Wendell Phillips

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The best use of laws is to teach men to trample bad laws under their feet.

Wendell Phillips (29 November 18112 February 1884), born in Boston, Massachusetts, was an American abolitionist, Native American advocate and orator.


What is defeat? Nothing but education. Nothing but the first step to something better.
Write on my gravestone: "Infidel, Traitor" — infidel to every church that compromises with wrong; traitor to every government that oppresses the people.
  • He who stifles free discussion, secretly doubts whether what he professes to believe is really true.
    • Oration delivered at Daniel O'Connell celebration, Boston (6 August 1870), published in Wendell Phillips: The Agitator (1890) by William Carlos Martyn, p. 563
  • Take the whole range of imaginative literature, and we are all wholesale borrowers. In every matter that relates to invention, to use, or beauty or form, we are borrowers.
    • Lecture: The Lost Arts, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind, and the statesman is no longer clad in the steel of special education, but every reading man is his judge.
  • Corruption does not so much rot the masses: it poisons Congress. Credit-Mobilier and money rings are not housed under thatched roofs: they flaunt at the Capitol. As usual in chemistry, the scum floats uppermost.
  • The agitator must stand outside of organizations, with no bread to earn, no candidate to elect, no party to save, no object but truth -- to tear a question open and riddle it with light.
  • To be as good as our fathers we must be better.
  • Sit not, like the figure on our silver coin, looking ever backward.

Quotes about Phillips[edit]

  • Mister Toombs was willing to dissolve the Union to save slavery, Mister Phillips, to save liberty; while Mister Seward, denounced and derided by both, declared that the deepest instinct of the American people was for union. Reserved rights. State rights, limited powers, the advantages of union and disunion, were the cucumbers from which we were busily engaged in distilling light, overlooking the fact of nationality in discussing the conditions of union. We were speculating upon costume. We gravely proved that the clothes were the clothes of a woman, or of a child, without seeing that whatever the clothes might be there was a full-grown man inside of them. 'The Constitution is a contract between sovereign States', shouted Mister Toombs, 'let Georgia tear it and separate'. 'The Constitution is a league with hell', calmly replied Mister Phillips, 'let New York cut off New Orleans to rot alone'. 'Oh, dear! it's a dreadful dilemma', whimpered President Buchanan. 'States have no right to secede, and the United States have no right to coerce. Oh, dear me! it's perfectly awful! I'm the most patriotic of men, but what shall I do? what shall I do?' Separate! Cut off! Secede! It was of a living body they spoke, which, pierced anywhere, quivered everywhere.

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