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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Phillips, Wendell

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PHILLIPS, Wendell, American orator and reformer: b. Boston, 29 Nov. 1811; d. there, 2 Feb. 1884. He was graduated from Harvard in 1831, a classmate of J. L. Motley (q.v.). After three years' study at the Harvard Law School he was admitted to the bar in 1834; but he took slight interest in the legal profession. On 21 Oct. 1835 he saw Garrison (q.v.) dragged through the streets of Boston by those “gentlemen of property and standing,” as the press styled them, who had been disappointed in their original purpose of bringing George Thompson (q.v.) to the tar-kettle. From that time he was an Abolitionist, with which interest he identified himself in 1836. He came at once into prominence by his great Faneuil Hall speech of 8 Dec. 1837. Through the efforts of W. E. Channing a meeting had there been assembled suitably to protest against the murder of E. P. Lovejoy (q.v.) at Alton, Ill., while defending the freedom of the press against a pro-slavery mob. But the entire purpose of the gathering seemed likely to be defeated by James T. Austin, a parishioner of Channing and attorney-general of Massachusetts, who, in a singularly absurd outburst likened the Alton rabble to the patriots of the Revolution and declared that Lovejoy had perished “as the fool dieth.” It appeared not improbable that these most ill-considered remarks might divide the audience, when Phillips, by invitation, took the platform and made answer. “When,” he said, as he began that stinging rebuke, “I heard the gentleman 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 (here indicating the portraits in the hall) would have broken into voice to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead.” Phillips became forthwith the chief of American orators and the apostle of the Garrisonian school of abolition. He accepted the creed of Garrison almost without condition, though he became but gradually a disunionist and was never a non-resistant. In 1839 he withdrew from professional practice, being unwilling to bind himself by the advocate's oath of fealty to the Constitution. Later, for a similar reason, he declined Congressional candidacy. With Garrison he opposed in 1839-40 the attempt to debar any from the anti-slavery platform on the ground of differences in religious faith, and the organization of the Abolitionists into a political party. He disagreed, however, with Garrison in 1864 in regard to Lincoln's re-election, which he did not favor; and in 1865, respecting the discontinuance of the Anti-Slavery Society, which Garrison held then to have concluded its mission. Phillips believed that the education and enfranchisement of the negro ought to be accomplished, and was elected in Garrison's place to the presidency of the society, a post which he held until the disbandment, 9 April 1870, consequent upon the passage of the 15th amendment. But his activities did not now pause here. He thought the task of reform was never done, and on this idea placed a most valuable emphasis. So he spoke for the Indian, for the Irish, for improvements in the criminal law and prison administration, for women suffrage, for legislative control of the sale of liquor and against accumulations of corporate wealth dangerous to the State. In all these causes Phillips was never even remotely the demagogue, though at times his associates may have been such. He received in 1870 about 20,000 votes as labor-reform and temperance candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts. He was known also for years as one of the kings of the American lyceum, among his most famous addresses being ‘The Lost Arts,’ ‘Toussaint l'Ouverture’ and ‘Daniel O'Connell.’ Among his occasional orations may be mentioned that in memory of Theodore Parker (q.v.) and that on ‘The Scholar in a Republic,’ given in 1881 at the centennial of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa. A scholar himself, in the narrower acceptance, Phillips was not. The course of his activities did not allow this; but he was a considerable reader, appropriated to has own uses all that he studied and found ample supply of needful illustration in the history of the English Revolution of 1630, on which subject he had once read every work obtainable. Contemporary evidence as to his oratory is unanimous and places him with Webster and Everett. His method was far different from theirs; he replaced their rounded sonority by the easy, limpid and colloquial style which since his time has remained the type of the best American public speech. He spoke with much repose, did not lack for appropriate wit and was superb in sarcasm, epigram or invective. He surrendered worldly preferment to identify himself with a despised propaganda; he gained his fame and saw his victory against heavy odds, opposed to the inertia of a general prejudice. Many of his speeches were, as reports show, sword-play with a hostile audience. Of course, under existing conditions, he made mistakes, but his fine attainments were always finely used. He contributed to Anti-Slavery Standard and The Liberator, and wrote several pamphlets. A collection of his ‘Speeches, Lectures and Letters,’ edited by J. Ridpath, was published in 1864; a second series, by T. C. Pease in 1892. Consult Austin, G. L., ‘Life and Times of Wendell Phillips’ (new ed., Boston 1893); Martin, W. C., “Wendell Phillips The Agitator” in ‘American Reformers’ (New York 1890); Russell, C. E., ‘The Story of Wendell Phillips, Soldier of the Common Good’ (Chicago 1914); Sears, Lorenzo, ‘Wendell Phillips, Orator and Agitator’ (New York 1909); also works treating of the anti-slavery period and its leaders.


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WENDELL PHILLIPS