1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Phillips, Wendell

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PHILLIPS, WENDELL (1811-1884), American orator and reformer, was born in Boston on the 29th of November 1811. His father, John Phillips (1770-1823), a man of wealth and influence, graduated at Harvard College in 1788, and became successively “town advocate and public prosecutor,” and in 1822 first mayor of Boston, then recently made into a city. Wendell Phillips himself attended the public Latin school, entered Harvard College before he was sixteen, and graduated in 1831 in the same class with the historian John Lothrop Motley. He graduated at the Harvard law school in 1834, and was admitted to the bar in Boston. He soon came under the influence of the anti-slavery movement, witnessing in 1835 the mobbing, in Boston, of William Lloyd Garrison. On the 8th of December 1837 a meeting was held at Faneuil Hall to express the sentiments of the people on the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, at Alton, Illinois, for defending his press from a pro-slavery mob. In the course of the meeting a speech was made in opposition to its general current by James T. Austin (1784-1870), attorney-general of the state, who said that Lovejoy had died “as the fool dieth,” and compared his murderers to the men who threw the tea into Boston harbour just before the War of Independence. The speech seemed likely to divide the audience, when Wendell Phillips took the platform. “When I heard,” he said, “the gentleman lay down principles which 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) would have broken into voice to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead.” This appeal not merely determined the sentiment of the meeting, it gave Wendell Phillips his first fame and determined his career. Although loving his profession, and this especially for the opening it gave in the direction of public life, he practically stepped outside the sphere dearest to young Americans, and lived henceforth the life of an agitator, or, like his father, that of a “public prosecutor.” Accepting unhesitatingly the leadership of Garrison, and becoming like him gradually a disunionist, he lived essentially a platform life, interested in a variety of subjects, but first and chiefly an abolitionist. In 1865, however, after the Civil War, he broke with Garrison over the question of discontinuing the Anti-Slavery Society, and from that date until the society was disbanded in 1870 he, instead of Garrison, was its president. He was not, moreover, like his great leader, a non-resistant, nor was he, on the other hand, like John Brown, borne on by irresistible necessity to overt action. Nor did he find, like his fellow-worker, Theodore Parker, the leisure to keep up his scholarship and lead in part the life of a student. Early study and travel had indeed furnished him with abundant material for rhetorical illustration; and he was also a great reader of newspapers, but he used to say that he knew in his whole life but one thing thoroughly, namely, the history of the English Civil War, and there were few occasions when he could not draw from it the needful illustration. His style of eloquence was direct and brilliant, but eminently self-controlled. He often surprised his hearers by the quietness of his beginnings, and these were very often the speeches which turned out most brilliant and most irresistible ere the close. He may be said to have introduced the direct and colloquial manner upon the American public platform, as distinct from the highly elaborated and often ornate style which had been established by Edward Everett; nor has there ever been a reversion since his day to the more artificial method. He was capable at times, nevertheless, of highly sonorous periods with superb climaxes; yet his favourite style was the conversational. His logic, while never obtruded, was rarely at fault; but he loved the flash of the rapier, and was never happier than when he had to face down a mob and utterly foil it by sheer superiority in fencing. The two volumes of his speeches, as edited by James Redpath, were fortunately made from verbatim reports, and they wisely enclose in parentheses those indications of favour or dissent from the audience which transformed so many of his speeches into exhibitions of gladiatorial skill. He was a tribune of the people, associated unflinchingly not merely with the unpopular but with the unpolished; always carrying about him not merely a certain Roman look, but a patrician air. After slavery had fallen Phillips associated himself freely with reformers occupied in other paths, herein separating himself from the other patrician of the movement, Edmund Quincy, who always frankly said that after slavery was abolished there was nothing else worth fighting for. Among other things, Phillips contended, during his later years, for prohibition, woman suffrage and various penal and administrative reforms. He was not always the best judge of character, and was sometimes allied in these movements with men who were little more than demagogues. But the proof he gave by his transfer of energies that the work of reform was never quite finished — this was something of peculiar value, and worth the risk of some indiscretions. The life of a reformer did not in itself make him thoroughly happy; he chafed more and more under its fatigues, and he always felt that his natural place would have been among senators or ambassadors; but he belonged essentially to the heroic type, and it may well have been of him that Emerson was thinking when he wrote those fine words: “What forests of laurel we bring and the tears of mankind to him who stands firm against the opinion of his contemporaries.” His domestic life was most happy, though his wife was a confirmed invalid, seldom quitting her room. She was a woman of heroic nature and very strong convictions. Her husband used to say that she first made him an abolitionist. They had no children, but adopted an orphaned daughter of Mrs Eliza Garnaut, a friend, and this young girl (afterwards the wife of George W. Smalley), brought much light and joy into the household. Their worldly circumstances were easy, though they were always ready to impoverish themselves for the sake of others. Wendell Phillips died in Boston on the 2nd of February 1884.

See Lorenzo Sears, Wendell Phillips, Orator and Agitator (New York, 1909) (T. W. H.)