Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), American abolitionist and social reformer, became the antislavery movement's most powerful orator and, after the Civil War, the chief proponent of full civil rights for freed slaves.

Wendell Phillips was born on Nov. 29, 1811, into a wealthy, aristocratic Boston family. Gifted, handsome, and brilliant, he excelled in his studies at Harvard, where he graduated in 1831, and in the study of law, which he undertook with the great Joseph Story. Phillips was admitted to the bar in 1834 and opened an office in Boston. In 1835, from his office window, he saw William Lloyd Garrison being dragged through the street by a mob, an event that changed his attitude toward slavery. Phillips's meeting with Ann Terry Greene, an active worker in the Boston Female Antislavery Society, increased his interest in the abolition movement. They were married on Oct. 12, 1837. He wrote later that "my wife made an out-and-out abolitionist of me, and always preceded me in the adoption of various causes I have advocated."

Phillips enlisted in the cause at a meeting on Dec. 8, 1837, to protest the death of antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois. After the attorney general of Massachusetts condoned the Illinois mob, Phillips sprang to the platform: his eloquent defense of Lovejoy catapulted him into the ranks of abolitionist leaders. Breaking with his family and friends and relinquishing his law practice, he joined Garrison and became, next to Garrison, New England's best-known abolitionist. The true reformer, Phillips said, must be prepared to sacrifice everything for his cause; he is "careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals only with ideas, consciences, and common sense." Like Garrison, Phillips attacked what he believed to be the "proslavery" Constitution, rejected political action, and ultimately demanded the division of the Union if slavery was not immediately abolished. A persuasive and elegant speaker, he could be so denunciatory that he was several times nearly mobbed.

During the early Civil War, Phillips censured Abraham Lincoln's reluctance to free the slaves, calling him "a first-rate second-rate man" whose "milk-livered administration" conducted the war "with the purpose of saving slavery." He welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation but violently opposed Lincoln's reelection in 1864, and in 1865 he resisted Garrison's attempts to terminate the American Antislavery Society. Phillips maintained that the African Americans' freedom would not be achieved until they possessed the ballot and full civil and social rights. Garrison lost, and Phillips remained president of the society until 1870.

Phillips's other causes included prohibition, women's rights, prison reform, greenbacks, an 8-hour day, and Labor unions. He helped organize the Labor Reform Convention and the Prohibition party in Massachusetts, and both nominated him for governor in 1870. A revolutionary idealist, he envisioned an American society "with no rich men and no poor men in it, all mingling in the same society … all opportunities equal, nobody so proud as to stand aloof, nobody so humble as to be shut out." His political involvement, however, and his increasing radicalism, which led him to advocate "the overthrow of the whole profit-making system …, the abolition of the privileged classes …, and the present system of finance, " alienated some of his friends and reduced his effectiveness as a reform leader.

Phillips remained popular on the lyceum circuit, speaking sometimes 60 times a year and earning up to $15, 000 annually. He died on Feb. 7, 1884.


Further Reading on Wendell Phillips

Three excellent biographies of Phillips are Ralph Korngold, Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and Their Relationship with Abraham Lincoln (1950); Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (1958); and Irving H. Bartlett, Wendell Phillips: Brahmin Radical (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Bartlett, Irving H., Wendell and Ann Phillips: the community of reform, 1840-1880, New York: Norton, 1979.

Sherwin, Oscar, Prophet of liberty: the life and times of Wendell Phillips, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1958.

Stewart, James Brewer, Wendell Phillips, liberty's hero, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.