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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Wendell Phillips

The eighth of nine children, Wendell Phillips was born in a Beacon Hill mansion into one of Boston’s distinguished old families. The Reverend George Phillips, his ancestor, had arrived with John Winthrop on the Arbella in 1630, and the family fortune had been established before the Revolutionary War. His father John Phillips, a lawyer, had both inherited and married wealth, and he saw to it that Wendell received the education and cultural exposure appropriate to the son of a Boston Brahmin. He attended the Boston Latin School and went on to Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Handsome and athletic, Phillips was elected to the Porcellan, the Gentleman’s Club, and the Hasty Pudding Club, certain signs of his aristocratic status. When he graduated from college in 1831 he had served as president of each of those elite organizations. Except for a report that he watched the English actress Fanny Kemble at the Tremont Theatre nineteen nights in a row, everything recorded of Phillips’s early life was conservative and conventional; there were no hints of passion or political commitment. He took up the law with a classmate in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, but returned to Boston the following year and rented an office from which he tried, and apparently failed, to establish a law practice.

Although his private income was such that he did not need to work, Wendell Phillips was at that juncture professionally adrift, in want of a vocation. Yet in November, 1837, with the brother and sister-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison serving as best man and matron of honor, he married a member of the Female Anti-Slavery Society, Ann Greene, who he later said had “. . . made an out and out abolitionist of me. . . .” The following month, at a meeting in Faneuil Hall organized by William Ellery Channing to protest the mob murder of the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, Phillips spoke eloquently in opposition to the Massachusetts Attorney General, James T. Austin, who had defended the killing, and thus he began his career as a public orator against slavery.

In succeeding years, allied with Garrison, Phillips wrote and spoke locally, but in November, 1854, he undertook the first of his “abolitionizing trips,” following a speech-making circuit which took him to Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. The circuit later widened to include Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee. For the next twenty-five years he made these journeys over and over, collecting fees of 250 dollars for his appearances. In the early years, his speaker’s fees, like much of his extensive private wealth, found their way into the hands of persons whose causes he espoused. But in the waning years of his life, his personal fortune expended, Phillips was forced to continue his public speaking in order to support himself and his invalid wife.

It was the Lyceum lecture series that brought Phillips wide recognition as a speaker. Although he was principally known for his abolitionist speeches, his repertoire included such topics as “Water,” “Geology,” “Chartism,” and a very famous historical piece called “The Lost Arts.” Often, when Phillips was engaged to deliver one of these “improving” lectures to his audiences of middle-class northerners, on a succeeding evening he would speak without fee on abolition. While the substance of his orations was set down in his “commonplace book,” Phillips spoke from memory, without notes, and in a manner which dazzled his audiences. Thoreau called him “an eloquent speaker and a righteous man.” A southern newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, called him an “infernal machine set to music.” Frequently transcribed and reprinted, many of his speeches became set pieces re-enacted in school recitations. In 1887, the black poet James Weldon Johnson heard his classmate “Shiny” recite “Toussaint L’Ouverture” as the centerpiece of his grammar school graduation exercises.

The special characteristic of Phillips’s orations on black heroes was their insistence on qualitative racial equality. Unlike him, many of the abolitionists opposed slavery simply on the grounds of Christian charity. Thus, for example, some part of the sympathy engendered by Stowe’s depiction of Eliza and George, the young couple in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had to do with the fact that they were mulatto, and therefore partly white. Many of Phillips’s contemporaries held views like those of Louis Agassiz, the Harvard biologist, who came to the conclusion that the Negro race was separate from and inferior to the white race, but who was nevertheless opposed to the institution of slavery.

Two speeches in particular, “Crispus Attucks” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” represent Wendell Phillips’s uncompromising support of racial equality. These speeches were delivered literally hundreds of times. In Crispus Attucks, who fought and died in the Boston Massacre in 1770, Phillips finds his example of a black man who liberated colonials from British slavery. In Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the revolution against the French in Haiti, Phillips does not come far short of making a case for black supremacy, for he sees in Toussaint a man whose vision rivals Edmund Burke’s, a man greater than Cromwell, greater far than Napoleon, both a genius and a saint. The real purpose of Phillips’s speech is, however, revealed by its date: 1863. A debate was raging about whether or not to enlist black men as Union soldiers; there were those who argued either that they would not fight or that they would fight like savages. Phillips offers Toussaint’s military genius and his humanitarian conduct to exemplify the capabilities of black soldiers.
Allison Heisch
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
Letter to Frederick Douglass, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)
from Toussaint L'Ouverture (1863)

Other Works
Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (1863)
Speeches, Lectures, and Letters -- Second Series (1891)

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Harper's Weekly
Brief biography and photography.

Most dramatic orator in the American antislavery movement
The story of Phillip's involvement in the antislavery movement and a link to the text of Phillips' speech on the murder of Lovejoy.

Secondary Sources

Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell Phillips, Brahmin Radical, 1961

Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell and Ann Phillips: The Community of Reform, 1840-1880, 1979

Carl Bode, The American Lyceum: Town Meetings of the Mind, 1956

Ralph Korngold, Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and Their Relationship With Abraham Lincoln, 1950

Lorenzo Sears, Wendell Phillips, Orator and Agitator, 1967

James Brewer Stewart, , 1986