Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Wendell Phillips
By George William Curtis (1824–1892)
 
[From A Eulogy delivered before the Municipal Authorities of Boston, Mass., 18 April, 1884.]

PHILLIPS stood alone. He was not a Whig nor a Democrat, nor the graceful panegyrist of an undisputed situation. Both parties denounced him. He must recruit a new party. Public opinion condemned him. He must win public opinion to achieve his purpose. The tone, the method of the new orator, announced a new spirit. It was not a heroic story of the last century, nor the contention of contemporary politics; it was the unsuspected heroism of a mightier controversy that breathed and burned in his words. With no party behind him, and denouncing established order and acknowledged tradition, his speech was necessarily a popular appeal for a strange and unwelcome cause, and the condition of its success was that it should both charm and rouse the hearer, while, under cover of the fascination, the orator unfolded his argument and urged his plea. This condition the genius of the orator instinctively perceived, and it determined the character of his discourse.
  1
  He faced his audience with a tranquil mien, and a beaming aspect that was never dimmed. He spoke, and in the measured cadence of his quiet voice there was intense feeling, but no declamation, no passionate appeal, no superficial and feigned emotion. It was simple colloquy—a gentleman conversing. Unconsciously and surely the ear and heart were charmed. How was it done?—Ah! how did Mozart do it, how Raphael? The secret of the rose’s sweetness, of the bird’s ecstasy, of the sunset’s glory—that is the secret of genius and of eloquence. What was heard, what was seen, was the form of noble manhood, the courteous and self-possessed tone, the flow of modulated speech, sparkling with matchless richness of illustration, with apt allusion, and happy anecdote and historic parallel, with wit and pitiless invective, with melodious pathos, with stinging satire, with crackling epigram and limpid humor, the bright ripples that play around the sure and steady prow of the resistless ship. Like an illuminated vase of odors, he glowed with concentrated and perfumed fire. The divine energy of his conviction utterly possessed him, and his
             “Pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in his cheek, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say his body thought.”
Was it Pericles swaying the Athenian multitude? Was it Apollo breathing the music of the morning from his lips?—No, no! It was an American patriot, a modern son of liberty, with a soul as firm and as true as was ever consecrated to unselfish duty, pleading with the American conscience for the chained and speechless victims of American inhumanity….
  2
  The abolition movement was moral agitation. It was a voice crying in the wilderness. As an American movement it was reproached for holding aloof from the American political method. But in the order of time the moral awakening precedes political action. Politics are founded in compromise and expediency, and had the abolition leaders paused to parley with prejudice and interest and personal ambition, in order to smooth and conciliate and persuade, their duty would have been undone. When the alarm-bell at night has brought the aroused citizens to the street, they will organize their action. But the ringer of the bell betrays his trust when he ceases to startle. To vote was to acknowledge the Constitution. To acknowledge the Constitution was to offer a premium upon slavery by granting more political power for every slave. It was to own an obligation to return innocent men to unspeakable degradation, and to shoot them down if, with a thousandfold greater reason than our fathers, they resisted oppression. Could Americans do this? Could honest men do this? Could a great country do this, and not learn, sooner or later, by ghastly experience, the truth which George Mason proclaimed—that Providence punishes national sins by national calamities? The Union, said Wendell Phillips, with a calmness that enchanted while it appalled—the Union is called the very ark of the American covenant; but has not idolatry of the Union been the chief bulwark of slavery, and in the words and deeds and spirit of the most vehement “Union saviours” who denounce agitation, can any hope of emancipation be descried? If, then, under the sacred charter of the Union, Slavery has grown to this stupendous height, throwing the shadow of death over the land, is not the Union as it exists the foe of Liberty, and can we honestly affirm that it is the sole surviving hope of freedom in the world? Long ago the great leaders of our parties hushed their voices, and whispered that even to speak of slavery was to endanger the Union. Is not this enough? Sons of Otis and of Adams, of Franklin and of Jay, are we ready for union upon the ruins of freedom? Delenda Carthago! Delenda Carthago!…  3
  Doubtless his friends, who knew that well-spring of sweet waters, his heart, and who, like him, were sealed to the service of emancipation, sometimes grieved and recoiled amazed from his terrible arraignment. He knew the penalty of his course. He paid it cheerfully. But history will record that the orator who, in that supreme exigency of liberty, pitilessly whipped by name the aiders and abettors of the crime against humanity, made such complicity in every intelligent community infinitely more arduous, and so served mankind, public virtue, and the State.  4
