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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Wendell Phillips
(Nov. 29, 1811–Feb. 2, 1884)

(4 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 47, 4 July 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

In a small mid-western town a mob of respectable people invaded the printshop of Elijah Lovejoy. They dragged him out, did these good northerners, and lynched him. Lovejoy had infuriated them with abolitionist agitation. The year was 1837 – the Civil War was some twenty-odd years off.

Wendell Phillips, well-to-do Harvard man, went to a meeting in Paneuil Hall, Boston, called to discuss the murder of Lovejoy. Social problems hadn’t agitated him much before. True, he had attended one or two abolitionist meetings, but that was the extent of his social protest. In fact, he went that evening to Paneuil Hall not so much out of aroused indignation as out of liberal interest. But Wendell Phillips that night changed the course of his life.

A Champion of Truth

The Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts took the the platform to speak his approval of the lynching. Hardly had the Attorney General sat down when, burning with fury, Phillips jumped on the platform and delivered an impassioned denunciation of the slave system, the murder and those who would condone both. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to stop him. When he finished, the placid Bostonians cheered themselves hoarse. Of a sudden, Phillips had become a leading spokesman of the cause against slavery – along with Lloyd Garrison.

His friends thought him insane. It was alright to show some sympathy for the slaves, to contribute money to the abolitionist movement, even to attend a meeting. But to plunge wholeheartedly into freedom’s cause, to submerge oneself in the fight against chattel slavery, to devote one’s life to an ideal – that was something altogether different.

Phillips, however, did precisely that. A “Knight-Errant of Unfriended Truth” he spent one night in a valley speaking to a few people, the next in a large city addressing a huge crowd. Often he had to leave the meeting-hall under protection. For the respectable people who had lynched Lovejoy and beaten Garrison, would have been glad to do as much to him. At one meeting the town’s “respectables” roared so loud Phillips could not be heard; he nevertheless continued speaking, addressing himself to the newspapermen: “While I speak to these pencils I speak to a million men. We have got the press of the country in our hands; whether they like it or not, they know that our speeches sell their papers.”

Because a lawyer had to swear fidelity to the Constitution, Phillips in 1842 gave up his practice. “My curse be on the Constitution of the United States” ... which defends slavery. He was as caustic with the scriptures which sanctified slavery.

His enemies called him “nigger-friend”. And a friend of the Negro he was; looking beyond formal emancipation to real equality. When, the Civil War over, Garrison and other abolitionists were content to give up the fight, he insisted upon the continued existence of the Anti-Slavery Society until full suffrage rights were granted.

With the Labor Movement

His great distinction, however, was that unlike most of the abolitionist leaders he was an active supporter of the labor movement. Standing for the “abolition of chattel slavery and wage slavery”, Phillips attacked the profit system and all forms of social oppression. He supported women’s suffrage when that was far from being a popular cause. He defended the Russian Nihilists, attacked the suppression of the Irish people by the British tyrants, and honored John Brown for his courageous stroke against slavery. And in the fight for liberty and against tyranny, he sought to rouse the working class to action.

As a candidate of the Labor Party, he ran in 1870 for the Massachusetts governorship. His platform said that “Labor is entitled to all it creates.” Attacking corruption and the profit system he stumped the state. In the election he polled 20,000 votes.

Phillips kept on the go. Speaking, writing, agitating. When he was 70, the Phi Beta Kappa association graced him with an invitation to speak. Phillips who had been Phi Beta Kappa in school had never before in all the years of his activity been invited to address the well-fed sons of Harvard or the smug conservatives of Phi Beta Kappa. Now an old man (they thought), and the issue for which he had principally fought largely settled, they considered it safe to hear him. Phillips saw the humor of the situation, but he spoke. He spoke to them about the duties of a “Scholar in a Republic” ... to probe, to criticize, to fight exploitation of man by man, to stand on the side of social justice.

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