Wendell Phillips: A Forgotten American Hero




Note: On my old blog site, I posted an article on November 29 of last year, commemorating the 200th birthday of Wendell Phillips. Because Wendell Phillips is such a major influence on me and someone that I consider to be one of my five greatest heroes, I felt it was important to repost the article I wrote on him last year.

Just in time for the holidays, Glenn Beck has a new book out about George Washington that promises to be a love fest for our first president. The synopsis states that Washington was “respectful to all.” Oney Judge, whom Washington had pursued all the way to New Hampshire after she attempted to escape slavery, might disagree, as would Washington’s other slaves. In Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, Peter Henriques describes how George Washington ordered most of the dogs kept by slaves on his plantation to be shot or hung because slaves were using the dogs as sentinels to steal food. If I had been this “respectful” to my parents, I would probably have gotten grounded. Interestingly, the most exceptional heroes are often forgotten in our depictions of American history. The greatest casualty of the typical version of American history, except for gay and lesbian figures, has been white men and women who were active in the abolitionist movement in the United States. A typical student of the American education system will have very little knowledge of white abolitionists and will be only be able to name a few. Of these few, some such as John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison are often portrayed in a negative light. Most students, when asked about Wendell Phillips, Samuel Joseph May, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lydia Maria Child, Abby Kelley, Stephen Foster, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, George Luther Stearns, and others, might stare at you blankly. Many educators, even those who have lived in the Northeast, will have a similar reaction. Today, I will be writing about Wendell Phillips. The reason for my decision is that, unbeknownst to most Americans, November 29th marks the bicentennial of his birth. Besides being a white abolitionist in Boston, who was Wendell Phillips? It is important to note in our examination of the man that, first of all, he was a child of privilege. His ancestors had been among the original settlers of the Massachusetts colony, and his father had been the first mayor of Boston. Educated at Harvard, Phillips was a master orator. He advocated a host of unpopular causes, most of them noble and farsighted, some of them less so: immediate emancipation, resistance to fugitive slave laws, the evil of the Constitution and the United States government, racial equality including interracial marriage, rights for Native Americans, women’s suffrage, abolition of capital punishment, and democratic Socialism. The moderates and conservatives who were appalled by Phillips’ speeches nonetheless were forced to concede that his public speaking ability was incredible. If he had desired to enter politics, his upper class, old stock Puritan roots, combined with his handsome features, public speaking ability, and powerful six-foot frame would have made him likely to become an important figure in the government. But Phillips had no taste for the government. He fully understood that the Constitution had been written with protection for slavery and that politicians had to chose between defending slavery and breaking the law. Thus, Phillips not only avoided running for public office but also refused to vote. Instead, he worked as a social activist, defending equal rights. In addition to writing and speaking on behalf of his causes, he also directly resisted unjust laws. In the 1840s, more than a century before Rosa Parks’ heroic stand in Montgomery, Phillips rode with black abolitionist William Nell on the New England railroads in a successful attempt to desegregate public accommodations there. In the 1850s, he worked with other Bostonian abolitionists, such as Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, to thwart the men who tried to recapture runaway slaves. Phillips’ radicalism did not cease after the Civil War. Unlike the majority of Northerners, Phillips (and many other abolitionists) bitterly denounced the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of blacks to the mercy of white Southern racists. His solution to the problem of what to do with the ex slaves involved providing them with education and land, in essence a form of reparations. If America had listened to Wendell Phillips, the modern day controversy over reparations would not exist. Yet he also knew when to temper his radicalism. Phillips had long argued that the North should separate from the South because of slavery. But when the Civil War broke out, Wendell Phillips realized that it was a prime opportunity to destroy slavery once and for all and rallied to the Union cause. While he is almost unknown today, many well-known figures either interacted with him or were inspired by him. Despite clashing over the Constitution, he and Frederick Douglass eventually formed a strong friendship. He also became acquainted with Harriet Tubman by way of their mutual friend John Brown. In 1884, W.E.B. DuBois delivered a speech at his high school graduation in Massachusetts about Wendell Phillips, who had died earlier in the year. A few years later in Jacksonville, Florida, as recounted in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, prominent black writer James Weldon Johnson’s high school graduation included a black boy reading a Wendell Phillips speech. In 1915, future African American radical Paul Robeson delivered the same