on the life of Wendell Phillips observed that he was born on Beacon Street and died on Common Street. He epitomized the exclusive social circle that his cousin Oliver Wendell Holmes dubbed the Brahmins, an allusion to the caste system of India. The Phillips family tree led directly back to one of the Puritan ministers who arrived on the Arbella with John Winthrop; Wendell Phillipss father served as a mayor of Boston and was buried in a grave between Samuel Adams and James Otis upon his sudden death after a year in office. Phillipss closest boyhood friends were future historian John Lothrop Motley and Thomas Appleton, son of the visionary manufacturer whose textile mills at Lowell generated fortunes for the Boston elite. Phillips was the only student in his Harvard College class for whom a private carriage called on every Saturday morning.

Abolitionist. After preparing briefly for a career in law Phillips was introduced to the antislavery movement by his future wife, Anne Greene, who had moved upon the death of her parents into the household of her cousin Maria Weston Chapman, one of the central figures in Boston abolitionism. Phillips made his debut for the cause at a meeting in Faneuil Hall after the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, in November 1837. Stirred to respond when the attorney general of Massachusetts defended the mob that attacked Lovejoy as a legitimate successor to the mobs led by Samuel Adams, Phillips demonstrated his quiet, mesmerizing speaking style and his passion for preserving the integrity of Boston that had been consecrated by the prayers of Puritans and the blood of patriots.

Radical Vanguard. Phillips soon became chief lieutenant of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, delivering addresses for the cause and developing its theoretical premises. He joined Garrison in spurning any participation in politics, which he considered incompatible with the promotion of moral principles. Although Phillips sometimes shared goals with antislavery politicians, his rigid insistence on complete conformity with every implication of abolitionism led him into conflicts with men as sympathetic to his cause as Horace Mann and Charles Sumner. When the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president, Phillips branded him the Slave-Hound of Illinois because in proposing the gradual abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia while in Congress, Lincoln had included temporary arrangements for the retrieval of fugitive slaves. Particularly outraged by the pursuit of runaways into Boston, Phillips joined Garrison in adopting the motto No Union with Slavery and calling for Massachusetts to break all ties with the Southern states.

Politics. Notwithstanding Phillipss policy of disunion, he declared support for the war after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Contrary to the declared federal intent to avoid interference with slavery, he welcomed every opportunity that the war provided to strike at the institution. He also came to take a more active role in politics, including strong support for a radical challenge to the reelection of Lincoln. Political involvement helped undermine Phillipss relationship with Garrison, who had entered the fray on Lincolns side. When the war ended, Garrison moved to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society on the ground that it had fulfilled its purpose. Phillips engineered the defeat of the proposal and upon Garrisons retirement assumed the presidency of the organization, for which he adopted the new motto No Reconstruction without Negro Suffrage. His efforts over the next five years were rewarded by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1870.

New Directions. Phillips concentrated in the 1870s on labor reform as the emerging issue of the future. After declining for decades to seek office as an antislavery politician despite advantages that gave him excellent prospects for success, he accepted the nomination for governor of Massachusetts on the Labor Reform ticket in 1870. He called for legislation to limit working hours and also distinguished his campaign through his defense of Chinese immigrants that employers sought to exploit and laborers sought to exclude. In the years following this unsuccessful candidacy his program for labor shifted to support for expansion of the money supply through circulation of paper currency. These views on regulation and finance were even more unpopular within Phillipss social class than his abolitionism had been. He also spoke in support of many other political causes during the 1870s, including the enforcement of civil rights in the South, woman suffrage, and temperance, as well as delivering many addresses on casual topics. From the end of the war until his retirement in 1880 he was the most popular lecturer in the country, the last of the great orators of New England. He died on 2 February 1884.


Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell Phillips: Brahmin Radical (Boston: Beacon, 1961);

James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Libertys Hero (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).

Wendell Phillips

views updated May 14 2018

Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), American abolitionist and social reformer, became the antislavery movement's most powerful orator and, after the Civil War, the chief proponent of full civil rights for freed slaves.

Wendell Phillips was born on Nov. 29, 1811, into a wealthy, aristocratic Boston family. Gifted, handsome, and brilliant, he excelled in his studies at Harvard, where he graduated in 1831, and in the study of law, which he undertook with the great Joseph Story. Phillips was admitted to the bar in 1834 and opened an office in Boston. In 1835, from his office window, he saw William Lloyd Garrison being dragged through the street by a mob, an event that changed his attitude toward slavery. Phillips's meeting with Ann Terry Greene, an active worker in the Boston Female Antislavery Society, increased his interest in the abolition movement. They were married on Oct. 12, 1837. He wrote later that "my wife made an out-and-out abolitionist of me, and always preceded me in the adoption of various causes I have advocated."

Phillips enlisted in the cause at a meeting on Dec. 8, 1837, to protest the death of antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois. After the attorney general of Massachusetts condoned the Illinois mob, Phillips sprang to the platform: his eloquent defense of Lovejoy catapulted him into the ranks of abolitionist leaders. Breaking with his family and friends and relinquishing his law practice, he joined Garrison and became, next to Garrison, New England's best-known abolitionist. The true reformer, Phillips said, must be prepared to sacrifice everything for his cause; he is "careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals only with ideas, consciences, and common sense." Like Garrison, Phillips attacked what he believed to be the "proslavery" Constitution, rejected political action, and ultimately demanded the division of the Union if slavery was not immediately abolished. A persuasive and elegant speaker, he could be so denunciatory that he was several times nearly mobbed.

During the early Civil War, Phillips censured Abraham Lincoln's reluctance to free the slaves, calling him "a first-rate second-rate man" whose "milk-livered administration" conducted the war "with the purpose of saving slavery." He welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation but violently opposed Lincoln's reelection in 1864, and in 1865 he resisted Garrison's attempts to terminate the American Antislavery Society. Phillips maintained that the African Americans' freedom would not be achieved until they possessed the ballot and full civil and social rights. Garrison lost, and Phillips remained president of the society until 1870.

Phillips's other causes included prohibition, women's rights, prison reform, greenbacks, an 8-hour day, and Labor unions. He helped organize the Labor Reform Convention and the Prohibition party in Massachusetts, and both nominated him for governor in 1870. A revolutionary idealist, he envisioned an American society "with no rich men and no poor men in it, all mingling in the same society … all opportunities equal, nobody so proud as to stand aloof, nobody so humble as to be shut out." His political involvement, however, and his increasing radicalism, which led him to advocate "the overthrow of the whole profit-making system …, the abolition of the privileged classes …, and the present system of finance, " alienated some of his friends and reduced his effectiveness as a reform leader.

Phillips remained popular on the lyceum circuit, speaking sometimes 60 times a year and earning up to $15, 000 annually. He died on Feb. 7, 1884.

Further Reading

Three excellent biographies of Phillips are Ralph Korngold, Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and Their Relationship with Abraham Lincoln (1950); Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (1958); and Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell Phillips: Brahmin Radical (1961).

Additional Sources

Bartlett, Irving H., Wendell and Ann Phillips: the community of reform, 1840-1880, New York: Norton, 1979.

Sherwin, Oscar, Prophet of liberty: the life and times of Wendell Phillips, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1958.

Stewart, James Brewer, Wendell Phillips, liberty's hero, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986. □

Phillips, Wendell

views updated May 23 2018

Phillips, Wendell (1811–84) US social reformer. He made a speech in Boston in favour of emancipation of slaves in 1836. He became a close associate of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and was president of the Antislavery Society (1865–70). He also advocated women's and workers' rights and temperance.