Wendell Phillips (XHTML)
An 1884 memorial oration by Henry Ward Beecher for famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
It was on last Wednesday that, standing upon the steps of the Parker House, Boston, in School Street, my attention was arrested by a procession. As they came up, I saw a soldierly body of coloured men with muskets reversed, the silent band following, with officers’ corps behind it, their swords reversed, and then the carriages, following the hearse that bore — dust to dust — all that remained on earth of Wendell Phillips. The streets could not hold the crowd, and he whom the mob had sought once and again to tear to pieces now drew tears on every side from the mob, and the obsequious city sought to make up its vulgar scorn of other days by its worshipful attention.
It is respecting this man and his time that I shall, very briefly and imperfectly, speak this morning.
Fifty years ago, during my college life in Amherst, I was chosen by the Athenian Society to debate the question of African Colonization, which then was new, fresh and enthusiastic. Garrison was then just kindling into that firebrand that never went out until slavery was consumed. Wendell Phillips, a young lawyer, had just begun his career. Fortunately, I was assigned to the negative side of the question, and in preparing to speak I prepared my whole life. I contended against colonization as a condition of emancipation, — enforced colonization was but little better than enforced slavery, — and advocated immediate emancipation on the broad ground of human rights. I knew but very little then, but I knew this, that all men are designed of God to be free, a fact which ought to be the text of every man’s life — this sacredness of humanity as given of God, redeemed from animalism by Jesus Christ, crowned and clothed with rights that no law nor oppression should dare touch.
Nearly two generations have passed since then; the young men who are marching now from youth to manhood are little acquainted with the men or movements of those days, but a few gray heads are left that can recall all these scenes. It has been said that men are
more ignorant of that part of history which immediately precedes their own lives, than of any other. Let us, therefore, throw some little light upon the history of those days that immediately precede our own.
At the beginning, in the history of this people, Slavery was an accident: it was introduced at a time before the world’s eyes had been opened; it came in, indeed, under the cover of benevolence; it had not attained a very great estate for many years; and yet, in the days of its infancy, it so conflicted with the fundamental ideas on which our institutions and laws were based, that the Northern States got rid of it. Because the climate and husbandry were not favourable to it in the Northern States, they were helped to do it; but the spirit of liberty had taken on the moral element in New England, in New York, and in Pennsylvania; and slavery was soon extinguished. In the South it became a very important industrial element. Rice, sugar, cotton were the trinity that dominated the industry of the South, and slave labour was favourable to this simple industry. It became, therefore, a pecuniary interest to the South, as it never was in the North. After a time the industry became so important that, although through-
out all the South in the earlier days, men recognized slavery as a sin, and its existence as a great misfortune, and always hoped that the day would come for emancipation; yet all those hopes and expectations were met and resisted and overthrown by the fact that slavery became a political interest. It became the centre which united every Southern State with every other, and gave unity to the party of the South; so that political reasons, rooted in pecuniary reasons, gave great strength to slavery and its propagandism in the South. The North emancipated; the South fortified.
It has been said a thousand time, and every time falsely (it was said by one of the most eloquent sons of the South a few months ago in Cooper Union, where I presided, but it was not the time nor a fitting place to expose the misstatement), it has been said that the North sold out, and having realized on their slaves invested in liberty as a better paying stock.
This statement is absolutely untrue. It has no historical verity in Massachusetts. There, to some slight extent, slavery existed as it did not in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, but died by a very simple legal decision, one case having been brought into the courts, and
the courts determining that it was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution subsequent; and the man stood free. After that there was no enactment; nothing. Slavery perished of itself by that one single decision.
In New York a bill was passed early for the gradual emancipation of slaves, and it was guarded in every way. On attaining a certain age slave were to become free; up to that age they were the property of their masters, upon whom the responsibility of their support still rested with full weight. After a trial of some years it was considered a great deal better to be rid of the evil at once, and subsequent legislation determined immediate emancipation. Now, as against those that falsely accused the integrity and love of liberty of this great State, let me say that if you will go back to the laws, and to the practice under them, you shall find that with the declaration of emancipation, both the primitive form of it and the subsequent form of it, the right of the slave or of the coming freedman was guaranteed, and his safety.
