Speech of Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips

Citation Information:Wendell Phillips, “Speech of Wendell Phillips,” Proceedings of the American-Anti-Slavery Society at its second decade. New York, 1854. Twelfth Anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society.


I wish, before this audience separates, to make a single remark in regard to an observation of my friend Mr. Barker, that a distinction drawn between the condition of the suffering classes of his own county and the slave, may lose us the sympathy of his countrymen, settled here. I know that his long experience entitles him to speak on this topic with far more authority than any words of mine ought to have; while his marked fidelity and disinterested devotion to our cause, on both sides of the Atlantic, entitle his statements to still more weight. I must, however, say that, judging from my own experience, I have no hope, none whatever, of help to the Anti-Slavery cause, from the English emigrants, those from Ireland, or from the oppressed classes of any country in Europe. I believe they will be found the enemies, generally, of the Anti-Slavery movement, and that emigration would in itself be a serious obstacle to its progress, if beneath this opposition there did not lie the great principle, that every thing which tends to lessen conservatism, helps every other element of progress; and, consequently, that these classes of men, though hating the slave, as they uniformly have, and calumniating his friends, as they uniformly do, are in themselves unconsciously helping to resist the conservative tendency of this government, which so effectively supports the system of Slavery.

Again, before this assembly separates, I want to add my protest against the doctrine that it is true, in any degree, that the sufferings of men under European governments ought to be put on the same level which the sufferings of the slave in this country. Here, again, I would speak with due submission to the long experience and mature judgment of our friend. But he will allow me to say, that he seems to me to have overlooked one most important consideration—the first and greatest characteristic of his country—which is, that, in spite of all the disabilities he has mentioned, from the masses themselves—below the Aristocracy, below the class legislators, below the landholders—has sprung a very large share of the progress and improvement which England boasts; and that those very laws which he has cited have been beaten down again and again by the intelligence and energy of those very classes they were meant to subdue. Where is there any picture like this among the slaves of the South? Every effort in their behalf is made from without. Slavery has been taking a downward course for seventy years; adding horror to horror, bloody statute to bloody statute, selfishness to selfishness, privation to privation, until the Anti-Slavery movement, from without, has succeeded in turning the eye of the world upon the Slave Power, and restraining its course of unmixed selfishness. But, contrariwise to this, the sources of the improvement made in Great Britain for a hundred and fifty years, and all over Europe, have been from within,—from the indignation, the intelligence, the force of the very classes with which the slave is assumed to be compared. While this fact remains, I do not care how often, in single items, the slaves may be compared to the oppressed of other lands. It is manifest, that the result of Despotism is one thing, and that of Slavery is quite another thing; that in the one case, Slavery kills the mind and cripples the intellectual energy of the enslaved class; that every generation sinks a degree lower than that which preceded it. The slave of to-day is worse off, practically, than the slave of our Revolutionary times, and the slaveholder of to-day would be a more cruel and remorseless master, but for the influence of the Anti-Slavery movement, (he was so before this movement commenced,) than his ancestor of seventy years ago. Now, it is a singular fact, not to be denied, in the face of the history of the last one hundred years, that the poorer classes of Great Britain and Ireland have not only not fallen lower in the scale of manhood during the last century, but have grown better.

Again: that our slaves have not been starved by millions, is not the merit either of the system or the masters, but is owing to the fact of their dwelling in a new country a place where starvation, unless purposely and systematically sought for, cannot readily be found. The majority of the people of South Carolina have no element of improvement among them, but, on the contrary, are losing, in every generation, their manhood; their intellectual and moral condition is getting lower and lower every year, and cannot, therefore, be compared, in any respect, with that system of oppression in the old world, which, bloody as it is, has yet, by its own inherent force, wiped out bad legislation—the statute book becoming cleaner and purer every year.

