The Great American Orator
Wendell Phillips was an American orator who aimed to discredit the Constitution of the United States because he believed the document supported slavery and created a national divide. Despite his contempt for the United States Constitution, Phillips realized the importance of American politics and American institutions. He understood the power of public opinion and harnessed his oratory skill to preach “revolution to thoughtful men” in the North. During the years 1850-1875, Wendell Phillips dominated the American lecture platform.
Wendell Phillips was frustrated with the political inactivity to manumit the slaves in the United States. Phillips could not tolerate the constant backsliding of the Northern politician and their wavering stance on civil liberties for the bondsman. He called Abraham Lincoln “that slavehound from Illinois.” Due to political ambiguities that surrounded slavery and freedom, Phillips felt compelled to attack and agitate the public on topics related to the abolition of slavery for the bondsman. He felt politicians would not adamantly pursue the immorality of slavery. Wendell Phillips attempted to bring about social change via public speaking. He made his reputation by telling people what they did not want to hear, and he was relentless in his mission to bring freedom to the slaves.
Phillips struggled finding an adequate perspective to attack slavery. He wanted to speak to the mind of the slave owner with hope of appealing to their moral conscience, but he was unable to discuss or agitate the subject of slavery in the South. The southern slave society restricted free speech. The majority of the South, particularly the slave, was excluded from public debate. Phillips was unable to persuade those who adamantly defended the peculiar institution, so he resolved to talk to the people in the North. He attempted to persuade the North “that slavery was an evil thing from which they should divorce themselves.” His reputation as a critic of public policy became so famous that his speeches became national events reported by the Boston and New York press, and circulated in papers throughout the northern and western states.
Northerners understood that Phillips cursed the Constitution of the United States. Wendell Phillips argued the constitution did not protect civil liberties of all individuals. In 1845, he wrote a pamphlet for the American-Anti-Slavery Society entitled Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? Phillips did not believe this was possible. He argued that any man who votes “thereby supports the Constitution, since he consents to appoint as his political agent an officeholder who must swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States.” He contended the Constitution was a “proslavery instrument” since it sanctioned Southern slaveholding. He attested the support of such a government is to participate “in the moral guilt of slavery.” Phillips did not advocate abandonment of all government, he just did not support the United States government that was based upon and supported slavery. Phillips further drew perspective from the United States Declaration of Independence. He understood the need for natural rights for the Negro. Phillips believed natural rights referred to the right to resist and the right to rebel; if the Fathers could revolt against tyranny then, according to Phillips, so could the Negro. Phillips argued the Fugitive Slave Law, a federal law passed on September 18, 1850, “should be resisted by force.” Phillips persistently argued against the law even when other American politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln, kept quiet over the law.
Wendell Phillips argued that it was slavery supported by the Constitution that divided the nation. He did not believe it was the abolitionist movement that created such a national divide. Phillips had become the great abolitionist of the United States. His goal was aimed at discrediting the Constitution without denying American nationality. His speeches could arouse violence from those listeners who did not agree with his philosophy. During the winter of 1860 -1861, he was mobbed three times and might have been killed, but a group of young and stocky bodyguards protected him. During the winter of 1861-1862, an estimated 50,000 people heard his lectures and speeches and nearly 5,000,000 people read them. He likely encountered a large audience of hostile listeners than any other speaker of his time.
Phillips detested everything about the Constitution and wanted to reform American institutions. He felt the ballot box could be used to elevate the nation “to a higher platform of intellect and morality,” but not without first changing American institutions. Phillips believed in the “re-education of a whole people.” He wanted to change American school-houses, American literature and American newspapers because he felt the political agitator had to enforce new ideas on to the editor, teacher and politician. Phillips believed “public opinion could be transformed by rational means.” Once new ideas of freedom reformed public opinion then a more just society for the bondsman could develop. New ideas which led to a change in public opinion could “eradicate the prejudice of the twenty millions of whites.” After President Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, Phillips pursued the Republican Party as a vehicle for the abolition movement. He developed into an American nationalist, and understood that the North and the South comprised a nation. In the winter of 1861-1862, Phillips argued the “people of the States…are essentially one.”
In March and April 1862, Phillips embarked on a six-week lecture tour which took him to the Capital and through cities in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. While in Washington, he lectured twice and visited the United States Congress. Vice President Hamlin personally met with Mr. Phillips, and President Lincoln had an interview with him. After his interview with President Lincoln, Phillips, who once held Abraham Lincoln in contempt, commented that “Lincoln was slow, but he got there. Thank God for him.”
Phillips was convinced the purpose of the agitator was not to make laws or determine public policy, but to arouse public opinion “in the interest of some large social transformation.” Phillips advocated freedom for the slave in the years that led up to the American Civil War. Although he was not a politician, he influenced political thought and eventually Abraham Lincoln believed the slaves should be free. Phillips used political discussion to induce social change because he argued such discussion was a mechanism for democracy.
Wendell Phillips felt he was living in a democratic age and the ideas of the people were important. He felt there was nothing more important to society than using the “moral imagination” to transform the sentiments of the masses into “the form most suitable for the next forward movement of history.” According to American historian Richard Hofstadter, the man “who launches a sound argument for a just cause is certain to win in the long run.”