The Puritan Principle and John Brown
A December 1859 speech by abolitionist Wendell Phillips commemorating John Brown. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) was born to a wealthy Boston family and, beginning in the mid-1830s, joined the Garrisonian abolitionists and became a central intellectual force in the antislavery movement. One of the great orators of abolitionism, Phillips was also one of its most radical speakers. He spoke not only against slavery, but also in behalf of labor rights, women’s suffrage, temperance, and the rights of Native Americans.
Phillips delivered this speech in front of the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, established by his friend Theodore Parker and the center of a socially-active Unitarian movement known as the ‘Parkerites’. At the December 18, 1859 date of this speech, Parker had departed from the pulpit due to ill heath. The speech came slightly more than two weeks after John Brown’s December 2 execution for the attack on Harpers Ferry.
Phillips argues that John Brown was the true representative of the Puritan spirit. He derives this spirit from Calvinism’s religious republicanism and emphasis on action (295-297). In exercising these principles, Puritans asserted that their own concept of right was superior to the civil state’s laws and would gain historical vindication. For Phillips, Puritans provided the essence of the English Revolution: “Men still slumbered in submission to law. They tore off the semblance of law; they revealed despotism.” (300) John Brown, Phillips asserts, had done the same for the United States and demonstrated the despotism of slavery. Brown tore “asunder the veil of respectability which covers brutality calling itself law.” (303) Taking a radical position, Phillips extends this argument by stating “Insurrection is epidemic in the State; treason is our very inheritance.” (305) He concludes “’Law and order’ are only names for the halting ignorance of the last generation. John Brown is the impersonation of God’s order and God’s law, moulding a better future…” (308) Phillips’ speech commemorating John Brown’s actions argues that legitimacy lies in a just cause rather than laws and state authority.
Text source: Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters, 2nd series (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1891) 294-308. See also Phillips, Irish Sympathy with the Abolition Movement (1842), No Slave-Hunting in the Old Bay State (1860), and The State of the Country (1863).