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.
Liberty knows nothing but victories.
  • 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).


Revolutions are not made; they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back.
  • 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.
  • Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — power is ever stealing from the many to the few…. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.
    • Speech in Boston, Massachusetts (28 January 1852), Speeches Before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (1853), p. 13. The memorable and oft-quoted phrase, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," was not in quotation marks in the printed edition of this speech. The Home Book of Quotations, ed. Burton Stevenson, 9th ed., p. 1106 (1964), notes that "It has been said that Mr. Phillips was quoting Thomas Jefferson, but in a letter dated 14 April, 1879, Mr. Phillips wrote: '"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" has been attributed to Jefferson, but no one has yet found it in his works or elsewhere.' It has also been attributed to Patrick Henry."

Lecture at Brooklyn (1859)[edit]

A lecture delivered at Brooklyn, New York, November 1, 1859, published in Speeches, Letters and Lectures by Wendell Phillips (1884), p. 274.
  • In God's world there are no majorities, no minorities; one, on God's side, is a majority.
  • Every man meets his Waterloo at last.
  • Whether in chains or in laurels, Liberty knows nothing but victories.


Toussaint L'Ouverture (1861)[edit]

"Toussaint L'Ouverture" (December 1861)
  • [T]he Negro race, instead of being that object of pity or contempt which we usually consider it, is entitled, judged by the facts of history, to a place close by the side of the Saxon.
  • [R]aces love to be judged in two ways—by the great men they produce, and by the average merit of the mass of the race.


  • 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


The Scholar in a Republic (1881)[edit]

"The Scholar in a Republic", address at the centennial anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard College, June 30, 1881.
  • 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.
  • The good Lord had had a chance for a long time before the abolition. I believe that there is a moral government; and that God reigns. I am no pessimist; I give thanks to the good Lord, and also to the good men through whom He has worked. Prominent among them was Garrison, and scarcely less so was Phillips...

External links[edit]

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