No man was permitted to take a slave out of the State of New York without giving bond for his return, and if he came back without
his slave, unless he could prove that the slave had died, he was himself made a criminal, and subjected to criminal punishment; and there is reason to believe, in regard to the most of the comparatively few slaves that were in the State of New York, that their emancipation was a bona fide emancipation, and they never were sold South.
Now and then a man can steal a horse; but we should not lay to the State from which it was taken the charge of abetting theft. There may have been single men or women spirited away; there may have been thieving; I know of none, I have heard of none, though there may have been; but whatever the statute could do to maintain the slave in his integrity and liberty was done, and substantially and generally it was effectual; and all this cheap wash of wild declamation that we hear going through the land, to the effect that the North sold out its slaves and then went into the business of emancipation, is simply false.
The condition of the public mind throughout the North at the time that I came to the consciousness of public affairs, and was studying my profession, may be described as the condition of imprisoned moral sense. All men, almost, agreed together in saying that “Sla-
very is wrong; but what can we do?” The compromise of our fathers included us; and fidelity to the agreements that had been made in the formation of our Constitution, of our Confederation first, and of our Constitution afterwards, was regarded everywhere as a moral obligation by men that hated slavery. “The compromises of the Constitution must be respected,” said the priest in the pulpit, said the politician in the field, said the statesman in public hall; and men abroad, in England especially, could not understand what was the reason of the later hesitancy of President Lincoln, and of the people, when they had risen in arms, in declaring at once the emancipation of the slaves. There never has been in history an instance more notable in which, I think, the feelings and the moral sense of so large a number of people have been held in check for reasons of fidelity to obligations assumed in their behalf; and I am bound to say that with all its faults and weaknesses there has never been an instance more noble. That being the underlying moral element, the commercial question in the north very soon became, on the subject of slavery, what the industrial and political questions of the South had made it. It corrupted the manufacturer
and the merchant. Throughout the whole North every man that could make anything by it regarded the South as his legal, lawful market; for the South did not manufacture. They had the cheap and vulgar husbandry of slavery. They could make more money with cotton than with corn or beef, or pork, or leather, or hats, or woodenware. Out Northern ships went South to get their forest timbers, and brought them to Connecticut to be made into woodenware, and axe helves, and rake handles, and carried them right back to sell to the men whose axes had cut down the trees.
The South manufactured nothing except slaves; it was a great manufacture, that; and the whole market of the North was bribed. The harness-makers, the wagon-makers, the clock-makers, makers of all manner of implements and goods, were subject to this bribery. Every manufactory, every loom as it clanked in the North, said: “Maintain not slavery, but the compromises of the Constitution,” for that was the veil under which all these cries were continually uttered.
The distinction between the Anti-slavery men and Abolitionists was simply this: the Abolitionist disclaimed the obligation to main-
tain this Government and the promise of the Constitution; the Anti-slavery man recognized the binding obligation of the Constitution, and sought the emancipation of slaves by a more circuitous and gradual influence: but Abolitionism covered both terms. It was regarded, however, throughout the North as a greater sin than Slavery itself; and none of you that are under thirty years of age can form an adequate conception of the public sentiment and feeling during the days of my young manhood. A man that was known to be an Abolitionist had better be known to have the plague. Every door was shut to him If he was born under circumstances that admitted him to the best society, he was the black sheep of the family. If he aspired, by fidelity, industry and genius, to good society, he was debarred. “An Abolitionist” was enough to put the mark of Cain upon any young man that arose in my early day, and until I was forty years of age, it was punishable to preach on the subject of liberty. It was enough to expel a man from church communion if he insisted on praying in the prayer-meeting for the liberation of slaves. I am speaking the words of truth and soberness. The Church was dumb in the North, but not
in the West. A marked distinction exists between the history of the new school of Presbyterian churches in the West and the Congregational churches, the Episcopal churches, the Methodist and Baptist churches in the North and East. The great publishing societies that were sustained by the contributions of the churches were absolutely dumb. Great controversies raged round about the doors of the Bible Society, of the Tract Society and of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The managers of these societies resorted to every shift except that of sending the Gospel to the slaves. They would not send the Bible to the South; for, they said, “It is a punishable offense in most of the Southern States to teach a slave to read; and are we to go in the face of this State legislation and send the Bible South?” The Tract Society said: “We are set up to preach the Gospel, not to meddle with political and industrial institutions.” And so they went on printing tracts against tobacco and its uses, tracts against dancing and its abuses, and refusing to print a tract that had a shadow of criticism on slavery!
