Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Phillips, John

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PHILLIPS, John, first mayor of Boston, b. in Boston, Mass., 26 Nov., 1770; d. there, 23 May, 1823. He was graduated at Harvard in 1788, and then studied law. In 1800 he was made public prosecutor, and in 1803 was chosen representative to the general court. He was sent to the Massachusetts senate in 1804, and continued member of that body until his death, serving as presiding officer in 1813-'23. In 1820 he was a member of the convention that met to consider the revision of the state constitution, and he took an active part in the proceedings of that body. Mr. Phillips was also active in the agitation tending toward the adoption of a city government in Boston, and was chairman of the committee of twelve that drew up and reported on a city charter for the town in 1822. In the choice for mayor that followed, Harrison Gray Otis and Josiah Quincy were the chief candidates for the office, but, as neither was able to secure an election, their friends agreed on Mr. Phillips, who was elected on 16 April, 1822. At the close of his term of office the precarious condition of his health led him to decline a re-election. In 1812 he was chosen a member of the corporation of Harvard, and he was also a fellow of the American academy of arts and sciences. He was invited in 1794 to deliver the annual Fourth of July oration before the people of Boston, and his address is said to have borne “the finest marks of intellectual vigor.” —

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His son, Wendell, orator, b. in Boston, Mass., 29 Nov., 1811; d. there, 2 Feb., 1884, entered the Boston Latin-school in 1822, and was graduated at Harvard in 1831, in the same class with the historian J. Lothrop Motley. As a student he showed no particular interest in reforms; indeed, he bore the reputation of having defeated the first attempt to form a temperance society at Harvard. Handsome in person, cultivated in manners, and of a kindly and generous disposition, he was popular among his fellow-students, and was noted for his fine elocution and his skill in debate. His heart had responded to Webster's fiery denunciation at Plymouth in 1820 of that “work of hell, foul and dark,” the slave-trade. “If the pulpit be silent whenever or wherever there may be a sinner bloody with this guilt within the hearing of its voice, the pulpit is false to its trust.” He had taken a boy's part in honoring Lafayette, and in the midst of such associations he was unconsciously fitted for his career. In college his favorite study was history. He gave a year to the story of the English revolution of 1630, reading everything concerning it that he could find. With equal care he studied the period of George III., and Dutch history also so far as English literature enabled him to do so. His parents were of the Evangelical faith, and in one of the revivals of religion that followed the settlement of Dr. Lyman Beecher in Boston he became a convert, and he did not at any subsequent time depart from the faith of his fathers. While he denounced the churches for their complicity with slavery, he made no war upon their creeds. A fellow-student remembers well his earnest religiousness in college, and his “devoutness during morning and evening prayers which so many others attended only to save their credit with the government.” Though orthodox himself, he welcomed those of other faiths, and even of no faith, to the anti-slavery platform, resisting every attempt to divide the host upon sectarian or theological grounds. He entered the Harvard law-school for a term of three years, and in 1834 was admitted to the bar. He was well equipped for his profession in every respect save one, viz., that he appears to have had no special love for it and small ambition for success therein. “If,” he said to a friend, “clients do not come, I will throw myself heart and soul into some good cause and devote my life to it.” The clients would doubtless have come in no long time if he had chosen to wait for them, but the “good cause” presented its claims first, and was so fortunate as to win the devotion of his life. “The Liberator,” founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, had already forced the slavery question upon public attention and created an agitation that the leaders of society were vainly endeavoring to suppress. It has been said, probably with truth, that the first person to interest Mr. Phillips in this subject was the lady — Miss Anne Terry Greene — who afterward became his wife and, as he himself has said, “his counsel, his guide, his inspiration,” during his whole subsequent life. Of all the young men of Boston at that period, there was hardly one whose social relations, education, and personal character better fitted him for success as an aspirant for such public honors as Massachusetts was accustomed to bestow upon the most gifted of her sons. But if ambitions or aspirations of this sort were ever indulged, he had the courage and the moral power to resist their appeals and devote himself to what he felt to be a righteous though popularly odious cause. The poet James Russell Lowell has embalmed the memory of his early self-abnegation in a sonnet, of which these lines form a part:


He stood upon the world's broad threshold; wide
  The din of battle and of slaughter rose;
He saw God stand upon the weaker side
  That sunk in seeming loss before its foes.
  . . . . . Therefore he went
  And joined him to the weaker part,
Fanatic named, and fool, yet well content
  So he could be nearer to God's heart,
And feel its solemn pulses sending blood
Through all the wide-spread veins of endless good.”


