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Wendell Phillips


SOME writer has said, that "oratory is a peculiarly American giftónot that there have not been elsewhere eloquent speakers, who could sway senates at their willóbut, in America, public speaking is so universal, and the masses are so intelligent, that the inducements to cultivate an art, which will enable the speaker to control the listening crowds, are much stronger than in other countries." It is undoubtedly true that there are more examples of brilliant eloquence in the pulpit, at the bar, and on the platform before public assemblies, here than in any other country where the English tongue is spoken ; and, though our composite language may not possess the stateliness of the Castilian, the liquid music of the Italian, or the colloquial brilliancy of the French, there are extant orations in it, which are surpassed in beauty and grandeur by those of no other living tongue.

There is a tendency among our orators to verbal diffuseness ; their speeches lack condensation, and hence, though they sound well, when delivered ore rotundo, they do not read so well. We miss the vigor, pith, and points which were, in part, supplied by the earnestness of the speaker's. delivery. He is, all things considered; the most effective otator, who, with all the graces of manner, voice, and action, utters an address whose every word has been carefully selected, and conveys just the shade of meaning intended, neither less nor more, and, at the same time, so combines his words and sentences as to produce the best effect of which the language is capable. It is just the power of fully accomplishing this, which makes Mr. Phillips the finest orator in Christendom. His position, in this respect, is conceded alike by friends and foes.

Some have doubted whether eloquence was a natural or an acquired endowment, and those who inclined to the latter view have adduced the long and painful efforts of Demosthenes; and, in our own time, of Henry Ward Beecher, to overcome natural difficulties of delivery. We cannot doubt that these men, and many others, have triumphed over great obstacles, in attaining a ready and effective utterance of the great thoughts which were seeking deliverance from the prison-house of the brain; but the eloquence was behind all these obstacles, and it would have vent. It was the gift of God, and however it might be obscured at first, by imperfection of voice, by a faltering and hesitating tongue, or other impediments of speech, it was there, and must eventually force its way out. Happy those who, like Mr. Phillips, possess naturally all these graces of delivery, and who owe little to the help of art. Mr. Phillips' first public oration, delivered impromptu, possesses all the fine characteristics of his later ones, was delivered with as much fervor and with as powerful an effect as any of the thousands since, which have held listening crowds in speechless delight. There was the same careful and apparently instinctive choice of the best words to express his thoughts, the same keen and polished invective, the same system and order in his arrangement, and the same fervid and brilliant peroration. If be has never improved on that eloquent address, delivered now nearly thirty-five years ago, it is because that it was so perfect a production as to leave no room for improvement.

WENDELL PHILLIPS comes of the best blood of the Puritan and revolutionary stock. A lineal descendant of Rev. George Phillips, an eminent clergyman and scholar, who emigrated to Massachusetts from Norfolk county, England, in 1630, and served as the learned, wise, and zealous pastor of Watertown, Massachusetts, for fourteen years, he numbers, also, among his ancestry, direct or collateral, Samuel Phillips, Jr., Lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1801-2, and founder of Phillips' academy, Andover ; John Phillips, LL.D., the founder and liberal contributor to Phillips' academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, Dartmouth college, Phillips' academy, Andover, and Andover Theological seminary; his honor, William Phillips, Jr., of Boston, also a Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, and his father, Hon. John Phillips, who was the first mayor of Boston. Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, November 29, 1811, and after enjoying the advantages of the best schools of his native city, entered Harvard college, where he graduated with high honors, in 1831, and commencing the study of law in the Cambridge law school, received his diploma there in 1833, and was admitted to the Suffolk bar in 1834.

An accomplished scholar, with a far wider range of general culture than is ordinarily possessed by educated young men at the age of twenty-four, and with an intense fastidiousness of taste and thought, which ever made absolute perfection its ideal, Mr. Phillips was in danger, at this time, of becoming a mere purist, a dilettante, frittering away his noble powers on the spelling of a word, or shades of thought too nice to be distinguished by any common mind, or in some other equally profitless pursuit, which should squander, rather than exercise his great gifts. But he was happily diverted to more profitable and useful labors, by the great events which occurred, just as he Same into public life.