One of the most disgraceful things took place in New Jersey. I have the book. It
was an edition of the Episcopal prayer-book. They had put into the front of it a steel engraving of Ary Scheffer’s “Christus Consolator,” — Christ the Consoler. There was a semi-circle around about the beneficent and aerial figure of our Saviour, — the poor, the old, the sick, the mother with her dead babe, bowed in grief; every known form of human sorrow belonged to the original design and picture; and among others a fettered slave, with his hands lifted to heaven praying for liberty: but this was too much; and so they cut out the slave, and left the rest of the picture, and bound it into the Episcopal prayer-book of New Jersey. I have a copy of it, which I mean to leave to the Historical Society of Brooklyn when I am done using it.
These things are important as showing the incredible condition of public sentiment at that time. If a man came known to be an Anti-slavery man it almost precluded bankruptcy in business.
You remember, some of you, the black list that was framed and sent all over the South, of men that were suspected of being Abolitionists in New York City. The South undertook to boycott the whole North. Then it was that I drew up the sentence for a then
member of this church, “I have goods for sale, but not principles.” Resistance was a blight to all political hope. No man could have the slightest expectation of rising in politics that did not bow the knee to Baal. A derisive laugh was the only answer with which exhortations to nobility and manhood were received. This public sentiment was worse in the North than it was anywhere else, and in the Northeast worse than in the West, on account of the extent of manufacturing and commerce here.
When I came to Brooklyn I was exhorted not to meddle with so unpopular a subject. “What is the use?” was said to me by a venerable master in Israel; “why should you lose your influence? Why don’t you go and preach the Gospel?” to which I replied, “I don’t know any gospel of that kind. My gospel has in it the breaking of prison bars and shackles, the bringing forth of prisoners, and if I can’t preach that I won’t preach at all.” The very first sermon that I ever preached before this congregation — or rather, the congregation that met me — was the declaration of my principles on temperance, on peace and war, and above all, on the subject of slavery. For years and years just prior to the renting of the pews, I came out like thun-
der on the subject of slavery; for I told my people that they need not think that they could dine me out of my principles, nor smooth me out of them, nor in any way make the pews an argument to me of prudence in the matter of principle.
The church rose steadily, despite the anti-slaveryism of the pastor. Yet, if a coloured man at that time had come into the church he would have been the object of observation, and the cause of some grumbling, though not of revolt in this church, thank God. There never has been a day since I became the pastor of Plymouth Church that a cleanly-dressed respectable coloured man or woman could not have come in and taken a seat here. It would have excited among a great many a good deal of trouble; but this congregation has been of that mind, and never the result of my undertaking to enforce it. I never preached on that subject. I never said to the people in this congregation, from the beginning to this day, “You ought to let coloured folks sit in your pew.” I preached the dignity of man as a child of God; and lifted up the sanctity of human life and nature before the people. They made the application, and they made it wisely and well.
When I came here there was no place for coloured men and women in the theatre except the negro pen; no place in the opera; no place in the church except the negro pew; no place in any lecture hall; no place in the first-class car on the railways. The white omnibus of Fulton Ferry would not allow coloured persons to ride in it. They were never allowed to sit even in the men’s cabin on the boats.