Looking from his office-window on 21 Oct., 1835, he saw the crowd of “gentlemen of property and standing” gathered in Washington and State streets to break up a meeting of anti-slavery ladies and “snake out that infamous foreign scoundrel, Thompson,” and “bring him to the tar-kettle before dark” — the same Thompson of whom Lord Brougham said in the house of lords at the time of the passage of the British emancipation act: “I rise to take the crown of this most glorious victory from every other head and place it upon his. He has done more than any other man to achieve it”; and of whom John Bright said: “I have always considered him the liberator of the slaves in the English colonies; for, without his commanding eloquence, made irresistible by the blessedness of his cause, I do not think all the other agencies then at work would have procured their freedom.” The mob, disappointed in its expectation of getting possession of the eloquent Englishman, “snaked out” Garrison instead, and Phillips saw him dragged through the streets, his person well-nigh denuded of clothing, and a rope around his waist ready to strangle him withal, from which fate he was rescued only by a desperate ruse of the mayor, who locked him up in the jail for safety. This spectacle deeply moved the young lawyer, who from that hour was an avowed Abolitionist, though he was not widely known as such until the martyrdom of Elijah P. Lovejoy (q. v.) in 1837 brought him into sudden prominence and revealed him to the country as an orator of the rarest gifts. The men then at the head of affairs in Boston were not disposed to make any open protest against this outrage upon the freedom of the press; but William Ellery Channing, the eminent preacher and writer, was resolved that the freedom-loving people of the city should have an opportunity to express their sentiments in an hour so fraught with danger to the cause of American liberty, and through his persistent efforts preparations were made for a public meeting, which assembled in Faneuil hall on 8 Dec., 1837. It was the custom to hold such meetings in the evening, but there were threats of a mob, and this one on that account was appointed for a daylight hour.

The hall was well filled, Jonathan Phillips was called to the chair, Dr. Channing made an impressive address, and resolutions written by him, fitly characterizing the outrage at Alton, were introduced. George S. Hillard, a popular young lawyer, followed in a serious and well-considered address. Thus far everything had gone smoothly; but now uprose James T. Austin, attorney-general of the state, a member of Dr. Channing's congregation, but known to be bitterly opposed to his anti-slavery course. He eulogized the Alton murderers, comparing them with the patriots of the Revolution, and declared that Lovejoy had “died as the fool dieth.” Mr. Phillips was present, but with no expectation of speaking. There were those in the hall, however, who thought him the man best fitted to reply to Austin, and some of these urged the managers to call upon him, which they consented to do. As he stepped upon the platform, his manly beauty, dignity, and perfect self-possession won instant admiration. His opening sentences, uttered calmly but with deep feeling, revealed his power and raised expectation to the highest pitch. “When,” said he, “I heard the gentleman [Mr. Austin] lay down principles which placed the rioters, incendiaries, and murderers of Alton side by side with Otis and Hancock, with Quincy and Adams, I thought those pictured lips [pointing to the portraits in the hall] would have broken into voice to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead. Sir, for the sentiments he has uttered on soil consecrated by the prayers of Puritans and the blood of patriots, the earth should have yawned and swallowed him up.”

These stinging words were greeted with applause, which showed that the young orator had but expressed the conviction and the feeling of the vast majority of the assembly, and that it was not in the power of the dissidents to defeat the purpose for which it had been convened. Freedom of speech was vindicated and mobocracy and assassination were rebuked in Faneuil hall, while the hated Abolitionists rejoiced that they had found a champion fitted to maintain their cause in any presence or emergency. From that hour to the end of the anti-slavery conflict the name of Wendell Phillips was everywhere, and among all classes, the accepted synonym of the highest type of American eloquence. In no half-way fashion did he espouse the anti-slavery cause. He accepted without reservation the doctrines that Garrison had formulated — viz.: slavery under all circumstances a sin; immediate emancipation a fundamental right and duty; colonization a delusion and a snare; the blood-guiltiness of the church in seeking apologies for slavery in the Bible, and the spuriousness of the statesmanship that sought to suppress agitation and held that liberty and slavery could be at peace under one and the same government. He did the work of a lecturing agent, obeying every call so far as his strength permitted, without any pecuniary reward. When he could command fifty or one hundred dollars for a lecture on any other subject, he would speak on slavery for nothing if the people consented to hear him. It is hardly possible to estimate the value to the anti-slavery cause of services so freely rendered by a man of such gifts and attainments, in the years when that cause was struggling under a weight of odium which not even his eloquence sufficed to overcome. As a speaker he was above all others the popular favorite, and his tact in gaining a hearing in spite of mob turbulence was extraordinary. His courage lifted him above fear of personal violence, while his wit illuminated his argument as the lightning illumines the heavens. The Abolitionists were proud of a defender who could disarm if he could not wholly conquer popular hostility, who might be safely pitted against any antagonist, and whose character could in no way be impeached. In every emergency of the cause he led the charge against its enemies, and never did he surrender a principle or consent to a compromise. His fidelity, no less than his eloquence, endeared him to his associates, while his winning manners charmed all who met him in social life. The strongest opponents of the anti-slavery cause felt the spell of his power and respected him for his shining example of integrity and devotion.

