Wendell Phillips

Boston Patrician Became a Fiery Abolitionist Orator

Photograph of abolitionist Wendell Phillips
Wendell Phillips. Getty Images

Wendell Phillips was a Harvard educated lawyer and wealthy Bostonian who joined the abolitionist movement and became one of its most prominent advocates. Revered for his eloquence, Phillips spoke widely on the Lyceum circuit, and spread the abolitionist message in the 1840s and 1850s.

During the Civil War Phillips was generally critical of the Lincoln administration, which he felt was moving too cautiously in ending slavery.

In 1864, disappointed by Lincoln's conciliatory and lenient plans for Reconstruction, Phillips campaigned against the Republican Party nominating Lincoln to run for a second term.

Following the Civil War, Phillips advocated for the program of Reconstruction championed by Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens.

Phillips split with another leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who believed the Anti-Slavery Society should be shut down at the end of the Civil War. Phillips believed that the 13th Amendment would not ensure true civil rights for African Americans, and he continued to crusade for full equality for blacks until the end of his life.

Early Life of Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 29, 1811. His father had been a judge and the mayor of Boston, and his family's roots in Massachusetts went back to the landing of Puritan minister George Phillips, who arrived aboard the Arbella with Gov.

John Winthrop in 1630.

Phillips received the education befitting a Boston patrician, and after graduation from Harvard he attended Harvard's newly opened law school. Known for his intellectual skills and ease with public speaking, not to mention his family's wealth, he seemed destined for a fine legal career.

And it was generally supposed that Phillips would have a promising future in mainstream politics.

In 1837, the 26-year-old Phillips took a profound career detour that began when he rose to speak at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He gave a brief address advocating for the abolition of slavery, at a time when the abolitionist cause was well outside the mainstream of American life.

An influence on Phillips was the woman he was courting, Ann Terry Greene, who he married in October 1837. She was the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, and she had already become involved with the New England abolitionists.

By the end of 1837, the newly married Phillips was essentially a professional abolitionist. His wife, who was chronically ill and lived as an invalid, remained a strong influence on his writings and public speeches.

Phillips Rose to Prominence as an Abolitionist Leader

In the 1840s Phillips became one of the most popular speakers of the American Lyceum Movement. He traveled giving lectures, which were not always on abolitionist subjects. Known for his scholarly pursuits, he also spoke about artistic and cultural pursuits, and was also in demand to speak about pressing political topics.

Phillips was often mentioned in newspaper reports, and his speeches were famous both for their eloquence and sarcastic wit. He was known to hurl insults at the supporters of slavery, and even castigated those who he felt were not sufficiently opposed to it.

Phillips' rhetoric was often extreme, but he was following a deliberate strategy. He wanted to inflame the northern populace to stand up against the slave power of the South.

Joining his colleague William Lloyd Garrison in the belief that the United States Constitution, by institutionalizing slavery, was "an agreement with hell," Phillips withdrew from the practice of law. However, he used his legal training and skills to encourage abolitionist activity.

Phillips, Lincoln, and the Civil War

As the election of 1860 approached, Phillips opposed the nomination and election of Abraham Lincoln, as he did not consider him forceful enough in his opposition to slavery.

However, once Lincoln was in office as president, Phillips tended to support him.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was instituted at the beginning of 1863 Phillips supported it, even though he felt it should have gone further in liberating all the slaves in America.

As the Civil War ended, some believed that the work of the abolitionists had been successfully finished. William Lloyd Garrison, the longtime colleague of Phillips, believed it was time to shut down the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Phillips was thankful for the advances made with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which permanently prohibited slavery in America. Yet he instinctively felt that the battle was not truly over. He turned his attention to advocating for the rights of the freedmen, and for a program of Reconstruction that would respect the interests of former slaves.

Post-Slavery Career of Phillips

With the Constitution amended so that it no longer countenanced slavery, Phillips felt free to enter mainstream politics. He ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1870, but was not elected.

Along with his work on behalf of the freedmen, Phillips became intensely interested in the emerging labor movement. He became an advocate for the eight-hour day, and by the end of his life he was known as a labor radical.

He died in Boston on February 2, 1884. His death was reported in newspapers across America. The New York Times, in a front-page obituary the following day, called him "A Representative Man of the Century." A Washington, D.C., newspaper, also featured a page one obituary of Phillips on February 4, 1884.

One of the headlines read "The Little Band of Original Abolitionists Loses Its Most Heroic Figure."

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McNamara, Robert. "Wendell Phillips." ThoughtCo, Apr. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/wendell-phillips-basics-1773552. McNamara, Robert. (2017, April 30). Wendell Phillips. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wendell-phillips-basics-1773552 McNamara, Robert. "Wendell Phillips." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wendell-phillips-basics-1773552 (accessed November 20, 2017).