I invited Fred. Douglass, one day, in those times, to come to church here. “I should be glad to, sir,” said he; “but it would be so offensive to your congregation.” “Mr. Douglass, will you come? and if any man objects to it, come up and sit on my platform by me. You will always be welcome there.”
I mention these things simply to show what was the state of feeling that existed everywhere twenty-five or thirty years ago. Existed! Swept through the land as a sultry sirocco sweeps through the desert, scorching and blasting public sentiment!
It was at the beginning of this Egyptian era in America that the young aristocrat of Boston appeared. His blood came through the best colonial families. He was an aristocrat by descent and by nature — a noble one,
but a thorough aristocrat. All his life and power assumed that guise. He was noble, he was full of kindness to inferiors, he was willing to be and do and suffer for them; but he was never of them, nor did he ever equal himself to them. He was always above them; and his gifts of love were always the gifts of a prince to his subjects. All his life long he resented every attack on his person and on his honour as a noble aristocrat would. When they poured the filth of their imaginations upon him, he cared no more for it than the eagle cares what the fly is thinking about him away down under the cloud. All the miserable traffickers, all the scribblers and all the aristocratic boobies of Boston were no more to him than mosquitoes are to the behemoth or to the lion. He was aristocratic in his pride, and lived higher than most men lived. He was called of God as truly as ever Moses and the Prophets were: not exactly for the same great ends, but in consonance with those great ends.
The elder ones remember when Lovejoy was infamously slaughtered by a mob in Alton, and blood was shed that has been the seed of liberty all over this land. I remember it. At this time, it was, that Channing lifted
up his voice, and declared that the moral sentiment of Boston ought to be uttered in rebuke of that infamy and cruelty, and asked for Faneuil Hall in which to call a public meeting. This was indignantly refused by the Common Council of Boston. Being a man of wide influence, he gathered around about himself enough venerable and influential old citizens of that city to make a denial of their united request a perilous thing; and Faneuil Hall was granted to call a public meeting to express itself on this subject of the murder of Lovejoy. The meeting was made up largely of rowdies. They meant to overawe and put down all other expressions of opinion except those that then rioted with the riotous. United States District Attorney Austin (under Wendell Phillips’ name is written in letters of light on one side of the monument, down low on the other side, and spattered with dirt, let the name of Austin also be written) made a truculent speech, and justified the mob, and ran the whole career of the sewer of those days, and justified non-interference with slavery. Wendell Phillips, just come to town as a young lawyer without at present any practice, almost unknown except to his own family, fired up with infamy, and feeling called of God in
his soul, went upon the platform. His first utterances brought down the hisses of the mob. He was not a man very easily subdued by any mob. They listened as he kindled and poured on that man Austin the fire and lava of a volcano; and he finally turned the course of the feeling of the meeting. Practically unknown when the sun went down one day, when it rose the next morning all Boston was saying “Who is this fellow? who is this Phillips?” — a question that has never been asked since!
Thenceforth he was a flaming advocate of liberty, with singular advantages over all other pleaders. Mr. Garrison was not noted as a speaker; his tongue was his pen. Mr. Phillips was not much given to the pen, his pen was his tongue, and no other like speaker has ever graced our history. I do not undertake to say that he surpassed all others. He has an intense individuality, and that intense individuality ranked him among the noblest orators that have ever been born to this continent, or I may say to our mother land. He adopted in full the tenets of Garrison, which were excessively disagreeable to the whole public mind. The ground which he took was that which Garrison took. Seeing that the con-
science of the North was smothered and mute by reason of supposed obligations to the compromises of the Constitution, Garrison declared that the compromises of the Constitution were covenants with hell, and that no man was bound to observe them. This extreme ground Mr. Phillips also took — immediate, unconditional, universal emancipation at any cost whatsoever. That was Garrisonism; that was Wendell Phillipsism; and it would seem as though the Lord rather leaned that way too.
