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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Washburn Smalley (1833–1916)
 
EMERSON said of Phillips that he was the best orator in America, because he had spoken every day for fourteen years. What Emerson meant was, that immense practice was the secret of Phillips’s supremacy. It was one secret; but not, I think, the secret. He was one of those men in whom the orator is born, not made. It may be doubted whether he ever delivered a better speech than his first, at that memorable meeting in Faneuil Hall on the murder of Lovejoy. The germ of all his oratory lies there; the methods which he followed all his life he adopted, instinctively and unconsciously, in that critical instant of his life. He had not meant to speak. He went up to Faneuil Hall in the state which is called unprepared,—that is to say, his preparation consisted in years of thought and study, in a profound moral sense, in the possession of an imaginative and oratorical genius and of a diction which for his purpose was nearly perfect. It was the Wendell Phillips speech of Austin, Attorney-General of Massachusetts, in opposition to the object of the meeting, and his invective upon Lovejoy, which brought Phillips from the floor to the platform. I quote once more the famous sentence,—“Sir, when I heard the Attorney-General place the murderers of Alton side by side with Otis and Hancock, with Quincy and Adams, I thought those pictured lips would have broken into voice to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead.” I asked Phillips, with whom I often talked over his speeches and his life, whether the image was thought out beforehand. “Oh no,” he answered: “it was the portraits themselves which suggested it as I spoke.”  1
  The answer covers much. For this austere and irreconcilable enthusiast, with the blood of the martyr in his veins, was in oratory a pure opportunist. He was a general who went into battle with a force of all arms, but used infantry or artillery or cavalry as each seemed most apt to the moment. He formed his plan, as Napoleon did, on the field and in presence of the enemy. For Phillips—and the fact is vital to all criticism of his oratory—spoke almost always, during twenty-five years of his oratorical life, to a hostile audience. His audiences were often mobs; they often sought to drive him from the platform, sometimes to kill him. He needed all his resources merely to hold his ground and to get a hearing. You cannot compare oratory in those circumstances with oratory in a dress debate, or even with the oratory of a great parliamentary contest. On this last has often hung, no doubt, the life of a ministry. On Phillips’s mastery over his hearers depended sometimes his own life, sometimes that of the antislavery cause—with which, as we now all see and as then hardly anybody saw, was bound up the life of the nation. It was, in my judgment, the oratory of Phillips which insured the maintenance of that great antislavery struggle during the last ten years or more which preceded the War. His oratory must be judged with reference to that—to its object as well as to its rhetorical qualities. He had and kept the ear of the people. To have silenced that silver trumpet would have been to wreck the cause. I speak of the Abolitionist cause by itself—that which relied solely on moral forces and stood completely outside of politics.  2
  Yet Phillips never made a concession. There was no art of speech he would not employ to win the attention of his audience. But he never softened an invective or compromised the clear logic of his statement in order to divert the hostility which confronted him. He would coax, cajole, ridicule, transpierce, or overwhelm an opponent, but never yielded a jot in principle. I have known him try all means to conciliate and then all means to crush, all within a few minutes. He had the art of so exciting curiosity, that a raging mob which half caught the first half of a sentence would still its own tumult in order to hear what was coming next. He shrank from no danger: on his unfailing cool courage and self-possession rested half the orator’s power. When in Faneuil Hall he called the Attorney-General recreant, there were cries “Take that back!” and a tumult. “Fellow-citizens,” answered the young Bostonian, “I cannot take back my words.” It was the motto of his whole career. Twenty-four years later, April 21st, 1861, he was to speak in the Music Hall of Boston for the War. Against his habit, he wrote out his speech;—it was a turning-point in his history as orator and as abolitionist. He read me the speech, which began: “Many times this winter, here and elsewhere, I have counseled peace,—urged as well as I know how the expediency of acknowledging a Southern Confederacy, and the peaceful separation of these thirty-four States. One of the journals announces to you that I come here this morning to retract those opinions. No, not one of them.” Those were days of flame and fire, and I said to Phillips that they would never let him get farther. “Well,” he answered, “if I cannot say that I will say nothing.” And he read on. “I need them all,—every word I have spoken this winter, every act of twenty-five years of my life, to make the welcome I give this War hearty and hot.” The result justified his gallantry. The low murmurs which the opening sentence provoked were swept away in the storm of passionate cheers which followed.  3
  All this dwelling upon the moral attributes of the orator may seem out of place in a brief criticism; but it is inevitable. Take away the moral impulse and there would have been no orator, no oratory, no thirty years of unmatched eloquence, no such rhetorical lesson as the speeches of Phillips now give. There is, unhappily, no adequate record of them; as there is none of the speeches of any orator of the first order, except where they were written out like those of the great Greek, or written and rewritten like his Roman rival’s or like Burke’s,—or unless, like those of the one great English orator of this generation, Bright, they were fully reported at the time. Phillips was never thought worth reporting till late in life. He was of the minority; and then as now, the tyranny of the majority in this country was oppressive and relentless. They meant to keep him in obscurity: it was the sun of his genius which burst through the mists and darkness which enveloped him. Traditions still fresh tell you of the beauty of Phillips’s presence on the platform, of his incomparable charm of manner and voice, of his persuasiveness, and much else. But oratory, save under such conditions as I mentioned above, is evanescent. That of Phillips did its work: it is the eulogy he would value most. There was in him the poet. He had in abounding measure the sympathies without which no oratory, be its other qualities what they may, carries an audience captive. He put himself instantly on easy terms with those before him. He could be colloquial and familiar, he delighted in repartee,—in which he never found his equal,—the next moment he was among the clouds, and on the just and unjust alike descended a rain of eloquence, beneath which sprang forth those seeds of virtue and moral faith and religious hatred of wrong which presently covered the land.  4
  There was much of the Greek in him: the sense of ordered beauty and of art. He had culture; the fire of true patriotism; serenity of mind. Not a speech in which those high qualities are not visible. They were still more evident as you heard him; and still more, perhaps, the symmetrical quality of mind and speech which is almost the rarest in modern oratory or modern life. He had indomitable good-nature on the platform. The hard things he said about men had no root in his heart; they were meant to fasten attention not on the sin only, which is abstract, but on the sinner. Intellectually a Greek, his moral nature was Hebraic, and the language of the Old Testament is inwrought in his oratory. But there was a smile on his face while the lightnings flashed. The authority with which he spoke was due largely to this coolness; but it is idle to ascribe it to any one trait, and to seek for the sources of it in mere rhetoric or mere culture. The true source of it was the whole man.  5
 
  BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, Massachusetts, November 29th, 1811; a son of the city’s first mayor, and allied to the State’s best blood and brains. He graduated at Harvard College in 1831, and from its Law School in 1833. A year later he was admitted to the bar. His career as a leader of men and a public orator, however, began early, and almost uninterruptedly engaged him until the close of his life. His denunciatory speech on the murder of Lovejoy, in 1837, may be reckoned the opening of his platform career. His “great speeches” followed each other rapidly. He threw himself fervently into the Abolition movement, and succeeded William Lloyd Garrison as president of the Anti-Slavery Society, in 1865. His continuous tours as a lecturer occupied all his latter years. He died February 2d, 1884.  6
  The following selection is from one of the most famous of his general lectures. Only one other was equally identified with his name in popular regard,—that on ‘Lost Arts’; a brilliant mosaic of apocrypha from all ages, so plausibly stated that it was hard to resist conviction of their truth while listening to his easy, graceful, conversational periods, spoken as though he had just remembered some interesting facts and wished to share the pleasure with a group of friends.  7
 
 
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