Wendell Phillips

American abolitionist, advocate for Native Americans, orator and lawyer (1811-1884)

Wendell Phillips (29 November 18112 February 1884), born in Boston, Massachusetts, was an American abolitionist, advocate of Native American rights, and orator.

In God's world there are no majorities, no minorities; one, on God's side, is a majority.


Revolutions are not made; they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back.
The best use of laws is to teach men to trample bad laws under their feet.
Write on my gravestone: "Infidel, Traitor" — infidel to every church that compromises with wrong; traitor to every government that oppresses the people.
Whether in chains or in laurels, Liberty knows nothing but victories.
  • Take the whole range of imaginative literature, and we are all wholesale borrowers. In every matter that relates to invention, to use, or beauty or form, we are borrowers.
    • Lecture: The Lost Arts, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)


  • What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind, and the statesman is no longer clad in the steel of special education, but every reading man is his judge.
  • Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — power is ever stealing from the many to the few…. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.
    • Speech in Boston, Massachusetts (28 January 1852), Speeches Before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (1853), p. 13. The memorable and oft-quoted phrase, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," was not in quotation marks in the printed edition of this speech. The Home Book of Quotations, ed. Burton Stevenson, 9th ed., p. 1106 (1964), notes that "It has been said that Mr. Phillips was quoting Thomas Jefferson, but in a letter dated 14 April, 1879, Mr. Phillips wrote: '"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" has been attributed to Jefferson, but no one has yet found it in his works or elsewhere.' It has also been attributed to Patrick Henry."
  • Truth is one forever, absolute; but opinion is truth filtered through the moods, the blood, the disposition, of the spectator.
    • Fraternity lecture delivered in Boston (4 October 1859), published in Speeches, Letters and Lectures by Wendell Phillips (1884), p. 245

Lecture at Brooklyn (1859)

A lecture delivered at Brooklyn, New York, November 1, 1859, published in Speeches, Letters and Lectures by Wendell Phillips (1884), p. 274.
  • In God's world there are no majorities, no minorities; one, on God's side, is a majority.
  • Every man meets his Waterloo at last.
  • Whether in chains or in laurels, Liberty knows nothing but victories.



Toussaint L'Ouverture (1861)

"Toussaint L'Ouverture" (December 1861)
  • [T]he Negro race, instead of being that object of pity or contempt which we usually consider it, is entitled, judged by the facts of history, to a place close by the side of the Saxon.
  • [R]aces love to be judged in two ways—by the great men they produce, and by the average merit of the mass of the race.


He who stifles free discussion, secretly doubts whether what he professes to believe is really true.
  • He who stifles free discussion, secretly doubts whether what he professes to believe is really true.
    • Oration delivered at Daniel O'Connell celebration, Boston (6 August 1870), published in Wendell Phillips: The Agitator (1890) by William Carlos Martyn, p. 563



The Scholar in a Republic (1881)

"The Scholar in a Republic", address at the centennial anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard College, June 30, 1881.
  • Corruption does not so much rot the masses: it poisons Congress. Credit-Mobilier and money rings are not housed under thatched roofs: they flaunt at the Capitol. As usual in chemistry, the scum floats uppermost.
  • The agitator must stand outside of organizations, with no bread to earn, no candidate to elect, no party to save, no object but truth — to tear a question open and riddle it with light.
  • To be as good as our fathers we must be better.
  • Sit not, like the figure on our silver coin, looking ever backward.