It was the era of the first great anti-slavery excitement. The whole country was in arms at the behest of the slave power, which demanded the putting down of the men who had dared to question its authority. For his attacks on this monster iniquity, William Lloyd Garrison, as we have already seen, was first assailed with the most bitter and abusive language, and afterwards dragged through the streets of Boston by a mob, for his advocacy of the cause of freedom. The people of the North, with but few exceptions, were wedded to the idol of slavery, and were indignant that any man should dare to offend the South, by whose trade they had their gain.

Phillips had witnessed the indignities offered to Garrison, and his cruel persecution for his bold defence of freedom against oppression; and the old patriotic, freedom-loving blood which had made the Phillipses among the foremost of the patriots of the Revolution, was stirred within him. He avowed himself an abolitionist and co-worker with Garrison in 1836, and in 1839 withdrew from the practice of law became he could not conscientiously take the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, believing, as he did, that that document was tainted with complicity with slavery, and hence, as he forcibly expressed it, was " a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."

He threw himself into the front of the battle against slavery, and for thirty years and more has fought oppression; at first with a little but gallant band, abused, hated, threatened, a price set on his head, and the object of all the obloquy and scorn, men could visit on him. After years of this strife, in which be and Mr. Garrison were always the standard bearers, there began to be signs of coming success for their principles; then Phillips always took a long stride forward, and fought on, waiting for the masses to advance His mind is so constituted that so long as there is a possible good to be obtained, an ideal, however vague and shadowy, to be reached, he cannot rest, and if the whole world were to advance to his ideal of today, he would be found far beyond in the distance, with aims and hopes and ends yet to be attained.

With how much of suffering and anxiety he has maintained this long struggle, none but himself can ever know. He put aside for it a brilliant future in his profession, and made opposition to slavery the great business of his life. Yet such was his winning eloquence, his vast learning, and his brilliant and versatile powers as a lecturer, that when he could be induced to lecture on any other subject, he drew larger audiences than any other man. He knew the unpopularity of his favorite topic. and shrewdly availed himself of his great abilities to secure for it a hearing. For years, when the lecture committees applied to him to address audiences and asked his terms, his reply was: " If I speak on slavery, nothing: if on any other subject, one hundred dollars."

His first noteworthy speech on slavery was unpremeditated, but its thrilling eloquence told on the audience, nine-tenths of whom were bitterly opposed to him. The occasion was this. In the autumn of 1837, Rev. E. P. Lovejoy had been murdered at Alton, Illinois, and his press broken up, by a mob, mostly from Missouri, on account of the anti-slavery principles he had avowed in his paper. A meeting was called in Boston, by Rev. W. E. Channing and others, to assemble in Faneuil Hall (the use of which was at first denied but finally reluctantly granted), to notice in a suitable manner Mr. Lovejoy's death as a martyr to freedom. After some addresses, a Mr. Austin, attorney-general of Massachusetts, rose and defended, in a very bitter and violent speech, the rioters, declared that Lovejoy came to his death by his own imprudence, and that the utterance of such sentiments as he had avowed, ought to be suppressed. Mr.. Phillips replied in one of the most eloquent and scathing speeches ever delivered, running a parallel between the conduct of Warren at Bunker Hill, and Lovejoy at Alton, so effective, that the audience, who had, at first, been determined that he should not be permitted to speak, at last greeted him with cheers.

Mr. Phillips was most thoroughly in his element at the anniversaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society, when, from year to year, he would review the progress made, and hail upon the pro-slavery leaders and partisans such a storm of invective, every sentence polished but keen as a battle axe, that those of them who were present would writhe under it, as if in intense agony. Year after year, such men as Isaiah Rynders and his comrades, would attempt to break up these anniversaries by mob-violence, and often was Mr. Phillips' life threatened; but he could not be put down. There was that power and dignity in his manner, which would quell and silence the fiercest mob; and when they were hushed, he would take the opportunity to say his severest and bitterest words.

