about the orator

Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips (November 29, 1811–February 2, 1884) was an American abolitionist, champion of women’s rights, Native American rights, renowned orator and prominent attorney. Educated at the prominent Boston Latin School (the oldest Public School in the United States), graduated from Harvard University with an undergraduate degree in 1831 then went on to graduate Harvard Law School in 1834. These curriculum vitae are precepts to Phillip’s commitment to liberty and his staunch opposition to the institution of slavery. Wendell Phillips’ opposition to slavery was not political but rather a philosophical and one might say a spiritual opposition. Phillips, in a practical expression of his sedulous opposition to slavery, eschewed wearing cotton clothing, the use of cane sugar and any product produced through the labor of slaves.

A cornerstone of Phillips’ pursuit of the abolition of African slavery was his staunch support of the southern states’ rights of secession. He firmly believed that Liberty was a fundamental right of all people and in his view, the United States had no right to infringe upon the south’s wishes to leave the United States. Compelling these states to remain within the union in Phillips’ view would be contrary to the spirit of America’s war of independence – the very spirit of 1776.

Phillips argued for dissolution of the union in his 1845 essay titled No Union With Slaveholders:

“The experience of the fifty years ... shows us the slaves trebling in numbers – slaveholders monopolizing the offices and dictating the policy of the Government – prostituting the strength and influence of the Nation to the support of slavery here and elsewhere – trampling on the rights of the free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. To continue this disastrous alliance longer is madness. The trial of fifty years only proves that it is impossible for free and slave States to unite on any terms, without all becoming partners in the guilt and responsible for the sin of slavery. Why prolong the experiment? Let every honest man join in the outcry of the American Anti-Slavery Society.”
— Ruchames, The Abolitionists p. 196


In the broadest sense, Phillips’ definition of liberty can be summarized as the broad right to self determination. This definition applies to not only to states but to individual as well. It is only through the exercise of self determination could human potential and dignity would be allowed to bloom. After the American Civil War had settled the question of slavery, Phillips would go on to to champion various causes in support of human liberty. Key among those causes were his advocacy of Native American Rights, the temperance movement, worker’s rights, the defense of African-American civil rights, and the defense of Chinese immigrants.

Wendell Phillips died in Boston on February 2, 1884



Daguerreotype of Wendell Phillips, between 1855 and 1865.
Photograph by Mathew B. Brady
Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division