Quotes about Phillips

  • Mrs. R. (Ernestine Rose) and myself were talking of the know nothing organizations [the anti-immigrant American Party], when she criticized Lucy Stone and Wendell Philips with regard to their feelings toward foreigners. Said she had heard them both express themselves in terms of prejudice against granting to foreigners the rights of Citizenship.
    • Susan B. Anthony 1854 letter in Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose edited by Paula Doress-Worters (2008)
  • Wendell Phillips, whose wife was part of the American delegation, introduced a counter-motion that the women be seated as full delegates. He spoke: "It is the custom there in America not to admit colored men into respectable society; and we have been told again and again that we are outraging the decencies of humanity when we permit colored men to sit by our side. When we have submitted to brick-bats and the tar-tub and feathers in New England rather than yield to the custom prevalent there to not admitting colored brethren into our friendship, shall we yield to parallel custom or prejudice against women in Old England? We cannot yield this question... for it is a matter of conscience.... We have argued it over and over again, and decided it time after time, in every society in the land, in favor of the women... It is a matter of conscience, and British virtue ought not to ask us to yield."
    • Bettina Aptheker about the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, Woman's Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982)
  • The ancients were always distinguished—especially the Chaldean astrologers and Magians—for their ardent love and pursuit of knowledge in every branch of science... As chemists they were unequalled, and in his famous lecture on The Lost Arts, Wendell Phillips says: “ The chemistry of the most ancient period had reached a point which we have never even approached.” The secret of the malleable glass, which, “if supported by one end by its own weight, in twenty hours dwindles down to a fine line that you can curve around your wrist,” would be as difficult to rediscover in our civilized countries as to fly to the moon. p. 50
  • Wendell Phillips states that he has a friend who possesses an extraordinary ring “ perhaps three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and on it is the naked figure of the god Hercules. By the aid of glasses, you can distinguish the interlacing muscles, and count every separate hair on the eyebrows. p. 240
    In his lecture on the Lost Arts, Wendell Phillips very artistically describes the situation. “We seem to imagine/' says he, “ that whether knowledge will die with us or not, it certainly began with us. . . . We have a pitying estimate, a tender pity for the narrowness, ignorance, and darkness of the bygone ages.” p. 534
  • Mister Toombs was willing to dissolve the Union to save slavery, Mister Phillips, to save liberty; while Mister Seward, denounced and derided by both, declared that the deepest instinct of the American people was for union. Reserved rights. State rights, limited powers, the advantages of union and disunion, were the cucumbers from which we were busily engaged in distilling light, overlooking the fact of nationality in discussing the conditions of union. We were speculating upon costume. We gravely proved that the clothes were the clothes of a woman, or of a child, without seeing that whatever the clothes might be there was a full-grown man inside of them. "The Constitution is a contract between sovereign States", shouted Mister Toombs, "let Georgia tear it and separate". "The Constitution is a league with hell", calmly replied Mister Phillips, "let New York cut off New Orleans to rot alone". "Oh, dear! it"s a dreadful dilemma", whimpered President Buchanan. "States have no right to secede, and the United States have no right to coerce. Oh, dear me! it"s perfectly awful! I"m the most patriotic of men, but what shall I do? what shall I do?" Separate! Cut off! Secede! It was of a living body they spoke, which, pierced anywhere, quivered everywhere.
  • Robert G. Ingersoll and Wendell Phillips were the two greatest orators of their time, and probably of all time. Their power sprang from their passion for freedom, for truth, for justice, for a world filled with light and with happy human beings. But for this divine passion neither would have scaled the sublime heights of immortal achievement. The sacred fire burned within them and when they were aroused it flashed from their eyes and rolled from their inspired lips in torrents of eloquence. Had Ingersoll and Phillips devoted their lives to the practice of law for pay the divine fire within them would have burned to ashes and they would have died in mediocrity.
  • The good Lord had had a chance for a long time before the abolition. I believe that there is a moral government; and that God reigns. I am no pessimist; I give thanks to the good Lord, and also to the good men through whom He has worked. Prominent among them was Garrison, and scarcely less so was Phillips...
  • All 13 of us graduates had orations, and mine was on Wendell Phillips. The great anti-slavery agitator had just died in February and I presume that some of my teachers must have suggested the subject, although it is quite possible that I chose it myself. But I was fascinated by his life and his work and took a long step toward a wider conception of what I was going to do.
    • The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)
  • Phillips, the peerless, grand and brave,/A tower of strength to the outcast slave./Earth has no marble too pure and white/To enrol his name in golden light.
  • behind them (The Masses staff) still throbbed the tradition of nineteenth-century American radicalism, the un-ambiguous nay-saying of Thoreau and the Abolitionists. This tradition implied that the individual person was still able to square off against the authority of the state; it signified a stance-one could not quite speak of it as a politics-of individual defiance and rectitude, little concerned because little involved with the complexities of society. The radicalism of nineteenth-century New England had been a radicalism of individual declaration far more than of collective action; and while Max Eastman and his friends were indeed connected with a movement, the Socialist party of Debs, in essential spirit they were intellectual freebooters, more concerned with speaking out than speaking to. They swore by Marx, but behind them could still be heard the voices of Thoreau and Wendell Phillips-and it was a good thing.
    • Irving Howe Introduction to Echoes of Revolt: The Masses, 1911-1917 by William L. O'Neill (1989)
  • In 1834, a Boston mob dragging William Lloyd Garrison through the streets with a rope around his neck, was observed by the young lawyer Wendell Phillips, offspring of a wealthy and respected family. He was so incensed by the sight that he joined in Garrison's defense and soon became one of the leading and most militant abolitionists.
  • Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled? The eloquence of Wendell Phillips is silent now. John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave. But will his spirit lie there moldering, too? Brutes, inhuman monsters—you heartless brutes—you whom nature forms by molding you in it, deceive not yourselves by thinking that another John Brown will not arise.
  • Wendell Phillips says, “The best and greatest thing one is capable of doing, that is his sphere.”
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