Biography of 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 many communities during the 1840s and 1850s.

Fast Facts: Wendell Phillips

Known for: Eloquent advocate for the American abolitionist movement.

Background: Harvard educated lawyer.

Born: November 29, 1811.

Died: February 2, 1884.

Throughout the Civil War Phillips was often critical of the Lincoln administration, which he believed was moving too cautiously in ending enslavement. In 1864, disappointed by Lincoln's conciliatory and lenient plans for Reconstruction, Phillips campaigned against the Republican Party, which was 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 Black Americans, and he continued to crusade for full equality for Black citizens until the end of his life.

Early Life

Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 29, 1811. His father had been a judge and the mayor of Boston. 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 an impressive 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 enslavement, 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, whom 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.

The move away from mainstream law and politics became Phillips' life calling. By the end of 1837 the newly married lawyer 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.

Rise 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 subjects. He 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 enslavement, and even castigated those whom 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 South.

When Phillips began his campaign of deliberate agitation, the anti-slavery movement was, to some extent stalled. It was too dangerous to send advocates against enslavement into the South. And a pamphlet campaign, during which abolitionist pamphlets were mailed to southern cities, had been met with fierce opposition the early 1830s. In the House of Representatives, discussion of enslavement was effectively silenced for years by what became notorious as the gag rule.

Joining his colleague William Lloyd Garrison in the belief that the United States Constitution, by institutionalizing enslavement, 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 enslavement. 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 of those enslaved 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 enslavement 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 formerly enslaved people.

Later Career and Legacy

With the Constitution amended so that it no longer countenanced enslavement, 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. "Biography of Wendell Phillips." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Biography of Wendell Phillips. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Wendell Phillips." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).