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Biographical sketch of Wendell Phillips.

Universal liberty was the inheritance of Wendell Phillips. The blood of unmitigated Puritan and of unsullied Revolutionary sires ran in his veins. Freedom of thought and of religion had been the stamping-ground of his ancestors. He strove for them, no less than for freedom of being and of action.

Born in Boston,--of which city his father, John Phillips, was the first mayor,--on the 29th of November, 1811, he was early destined to strange distinctions. In 1831 he was graduated from Harvard College; in 1834 he completed a course of study at the Harvard Law School, and received the degree of bachelor of laws. In the same year he was admitted to practise at the Suffolk bar.

To him, however, the law was not the all-absorbing study of a lifetime; and, impatient of its details, he sought recreation in the exciting topics of the times. Already, when he came to sign the roll of the court as a member of the bar of Suffolk, had he ventured to doubt the Constitution that threw even a partial protection around the master of a slave. When he wrote his name to the oath to protect the Constitution, he writhed in shame at his own weakness. It was not for a day, nor for a week, that his manly conscience waged war against that deed of honest troth. For him, it was a plighted vow to an unloved. He had covenanted with circumstances. For a while, a large and increasing practice in his profession so occupied his time, that he forgot all else but his clients. But, in the trial of cases at the bar, he was training his eloquence; and before juries he was modulating that sweet voice which was so soon to thrill humanity with its melody of freedom. He was, indeed, learning the gamut of the harp of hearts. [-007]

In January, 1832, the Anti-slavery Society was formed, just a year after William Lloyd Garrison had begun the publication of “The Liberator” in Boston. Who can forget the names of those noble-minded men and women eternally linked with the cause of emancipation? Wendell Phillips, at the age of twenty-four, found himself hurrying with them into the great struggle which was Impending. In the crowded thoroughfares of Boston, he found the mission of his manhood. Garrison had just been driven from an anti-slavery platform. A mob had wrought the deed: the Puritan and patriot, the cultured and the rich of Boston, were the mob!

A young man, tall, stately, impassive, of deep convictions and of unquenchable resolves, witnesses the events of a day. His soul knows the manhood of force, as well as the eloquence of speech. Garrison is being dragged through the streets of Boston; the young man follows, while respect for law, peace tenets, and personal rights, are rioting in his brain. Pregnant liberty is heaving in the qualms. The mob, incited by the cries to violence, lay hands on Garrison, put a rope around his waist, and drag him to imprisonment! What a memorable day for the Puritan city! The abolitionist Wendell Phillips is born.

At the age of twenty-six, Mr. Phillips found himself a leader among the devotees of freedom. The murder of Lovejoy in Kansas, in 1837, brought Phillips into Faneuil Hall, where, in words that held his vast audience spell-bound, he laid the foundation of a reputation for oratory which has never been surpassed in England or America.

Until the opening of the war between the States, in 1861, Mr. Phillips advocated disunion as the only road to abolition. To his mind, the Union was but a covenant between good and evil; and the Constitution, being at the bottom of the alliance, was specially odious in his eyes. When, however, the first gun was fired, he changed his condemnation of the Union to support of it, and accepted war as a means to the end he held in view. In 1863-64, he advocated the arming, educating, and enfranchising the freedmen, and for the two latter purposes procured the continuance of the Anti-slavery Society until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869.

With this enactment the mission of Mr. Phillips seemed to have ended. For more than thirty years, standing face to face with masses of men, he had sent truth home to their souls in the most [-008] effectual manner. He had sown the dragon's teeth, from which sprang the armed men who alone were competent to the accomplishment of the great end to which the most valuable years of his life had been devoted.

But Mr. Phillips could not remain idle. Restless energy was the motive power of his nature, and it soon forced him into other fields of labor. In turn he espoused the cause of the laboring-man, of prohibition, of the woman-suffragists, of prison-reform, of the paper-money advocates, and of the Irish cause.

In 1870 the workingmen and the prohibitionists of Massachusetts nominated Mr. Phillips for governor of his native State. In the election of that year he received upwards of twenty thousand votes. The fact that he was a nominee for office in this instance stands clearly in contrast with the balance of his life, yet it is no exception. He led a forlorn-hope,--a handful of men fighting, not with any expectation of electing their candidate, but with the determination of emphasizing their beliefs by counted ballots. It could be truthfully said of Mr. Phillips, that least of all was he an office-seeker. Scarcely was he out of college when he put aside all ambition, and took his place among those (and few they are) who labor only for the uplifting of their fellow men and women.

As a man of letters, Mr. Phillips won the brightest laurels of his riper life. For many years he was a popular lecturer, appearing on the platform in most of the Northern cities. His lecture on “The lost arts,” which was rather a series than a single work, and which was ever changing form and seeking new truths, was one of the most finished productions of the modern type of mind. Among his other subjects, winning for him constant admiration, may be mentioned “Street life in Europe,” “Toussaint l'ouverture,” “Daniel O'Connell,” and his eulogies on Theodore Parker and John Brown.

Among his published writings, the following are noteworthy-“The Constitution a pro-slavery Contract,” 1844; “Can Abolitionists vote or take office?” 1845; “Review of Spooner's Unconstitutionality of Slavery,” 1847; “Addresses,” 1850; “Review of Webster's seventh-of-march speech,” 1850; “Review of Kossuth's course,” 1851; “Defence of the Anti-slavery movement,” 1851. All of these productions were received with approbation by the followers of his doctrines, but with bitter condemnation by all persons opposed to the principles which he espoused. Mr. Phillips left no complete collection of his works. In 1863 appeared this [-009] collection of his “Speeches, Lectures, and letters.” During the last years of his life, he was engaged, at intervals, in the preparation of a second volume of addresses, and was also writing out the reminiscences of his own busy life.

One of the greatest events of his later career was his appearance on June 30, 1881, before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa, as the orator of the occasion. He might then have chosen a subject upon which all persons would have agreed; but, had he done so, he would not have been Wendell Phillips. For him it was an opportunity, and in his address on “The scholar in the Republic,” he delivered one of the most remarkable efforts of the century.

Mr. Phillips spoke for the last time in public, on the occasion of the unveiling of the statue of Harriet Martineau in the Old South Meeting-house, Dec. 26, 1883. His days came to a close on Feb. 2, 1884. The cause of his death was angina pectoris.

No eulogy of Wendell Phillips is required. A man whose name is stamped upon every page of the most memorable epoch of American history is not likely to be soon forgotten. No age ever produced a greater master of invective, no voice ever aroused a more bitter hatred in unsympathetic minds. They who the most keenly felt the sting of his eloquence could not but admire his deep sense of right, his earnestness, his honesty, and his rarest of earthly virtues,--unselfishness. A purpose divinely conceived, a mission grandly accomplished, a spotless name,--such are his bequests to the American people. [-010]

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