No man living excels him in power over an audience. The writer once listened to his lecture on Toussaint L'Ouverture, and was surprised to see a man in the audience well known as a Democrat and a strongly pro-slavery partisan, applauding him to the echo, and most vigorously in those passages which were most intensely anti-slavery, and most decided in their depreciation of the white general (Napoleon), as compared with the negro (Toussaint).

At the close of the lecture, falling in with this Democrat, the writer could not avoid saying to him, "How happens it that you, an intense pro-slavery man, should applaud and enjoy the hard hits and telling blows of Wendell Phillips against slavery . " " Oh!" was the reply, " of course I don't believe a word he says, but he did say it so well and so neatly, that 1 couldn't help applauding." Nothing but genuine eloquence of the highest character could have produced such an effect as that.

When Mr. Delane, of the London Times, was in this country, a friend asked him to go with him and hear Wendell Phillips; he declined at first, saying that he had no wish to listen to a foaming abolition lecture; but at the urgent request of. his friend finally consented. The lecture closed, his friend, who had watched his countenance during the lecture, asked how he was pleased. " Pleased!" answered the editor, " I never heard any thing like it; we have no orator in England who can compare with him. He is the most eloquent speaker living."

Mr. Phillips has not expended all his force on opposition to slavery; temperance, peace, the rights of woman, and other measures of reform, have ever found in him a ready, powerful, and eloquent advocate. His devotion to woman partakes much of the lofty character of the best days of chivalry, and leads one inevitably to the conviction that his own wife must have very nearly filled his exalted ideal of the true woman.

The few review articles from the pen of Mr. Phillips on other than reform topics, his published volume of orations, and the lectures on scientific subjects which he had delivered (the lecture on " The Lost Arts" has been 'repeated, it is said, many hundreds of times), indicate the breadth of his scholarship, and the great loss which science and literature have sustained, in relinquishing him to become the Apostle of Reform.

Since the war, Mr. Phillips has not, as Mr. Garrison did so gracefully, accepted the verdict of the people that his work was accomplished, and that henceforth he might peacefully enjoy the victories which his good sword had won. A little younger than his friend Garrison, he has more of the Ironsides blood in
him than he, and he prefers to fight on, though it be with invisible, foes, or even with windmills, like the chivalric Don Quixote.

His ideal man is placed on a higher level than ever before, and his long continued use of invective has made him soured and bitter toward all men who do not fully come up to it. He is a man who will always do best to head a forlorn hope, always win the greatest triumphs when in a minority. Indeed it is impossible for him to be anywhere else. The atmosphere of a majority, in agreement with him, oppresses him as an en-closed house does a Rocky Mountain trapper. He cannot breathe in it.

Though affiliated by all his past labors and the convictions of many years with the Republican party, he persistently refuses to work with it; now denouncing its candidates with the utmost bitterness, and anon accepting a nomination, without the slightest hope of success, for Governor; from the Labor-Reform party; an apostle of temperance for five and thirty years, he accepts the support of the Anti-Prohibitory Liquor Law men in Massachusetts, to shatter and rend the party there from whom he has received all his honors and applause ; and after thus seeking its disruption, turns about and berates it furiously for not doing as he desired. But these vagaries are, after all, but spots on the sun; we could wish them away, or at all events less conspicuous ; we could wish our peerless orator more practical and more tractable; but we cannot forget his brave deeds when he stood almost alone against the world ; we cannot cease to remember that he was in those days always in the forefront of the hottest battle ; and though some of the hard blows he then received have made the veteran a little crusty, yet we can well afford to bear with him for the good he has done in the past.

In private life Mr. Phillips bears the reputation of-being one of the most genial and lovable of men, and in all the social relations of family and friends, his presence adds new zest to society, and gives increased pleasure to the circles which are favored with it.


Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872 

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