The State of the Country
An 1863 speech by abolitionist Wendell Phillips on the Civil War. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) was born to a wealthy Boston family. In the mid-1830s his soon-to-be wife, Anne Greene, drew him into the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. By 1837 Phillips was making extemporaneous speeches at abolitionist meetings. He quickly became one of the most important abolitionist intellectuals. A masterful orator, he and Frederick Douglass were probably the most popular public speakers of the nineteenth century. Phillips was immensely influential in American politics yet he never held political office. A self-described “agitator” rather than politician, he acted as “a delegate at large” in American politics, as a friend once put it. As the nation went through the long drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, he was perhaps the most important shaper of public opinion from a radical perspective. He was also a major spokesperson for workers’ rights (including the eight-hour day), women’s suffrage, and temperance. He died in poverty in 1884, partly as a result of giving his wealth away to friends and causes in need.
In this speech, one of his most radical, Phillips argues that the Civil War is a battle between two “civilizations” or ideas, North and South. The North represents liberty, racial equality, and a republican form of government, while the South represents slavery, despotism, and an “aristocracy of the skin.” The purpose of the war is to “annihilate the South.” History is on the side of the North, but it will not win unless Northerners realize that black people are at the center of this struggle and crucial to its success. Until Lincoln and other moderates are able to “see John Hancock under a black skin,” the South will continue to beat back destiny. The speech is thus a sharp critique of Lincoln and a strong defense of racial equality.
Text source: Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (Boston: James Redpath Publishers, 1863). For further on Phillips, see James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Liberty’s Hero (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986). See also Phillips, Irish Sympathy with the Abolition Movement (1842), The Puritan Principle and John Brown (1859), and No Slave-Hunting in the Old Bay State (1860).
— Joel Olson