Let me say, however, that my friend will not find me objecting to any efforts on his part, however earnest or frequent, to show how cruelly oppressed, how miserable, how pitiable, how wronged, the English and Irish have been; but when he has done it all, when he has made the picture black as he can paint it, I would then like to point the moral by saying, Here is the utmost that an Aristocracy, trusted with unlimited power for a thousand years, could inflict; they could do nothing blacker than this; and when you have painted it all, it is mid-noon compared with that blackness of darkness which broods over the Carolinas! (Loud cheers.) My appeal to the emigrant would be, that, no matter how deep the pit into which he had fallen, an oppression which undertakes to maintain the forms of law, which does not burn martyrs, if it burn them at all, except after trial in open court, and with a decent respect for the forms of justice, is not to be compared with one which, mocking all law as well as justice and humanity, lights up the waters of Mississippi and the Ohio, and the cane-brakes of Alabama, with the actual burning of the body of a slave and his champion, in the Nineteenth Century. When has this sight been seen in England for two hundred years? When would it be possible, even in the bloody civilization of Europe, that four instances should occur, within twenty years, of men burned at the stake because they were heretics, either in Birmingham or in Manchester?—three within six months, as my friend (Mr. Garrison) reminds me? No; to the English emigrant, or to any other, we maintain that our cause—the cause of the slave—has an essentially distinct, a deeper, sadder, weightier claim on the humanity of the world, than even his. (Cheers.)

I am anxious, Mr. Chairman, to make at least this brief expression of my opinion, before the audience, so properly disposed to yield implicit confidence to any opinion of Mr. Barker on this topic, should separate, lest his mistake, as I must think it, should weaken, in some degree, our appreciation of the unmatched wretchedness of the slave.

JOSEPH BARKER said that Mr. Phillips, in consequence of not having heard the whole discussion, had misunderstood his meaning, as well as the origin of the discussion relative to the oppressions of the British government. Mr. Barker also made a frank concession of several positions stated by Mr. Quincy, with which Mr. Q. expressed himself perfectly satisfied.



Previous to the calling to order, SOJOURNER TRUTH (formerly a slave in the State of New York) sang a plaintive song, touching the wrongs of the slave, and afterwards spoke of the wrong Slavery had done to herself and others.

The meeting having been called to order,

JOSEPH BARKER took the stand, and said that he had remarked at the close of the morning session, that Mr. Phillips had partly misunderstood the position he occupied. It was a misapprehension to suppose that he intended, by any remarks which he had made, to divert attention from evils here at home, to evils far away across the Atlantic. That was sufficient for general explanation. But Mr. Phillips made one or two special remarks, which did not fall pleasantly upon his own mind, and perhaps it might be well to notice them, very briefly. First, let it be observed that the leading Anti-Slavery people were not to be looked for among the ruling classes. Mr. Phillips seemed to think that the oppressed in one country were the people to take sides against those who were oppressed in another; and that the emigrants from Europe might naturally be expected to take sides with the oppressors here, or to despise the claims of the oppressed in this county. That the emigrants from Europe did not properly understand American affairs, and that some of them, when they seemed to understand them, took wrong sides, was too true; and it was also true, that persons who were brought up in Slavery were, when emancipated themselves, too prone to ape the tyrant who oppressed and crushed them before, and take sides against the classes still remaining in oppression. But the principle was not a universal one. It was not true as regarded those who had come from England. No one in this country knew so many English emigrants as he (Mr. B.) did; no one had had so many personal friends come to this country, and settle here; and he would give it as his opinion, that, taking them numbers for numbers, the Abolitionists were as numerous among them, in proportion to their number, as among the native Americans of the Northern States.

Mr. Barker said he wished the fact to be particularly remarked, that the Abolitionists in England were not to be looked for among the Aristocracy. He knew of but two Aristocratic families which had committed themselves to the American Anti-Slavery cause. The principal part of the Anti-slavery sentiment in England would be found among the working classes—among the oppressed and plundered ones. There were some among the middle and wealthy classes, who held Anti-Slavery opinions, he was ready to admit, but the statement he had made he believed to be true in regard to the great mass of Anti-Slavery sentiment across the water. There were some other points in Mr. Phillip’s remarks that he was about to notice, but he would not further occupy the time, lest he should thereby prevent those who might be desirous of speaking on the great question of American Slavery from obtaining a hearing. He felt the greatest interest in the Anti-Slavery cause, and was most anxious for its continued progress, and for its ultimate triumph in the abolition of Slavery. He believed the cause would triumph, for it was based on right and truth, and it was sure to grow stronger and stronger, and ultimately to prevail. He knew that Mr. Phillips could not wish to do him any injustice, and he should be sorry if such an impression was left on his mind. His (Mr. B’s) sole object had been, the establishment of universal and impartial Freedom in this land. (Cheers.)