I shall not discuss the merits of Mr. Garrison nor of Mr. Phillips in every direction. I shall say that while the duty of immediate emancipation without conditions was unquestionably the right ground, yet in the providence of God even that could not be brought to pass except through the mediation of very many events. It is a remarkable thing that Mr. Phillips and Mr. Garrison both renounced the Union and denounced the Union in the hope of destroying slavery; whereas the providence of God protected the love of the Union when it was assailed by the South, and made the love of the Union the enthusiasm that carried through the great war of Emancipation. It was the very antithesis of the ground which they took. Like John Brown, Mr. Garrison;
Like John Brown, Mr. Phillips; of a heroic spirit, seeking the great end nobly, but by measures not well adapted to directly secure the end.
Little by little the controversy spread. I shall not trace it. I am giving you simply the atmosphere in which Mr. Phillips sprang into being and into power. His career was a career of thirty or forty years of undiminished eagerness. He never quailed nor flinched, nor did he ever at any time go back one step, or turn in the slightest degree to the right or left. He gloried in his cause, and in that particular aspect of it which had selected him.
He stood on this platform. It is a part of the sweet and pleasant memories of my comparative youth here, that when the mob refused to let him speak in the Broadway Tabernacle before it was moved up-town — the old Tabernacle — William A. Hall, now dead, a fervent friend and Abolitionist, had secured the Graham Institute, on Washington Street, in Brooklyn, wherein to hold a meeting where Mr. Phillips should be heard. I had agreed to pray at the opening of the meeting. On the morning of the day on which it was to have taken place, I was visited by the committee of that Institute (excellent gentlemen,
whose feelings will not be hurt, because they are all now ashamed of it; they are in heaven), who said that in consequence of the great peril that attended a meeting at the Institute, they had withdrawn the liberty to use it, and paid back the money, and that they called simply to say that it was out of no disrespect to me, but from fidelity to their supposed trust. Well, it was a bitter thing. If there is anything on earth that I am sensitive to, it is the withdrawing of the liberty of speech and thought. Henry C. Bowen, who certainly has done some good things in his lifetime, said to me, “You can have Plymouth Church if you want it.” “How?” “It is the rule of the church trustees that the church may be let by a majority vote when we are convened; but if we are not convened, then every trustee must give his assent in writing. If you choose to make it a personal matter, and go to every trustee, you can have it.” He meanwhile undertook, with Mr. Hall, to put new placards over the old ones, notifying men, quietly, that the meeting was to be held here, and distributed thousands and tens of thousands of handbills at the ferries. No task was ever more welcome. I went to the trustees man by man. The majority of them very cheerfully accorded
the permission. One or two of them were disposed to decline and withhold it. I made it a matter of personal friendship. “You and I will break if you don’t give me this permission;” and they signed. So the meeting glided from the Graham Institute to this house. A great audience assembled. We had detectives in disguise, and every arrangement made to handle the subject in a practical form if the crowd should undertake to molest us. The Rev. Dr. R.S. Storrs consented to come and pray; for Mr. Wendell Phillips was my marriage a near and intimate friend and relation of his. The reporters were here — when were they ever not? A gentleman was called to preside over the meeting who had been known to be an Abolitionist almost from his cradle; but he was personally a timid man, though morally courageous. When I put the sense of the meeting that he should preside, he got up and was so scared that he could not be heard. He muttered that he thought some other man might have been chosen. I called him by name and said, “You are selected to preside, sir.” He got up again — “Will you be kind enough to come up here and preside, sir?” And for fear that he would be worse bombarded by not doing it than he would be doing
it, he came up. Prayer was uttered. An explanatory statement was made. Mr. Phillips began his lecture; you may depend on it by this time the lion was in him, and he went careering on. His views were extreme, he made them extravagant. I remember at one point, — for he was a man without bluster; serene, self-poised, never disturbed in the least, — he made an affirmation that was very bitter, and a cry arose over the whole congregation. He stood still, with a cold, bitter smile on his face and look in his eye, and waited till they subsided, when he repeated it with more emphasis. Again the roar went through. He waited, and repeated it if possible more intensely; and he beat them down with that one sentence, until they were still and let him go on.
