Photo of Wendell Phillips
Wendell Phillips

Library of Congress

Quick Facts

Significance:
Abolitionist and social reformer
Place of Birth:
Boston, MA
Date of Birth:
November 29, 1811
Place of Death:
Boston, MA
Date of Death:
February 2, 1884
Place of Burial:
Milton, MA
Cemetery Name:
Milton Cemetery

Wendell Phillips was a fervent abolitionist who gave up a promising law career to become of full-time advocate for the cause. He was an eloquent speaker who, like many of his fellow abolitionists, honored the free produce movement and took pains to avoid cane sugar and wear cotton-free clothing since both were produced by slave labor.

Phillips' renown for powerful oratory garnered him the nickname of being abolition's "Golden Trumpet." One of his earliest orations which brought him into the spotlight was his so-called "Freedom Speech," given extemporaneously in Boston's Faneuil Hall on December 8, 1837. While attending a large meeting called in response to news of the death of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy at the hands of a mob in Alton, Illinois, Phillips heard the Attorney General of Massachusetts James T. Austin compare the mob favorably to the patriots of the Boston Tea Party. Phillips was appalled at Austin's approval of the murderous mob. Though he had not planned to speak, Phillips was driven to speak out in response. After finally getting the attention of the large mass of people inside the hall, he gave a critical rebuke of Austin's arguments. After speaking for several minutes about the legacy of the American Revolution and the challenges the nation still faced, he forcefully concluded with these words:

I am glad, Sir, to see this crowded house. It is good for us to be here. When Liberty is in danger, Faneuil Hall has the right, it is her duty, to strike the key-note for these United States. I am glad, for one reason, that remarks such as those to which I have alluded have been uttered here. The passage of these resolutions, in spite of this opposition, led by the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth, will show more clearly, more decisively, the deep indignation with which Boston regards this outrage.

 

Phillips actively advocated disunion from the slave-holding South, and in 1854 was indicted for attempting to help a runaway slave escape a Boston jail. After African Americans gained the right to vote under the 15th Amendment, Phillips became involved in other social reform movements, such as those advocating equal rights for women, universal suffrage, temperance, unionism and Native American citizenship. In 1870, Phillips ran for Governor of Massachusetts unsuccessfully as the candidate of the Labor Reform and Prohibition Parties.

Last updated: February 10, 2018