speech. In many ways, Phillips was much more revered in the late 1800s and early 1900s by African Americans, who understood his contribution to racial justice, than by whites. Why is he so obscure today? I asked retired professor James Brewer Stewart, author of Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero, this very question at the Wendell Phillips Bicentennial at Harvard this past June. According to Stewart, the reason is that Phillips cannot be fitted into a patriotic narrative. Maybe he is right. After all, Phillips spent his life on the fringes of society denouncing America and the Constitution. Compare him with Frederick Douglass. While Phillips is revered almost entirely by a handful of leftists, Douglass is frequently praised by conservatives and libertarians, despite the fact that he made unpatriotic statements and favored open immigration. The reason is that Frederick Douglass believed the Constitution to be an antislavery document. Phillips and I have both debunked this claim. To be clear, Frederick Douglass is a personal hero of mine. On the issue of the Constitution, however, he was simply incorrect. Still, this incorrect stance, more than all of his great achievements, has made Douglass an icon with many conservatives. Phillips’ disdain for the Constitution has made him a pariah with conservatives. I also think he is obscure because both blacks and whites who hold racist views have tried to suppress stories of white men and women who rejected racism. On a related note, when people try to explain away racist statements made by the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and other figures, they like to resort to the argument that “Everyone was racist back then.” InForced Into Glory, a largely inaccurate biography of Abraham Lincoln, historian and Wendell Phillips enthusiast Lerone Bennett, Jr. correctly says that such a statement is inaccurate. But when compared with Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Stephen Douglas, Lincoln looks like a great champion of racial justice. When compared with Garrison or Phillips, he looks quite bigoted. For people obsessed with building up the Founding Fathers, many of whom were far more racist than Lincoln, it becomes even more important to suppress Wendell Phillips. After all, if they learn about Thomas Jefferson, who owned and whipped slaves and sold dozens of them to pay off debts accrued by a luxurious lifestyle and then learn about Wendell Phillips, an altruistic figure who spent his life standing up for other peoples’ rights and was left poor due to donating so much of his money, they might decide Phillips is the more admirable of the two men. Likewise, if black children learn about Wendell Phillips, they may decide that not all white people are racist and therefore judge individuals not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That is a possibility that the Louis Farrakhans (who, interestingly, attended Boston Latin School, just like Wendell Phillips) of the world cannot allow. In a society where Pat Buchanan denounces Brown v. Board of Education, where a Kentucky Senator believes that public accommodations segregation should not be banned, and where a poll showed that only 40% of Republicans in Mississippi want interracial marriage to be legal, it is obvious that all too many Americans today still hold more reactionary racial views than Phillips did 150 years ago. Imagine how appalled the great abolitionist orator would be if he went to Mississippi and saw segregated proms. Phillips is equally pertinent in the current struggle against slavery. I have written before about how both Stewart and myself have tried to use his legacy to understand and combat 21st century human trafficking. In essence, conscientious social reformers must become modern day counterparts to Wendell Phillips. Furthermore, I believe his legacy is important in the area of gay rights. I have written before about why I strongly believe that he would champion gay rights if alive today. The idea that a person’s worth derives from what they do, not by immutable traits like race or sexual orientation, is an idea that Wendell Phillips helped pioneer. If Wendell Phillips were alive today, he would probably use his great eloquence and sarcasm to rebut ministers who argued that the Bible condemned homosexuality and gay marriage. After all, he would be reminded of the preachers who had used the Bible to defend slavery. If he observed people arguing that the Constitution did not include a right to gay marriage, he would deliver a spellbinding speech lambasting the document itself as oppressive. Just as 19th century America needed Wendell Phillips, we still need his spirit today.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”—Wendell Phillips, 1852



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5 responses to “Wendell Phillips: A Forgotten American Hero

  1. Shannon Boyd

    I see why you’re a fan of Wendell Phillips. “The idea that a person’s worth derives from what they do, not by immutable traits like race or sexual orientation is an idea that Wendell Phillips helped pioneer”. I’m a fan too. Keep up the good work Charles! We need your spirit too!

  2. wow thats alot of reading

  3. Elizabeth Talavera

    Great blog! l learned lots of things that I didn’t know before and I get why you want more people to know about Phillips. I’m currently a junior in high school and I barely learned about him today, which is pretty sad. What made me want to know more about him was the fact that he refused to eat sugar cane and wear cotton- cloth because they were made by slave labor. I think you should include that in your blog. 🙂

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