The power to discern right amid all the wrappings of interest and all the seductions of ambition was singularly his. To choose the lowly for their sake; to abandon all favour, all power, all comfort, all ambition, all greatness — that was his genius and glory. He confronted the spirit of the Nation and of the age. I had almost said, he set himself against nature, as if he had been a decree of God overriding all these other insuperable obstacles.
That was his function. Mr. Phillips was not called to be a universal orator any more than he was a universal thinker. In literature and in history he was widely read; in person most elegant; in manners most accomplished; gentle as a babe; sweet as a new-born rose; in voice, clear and silvery. He was not a man of tempests; he was not an orchestra of a hundred instruments; he was not an organ, mighty and complex. The Nation slept, and God wanted a trumpet, sharp, far-sounding, narrow and intense; and that was Mr. Phillips. The long roll is not particularly agreeable in music or in times of peace, but it is better than flutes or harps when men are in a great battle, or are on the point of it. His eloquence was penetrating and alarming. He did not flow as a mighty Gulf Stream; he did not dash upon the continent as the ocean does; he was not a mighty rushing river. His eloquence was a flight of arrows; sentence after sentence, polished, and most of them burning. He shot them one after the other, and where they struck they slew; always elegant, always awful. I think scorn in him was as fine as I ever knew in any human being. He had that sublime sanctuary in his pride that made him almost insensitive to what would by other
men be considered obloquy. It was as if he said every day, in himself, “I am not what they are firing at. I am not there, and I am not that. It is not against me. I am infinitely superior to what they think me to be. They do not know me.” It was quiet and unpretentious, but it was there. Conscience and pride were the two concurrent elements of his nature.
He lived to see the slave emancipated, but not by moral means. He lived to see the sword cut the fetter. After this had taken place he was too young to retire, though too old to gather laurels of literature or to seek professional honours. The impulse of humanity was not at all abated. His soul still flowed on for the great under-masses of mankind, though like the Nile it split up into diverse mouths, and not all of them were navigable.
After a long and stormy life his sun went down in glory. All the English-speaking people on the globe have written among the names that shall never die, the name of that scoffed, detested, mob-beaten Wendell Phillips. Boston, that persecuted and would have slain him, is now exceedingly busy in building his tomb and rearing his statue. The men that
would not defile their lips with his name are to-day thanking God that he lived.
He has taught a lesson that the young will do well to take heed to — the lesson that the most splendid gifts and opportunities and ambitions may be best used for the dumb and the lowly. His whole life is a rebuke to the idea that we are to climb to greatness by climbing on the backs of great men; that we are to gain strength by running with the currents of life; that we can from without add anything to the great within that constitutes man. He poured out the precious ointment of his soul upon the feet of the diffusive Jesus who suffers ere in His poor and despised ones. He has taught the young ambitions too — that the way to glory is the way, often-times, of adhesion simply to principle; and that popularity and unpopularity are not things to be known or considered. Do right and rejoice. If to do right will bring you into trouble, rejoice that you are counted worthy to suffer with God and the providences of God in this world.
He belongs to the race of giants, not simply because he was in and of himself a great soul, but because he bathed in the providence of God, and came forth scarcely less than a god;
because he gave himself to the work of God upon earth, and inherited thereby, or had reflected upon him, some of the majesty of his master. When pigmies are all dead, the noble countenance of Wendell Phillips will still look forth, radiant as a rising run — a sun that will never set. He has become to us a lesson, his death an example, his whole history an encouragement to manhood — to heroic manhood.
 Discourse in Plymouth Church, Sunday morning, February 10, 1884.