Nineteenth-century pillar of Boston society becomes abolitionist crusader

Wendell Phillips was not, at first glance, an obvious crusader. Phillips was born on November 29, 1811. Phillips’ father was the first mayor of Boston; his mother was the daughter of a Boston merchant. Phillips described himself as “the child of six generations of Puritans.”

He attended Boston’s Latin School, then graduated from Harvard College in 1831. His biographer described him as “six feet tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered and with a soldierly bearing.” A college classmate described Phillips as “a young Apollo.” Philips graduated from Harvard Law School in 1833, then opened a law practice.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and history records Wendell Phillips as a crusader against slavery and for the rights of women, labor, and the oppressed everywhere. How did that come to be? It was a path with many points of interest along the way.

Lyman Beecher

Fourteen-year-old Phillips attended a meeting led by revivalist Lyman Beecher, a preacher, founder of the American Temperance Society, and father of 13 children – including Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1950 book Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, he described the importance of that event:

“From that day to this, whenever I have known a thing to be wrong, it has held no temptation. Whenever I have known it to be right, it has taken no courage to do it.”

William Lloyd Garrison

Phillips witnessed a mob determined to lynch William Lloyd Garrison in 1835. Garrison was a fierce advocate for the abolition of slavery and had founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Three years later, Phillips saw him being led up the street by a mob with a rope around his neck. For Phillips, it was a turning point.

Elijah Lovejoy

November 1837 saw the murder of abolitionist and editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. For daring to defend his printing press from a destructive mob. At an event in December 1837, Phillips was infuriated by comments by Massachusetts’ Attorney-General who defended that mob and called Lovejoy “presumptuous and imprudent.”

Phillips would not remain infuriated quietly. Instead, he gave a speech that tied the right to free speech and the abolitionist movement together. He was persuasive. According to, the address led to Phillips:

“…being immediately recognized as one of the outstanding orators of the day. He would later come to be known as “the golden trumpet of abolition.”

Unable to see his way clear to defending the Constitution as a lawyer, Phillips gave up his legal practice and pursued a new career as an abolitionist crusader.

An abolitionist crusader emerges

Wendell Phillips spoke, wrote, traveled, and organized for the abolitionist cause. A cause so unpopular that he carried a pistol for his own protection. A cause so dangerous and controversial that his own family sought to have him declared insane.

Phillips was not easily satisfied. He was disappointed by and rejected President Abraham Lincoln’s reluctance to uproot slavery at once. The January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not go far enough for Phillips, who insisted that all freedmen should have full civil liberties. He implored audiences in northern states to pledge never to return fugitive slaves to their former masters.

Even the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1965 did not satisfy Phillips, who insisted that the abolitionists’ work was incomplete until full equality was guaranteed.

Outcast no more


Phillips’ status as an outcast would not last. It is reported that, from 1861 to 1862, 5,000,000 people heard Phillips speak. When Phillips visited Washington, he was welcomed to the Senate Chamber by the Vice-President. He was invited to dinner by the Speaker of the House. The President received him as a guest.

Phillips’ career as an advocate ultimately took him beyond the abolitionist movement. His causes included the rights of slaves, women, labor, and the oppressed everywhere. As he described himself in The Lesson of the Hour: Wendell Phillips on Abolition and Strategy, he: “…worked 40 years, served in 20 movements, and [was] been kicked out of all of them.”

Wendell Phillips‘ February 2, 1884 death was announced across the country. He was honored with a state funeral. Thousands stood in line to pay tribute. Today, one can stand in Boston Public Garden and see his statue there.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

The true history of slavery in America | History 101

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