Phillips, Wendell

Phillips, Wendell, 1811–84, American reformer and orator, b. Boston, grad. Harvard (B.A., 1831; LL.B., 1834). He was admitted to the bar in 1834 but, having sufficient income of his own, he abandoned his law practice to devote his life to fighting for sound causes, chiefly the abolition of slavery. Revolted by the mobbing (1835) in Boston of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and prodded by his brilliant young wife, the former Ann Terry Greene, he entered wholeheartedly into the abolitionist crusade. His eloquent protest (1837) in Faneuil Hall on the assassination of the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy marked the beginning of his long and distinguished career as a lecturer. Phillips frequently contributed to the Liberator and, like its publisher, Garrison, refused to identify his abolitionism with any political party. He also followed Garrison in other causes, notably women's rights. He was a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (1840), opposed the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, came to advocate the dissolution of the Union, and aroused considerable hostility by his vehement denunciations of slaveholding. In the Civil War he attacked Lincoln for his moderate stand on emancipation of the slaves and opposed Lincoln's renomination. Phillips held that the government owed blacks not merely their freedom, but land, education, and full civil rights as well. This led to a break between him and Garrison in 1865 when Garrison proposed to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society on the grounds that its purpose had been fulfilled. Phillips became the society's president and kept it active until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised the blacks. While most of the victorious crusaders for abolition were content to rest on their laurels, Phillips continued his agitation for social reform, speaking for many unpopular causes—prohibition, woman's suffrage, the abolition of capital punishment, currency reform (see greenback), and the rights of labor. He was the unsuccessful candidate of the Labor and Prohibition parties for the governorship of Massachusetts in 1870. Phillips's advanced doctrines became indistinguishable from those of Marxian socialism, and he defended the Commune of Paris of 1871 and Russian nihilism. As an orator he was rated with Edward Everett and Daniel Webster; his style, however, was easy and colloquial.

See his Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (1st series, 1863; 2d series, 1891); biographies by J. A. Green (1943, repr. 1964), O. Sherwin (1958), and I. Bartlett (1961, repr. 1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Social Reformers