  But more than this. The avowed and open opponents of the antislavery agitation could not justly complain of his relentless pursuit. From them he received the blows that in turn he did not spare. But others, his friends, soldiers of the same army, although in other divisions and upon a different route, marching against the same foe—did they, too, feel those shafts of fire? How many a Massachusetts man, whose name the commonwealth will canonize with his, loyal with his own fidelity to the common cause, he sometimes taunted as recreant and scourged as laggard! How many leaders in other States, statesmen beloved and revered, who in other ways than his fought the battle of liberty with firmness in the right, as God gave them to see the right, and who live in national gratitude and among the great in history forevermore, did not those dauntless lips seem sometimes cruelly to malign! “Blame not this plainness of speech,” he said; “I have a hundred friends, as brave souls as God ever made, whose hearths are not as safe after honored men make such speeches.” He knew that his ruthless words closed to him homes of friendship and hearts of sympathy. He saw the amazement, he heard the condemnation; but, like the great apostle preaching Christ, he knew only Humanity, and Humanity crucified. Tongue of the dumb, eyes of the blind, feet of the lame, his voice alone, among the voices that were everywhere heard and heeded, was sent by God to challenge every word or look or deed that seemed to him possibly to palliate oppression or to comfort the oppressor. Divinely commissioned, he was not, indeed, to do injustice; but the human heart is very patient with the hero who, in his strenuous and sublime conflict, if sometimes he does not clearly see and sometimes harshly judges, yet, in all his unsparing assault, deals never a blow of malice nor of envy nor of personal gratification—the warrior who grasps at no prizes for which others strive, and whose unselfish peace no laurels of Miltiades disturb….  5
  But his judgment, always profoundly sincere, was it not sometimes profoundly mistaken? No nobler friend of freedom and of man than Wendell Phillips ever breathed upon this continent, and no man’s service to freedom surpasses his. But before the war he demanded peaceful disunion—yet it was the Union in arms that saved Liberty. During the war he would have superseded Lincoln—but it was Lincoln who freed the slaves. He pleaded for Ireland, tortured by centuries of misrule—and while every generous heart followed with sympathy the pathos and the power of his appeal, the just mind recoiled from the sharp arraignment of the truest friends in England that Ireland ever had. I know it all; but I know also, and history will remember, that the slave Union which he denounced is dissolved; that it was the heart and conscience of the nation, exalted by his moral appeal of agitation, as well as by the enthusiasm of patriotic war, which held up the hands of Lincoln, and upon which Lincoln leaned in emancipating the slaves; and that only by indignant and aggressive appeals like his has the heart of England ever opened to Irish wrong….  6
  I am not here to declare that the judgment of Wendell Phillips was always sound, nor his estimate of men always just, nor his policy always approved by the event. He would have scorned such praise. I am not here to eulogize the mortal, but the immortal. He, too, was a great American patriot; and no American life—no, not one—offers to future generations of his countrymen a more priceless example of inflexible fidelity to conscience and to public duty; and no American more truly than he purged the national name of its shame, and made the American flag the flag of hope for mankind.  7
  Among her noblest children his native city will cherish him, and gratefully recall the unbending Puritan soul that dwelt in a form so gracious and urbane. The plain house in which he lived—severely plain, because the welfare of the suffering and the slave were preferred to book and picture and every fair device of art: the house to which the North Star led the trembling fugitive, and which the unfortunate and the friendless knew: the radiant figure passing swiftly through these streets, plain as the house from which it came, regal with a royalty beyond that of kings; the ceaseless charity untold; the strong, sustaining heart of private friendship; the sacred domestic affection that must not here be named; the eloquence which, like the song of Orpheus, will fade from living memory into a doubtful tale; that great scene of his youth in Faneuil Hall; the surrender of ambition; the mighty agitation and the mighty triumph with which his name is forever blended; the consecration of a life hidden with God in sympathy with man—these, all these, will live among your immortal traditions, heroic even in your heroic story. But not yours alone. As years go by, and only the large outlines of lofty American characters and careers remain, the wide republic will confess the benediction of a life like this, and gladly own that if with perfect faith, and hope assured, America would still stand and “bid the distant generations hail,” the inspiration of her national life must be the sublime moral courage, the all-embracing humanity, the spotless integrity, the absolutely unselfish devotion of great powers to great public ends, which were the glory of Wendell Phillips.  8
 
 
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