In the divisions among the Abolitionists, which took place in 1839-'40, he stood with Garrison in favor of recognizing the equal rights of women as members of the anti-slavery societies, in stern opposition to the organization by Abolitionists, as such, of a political party, and in resistance to the attempt to discredit and proscribe men upon the anti-slavery platform on account of their religious belief. In 1840 he represented the Massachusetts Abolitionists in the World's anti-slavery convention in London, where he pleaded in vain for the admission of the woman delegates sent from this country. He took a prominent part in discussing the provisions of the constitution of the United States relating to slavery, and after mature reflection came with Garrison to the conclusion that what were popularly called the “compromises” of that instrument were immoral and in no way binding upon the conscience; and in 1843-'4 he was conspicuous among those who led the anti-slavery societies in openly declaring this doctrine as thenceforth fundamental in their agitation. This was done, not upon the ground of non-resistance, or on account of any objection to government by force, but solely because it was held to be immoral to wield the power of civil government in any manner or degree for the support of slavery. There was no objection to political action, as such, but only to such political action as made voters and officers responsible for executing the provisions that made the national government the defender of slavery. Of course, those who took this ground were constrained to forego the ballot until the constitution could be amended, but there remained to them the moral power by which prophets and apostles “subdued kingdoms and wrought righteousness” — the power of truth, of an unfettered press, and a free platform. And these instrumentalities they employed unflinchingly to expose the character of slavery, to show that the national government was its main support, and to expose the sin and folly, as they thought, of maintaining a Union so hampered and defiled. They accepted this as their clearly revealed duty, in spite of the odium thereby involved; and they went on in this course until the secession of the slave states brought them relief by investing the president with power to emancipate the slaves, under the rules of war.

Thenceforth Mr. Phillips devoted himself to the task of persuading the people of the loyal states that they were honorably released from every obligation, implied or supposed, to respect the “compromises” of the constitution, and that it was their right and duty to emancipate the slaves as a measure of war, and as a means of forming a regenerated and disenthralled Union. In this he was sustained not only by the whole body of Abolitionists of whatever school, but by a great multitude of people who had long stood aloof from their cause, and the effort was crowned with success in the president's proclamation of 1 Jan., 1863. From that moment the civil war became an anti-slavery war as well as a war for national unity, and thousands of Abolitionists who had followed the lead of Phillips hastened to enter the ranks.

In all these conflicts Phillips stood shoulder to shoulder with Garrison, and was followed by a body of people, not indeed very numerous, but of wide moral influence. In 1864 Mr. Phillips opposed, while Garrison favored, the re-election of President Lincoln. In the spring of 1865, when Garrison advocated the dissolution of the American anti-slavery society, on the ground that, slavery being abolished, there was no further need of such an association, Mr. Phillips successfully opposed him, contending that it should not disband until the negro had gained the ballot. This division led to some unpleasant controversy of no long continuance. Mr. Phillips became president of the society in place of Mr. Garrison, and it was continued under his direction until 1870.

In the popular discussion of the measures for reconstructing the Union he took a prominent part, mainly for the purpose of guarding the rights of the negro population, to whom he thus greatly endeared himself. He had previously won their gratitude by his zealous efforts in behalf of fugitive slaves, and to abolish distinctions of color in schools, in public conveyances, and in places of popular resort. He was at all times an earnest champion of temperance, and in later years the advocate of prohibition. He was also foremost among those claiming the ballot for woman. He advocated the rights of the Indians, and labored to reform the penal institutions of the country after the slavery question was settled. He espoused the cause of the labor reformers, and in 1870 accepted from them and from the Prohibitionists a nomination as candidate for governor. He advocated what has been called the “greenback” theory of finance. “The wages system,” he said, “demoralizes alike the hirer and the hired, cheats both, and enslaves the workingman,” while “the present system of finance robs labor, gorges capital, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, and turns a republic into an aristocracy of capital.” He lent his aid to the agitation for the redress of the wrongs of Ireland. In 1881 he delivered an address at the centennial anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard college, which was pronounced, on very high authority, “an oration of great power and beauty, full of strong thoughts and happy illustrations, not unworthy of any university platform or academic scholar,” though containing some sentiments from which a portion of his audience strongly dissented. As an avowed critic of public men and measures, speaking year after year, almost always extemporaneously, and often amidst scenes of the greatest excitement, nothing less than a miracle could have prevented him from sometimes falling into mistakes and doing injustice to opponents; but it is believed that there is nothing in his record to cast a shadow upon his reputation as one who consecrated great gifts and attainments to the welfare of his country. His last public address was delivered on 26 Dec., 1883, at the unveiling of Miss Whitney's statue of Harriet Martineau, at the Old South church, in Boston. A little more than a month after this the great orator passed from earth. The event was followed by a memorial meeting in Faneuil hall, and by appropriate action on the part of the legislature and the city government. After the funeral the remains were taken from the church to Faneuil hall, whither they were followed by a vast multitude. Mr. Phillips published “The Constitution a Pro-Slavery Contract” (Boston, 1840) and “Review of Webster's 7th of March Speech” (1850). A collection of his speeches, letters, and lectures, revised by himself, was published in 1863 in Boston. Among his lectures on other than anti-slavery topics were “The Lost Arts,” “ Toussaint l'Ouverture,” and “Daniel O'Connell.” His life has been written by George Lowell Austin (Boston, 1888).