Charles Edward Russell pays tribute to one of the great orators of history and the foremost U.S. radical of the nineteenth century, the still muted, still dangerous Wendell Phillips on the centenary of his birth.
‘Wendell Phillips: A Great Soldier of the Common Good’ by Charles Edward Russell from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 6. December, 1911.
The most admirable man that the English-speaking peoples have ever produced is Wendell Philips. By just so much as the mind is higher than brute force, ideas better than swords, ideals grander than appetites, conscience better than selfishness, service better than aggrandizement, faith better than expediency, this man stands higher than all the swash-buckler warriors and cunning politicians to whom we are accustomed to build our monuments.
He is about the only great figure in history, so far as I have been able to discover, that ever took up a hated cause, steadfastly led to it success, and had never a thought in it except of pure service.
No other man, not Lovejoy that was murdered, nor any soldier on any battlefield, gave up so much.
A sensitive man, he sacrificed honor and the good opinion of his times and accepted universal hatred and incessant attack. A man of the strongest family ties, he accepted the ostracism of every relative, including his mother to whom he was tenderly attached. He had ambitions; he was content to see them all annihilated. He loved his profession and had looked forward to an honored career therein; he closed his office and abandoned his promising practice. He loved friendship; he accepted for all the days of his life such isolation that he seems now one of the loneliest figures in history.
In a nation where success is the deity and ambition the creed of every young man, this one giving up everything he had ever held to be worth while, and making the sacrifice for the pure sake of an ideal, is surely the highest type we have known.
He had a vision far beyond any of the men that fought with him for the abolition of chattel slavery. Garrison was there because he had a consuming passion against slavery as a national sin. Phillips went far deeper. He came into the anti-slavery movement after profound reflection in which after the invariable method of his mind, he sought under the surface for the causes of things.
He alone saw that the slavery question was economic and only one phase of the universal problem of labor. The 348,000 slave owners of the South kept slaves not because they were different from other men that didn’t keep slaves but because they held slave labor to be essential to their profits. What was really at fault then, was the system. The ownership of man by man was a crime so hideous that no words could frame it; but while the guilt of such an ownership was deep and unquestionable, the system was the ultimate offender, not the individual.
He saw, for instance, that the invention of the cotton-gin, which made the growing of cotton profitable, fastened slavery upon the South, and without it the southern slave-owners would probably have been as ready to give up slavery as the slave-owners of the North had been. If slavery could be divorced from profits it would die of itself. Seeing this he saw also the boundless hypocrisy of the clergymen, editors, educators, leaders, statesmen and politicians North and South that attempted to find a moral defense for slavery. He knew perfectly well that these men were fawning courtiers, parasites, bawds and mercenaries at the slavery court, and the extraordinary bitterness with which he assailed them arose from this perception. Even a man that owned slaves and gathered profits from their labor was respectable compared with the northern clergyman that cited texts from his bible to defend the traffic.
It was the custom then and has been the custom ever since to make much of this bitterness and cite it as evidence that Phillips was a reckless fanatic. It is an easy phrase and covers a lot of our sins of omission. We do not throw ourselves into the righteous cause with the fervor and devotion of Phillips because we do not like to be called fanatics. But when a man is dealing with a great, fundamental, vital, principle of human freedom, how can he possibly be a fanatic? What terms, for instance, would be extreme when applied to human slavery? Or how could one adequately describe the horrors and results of present-day poverty or be too bitter or too active in opposition to such things? To one that stands in the East End of London, for instance, and observes what is about him, all the fanaticism in the world seems like dish water.
And here we come upon the keynote of Phillips’ character. He could never conceive of any such thing as compromise with evil. He thought there could not possibly be two kinds of right. If a cause were worth taking up it was worth fighting for to the end without surrendering the smallest particle of its faith, Defeat was nothing; long waiting was nothing. If a cause were right its eventual triumph was assured; meantime, there was no such thing as defeat. For a cause that was fundamental, no sacrifice was too great and no labor too exacting. Certain principles in the world were worth more than life, comfort, friendship, public opinion, worth more than all other considerations together. Human liberty was not a thing to be bargained about, to be advanced by concession or compromise or to be accepted with any qualifications. It was at all times the first and greatest thing in life, to be demanded absolutely, without price and without weighing the consequences.
No human institution was worth a fig’s end if it conflicted in any way with fundamental human rights. He cared nothing for forms, parchments, traditions nor conventions. If the constitution of the United States recognizes slavery, trample on it. If your country stands for human oppression cease to be an American. If your courts go into the business of man-hunting attack them. If the church covers oppression with the halo of sanctity attack the church. If the press becomes the harlot of the oppressive power, spit on the press. If to be respectable means that for one moment you must make the slightest concession to evil, don’t be respectable. If success is offered to you on any such terms, be a failure. No facing both ways. No dodging and dickering. One thing or the other. You cannot serve Man and the forces that prey upon his heart.
Again and again Phillips rammed home that doctrine upon the Abolition movement, “He that is not with us is against us,” was one of his favorite texts. There would be no such thing as an opponent of slavery that wished to stop with limiting the territory of slavery. Such half-way men were worse than the slave-holders themselves. Either fight on to the end no matter how far off that may be, or get out of the ranks.
In the close parallel that exists between the Abolition movement of sixty years ago and the movement today to abolish wage-slavery, one is rather amused to see that the Insurgent or Progressive party of these times had its exact prototype then. Just as the Insurgents now perceive that the wage system is wrong and propose to limit or regulate it, so from 1848 to 1856 a foolish, pottering Free Soil party proposed to deal with the fundamental principle of human freedom by regulating slavery. Some of our regulative friends seem to think that regulation is a new thing. On the contrary it has been the coward’s refuge time out of mind. In all history whenever man has begun to chafe against oppression a certain order of mental white rabbits has appeared with some proposal of regulation that would save them from the dreadful necessity of taking a stand.
It was so in this case. The White Rabbit Insurgents of the day knew in their shrinking and trembling souls that slavery was absolutely wrong, but they did not dare to say so. What they proposed was that it should not be admitted into the territories. That would advantage them with the chance to fool their consciences that men of this order dearly love. They could always say they were on the side of righteousness because they were Insurgents.
Some of these timid ones thought it would be a grand scheme if the Abolitionists would join hands with the White Rabbit brigade. They pointed out that with combined forces the movement might win something. It might get somebody into office or carry an election in Newburyport. Whereas, so long as the Abolitionists held aloof the wicked slave power was certain to have all the offices and win all the elections.
Mr. Phillips looked upon this proposal with scorn. To his mind the object in view was not to carry Newburyport but to abolish the crime of slavery, and he had small patience for those that conceived their duty to have been done when they had voted to regulate that crime.
The White Rabbit movement was of few days and full of trouble. At first it seemed to promise something. Compromise is an alluring bait to the Anglo-Saxon mind. It saves bother and allows us to go on with sacred business. If a man went on record against the extension of slavery into the territories he would not greatly antagonize the dominant slave power and still he would be on the right side of things. Whereas, those Abolitionists were fanatics and cranks and it was bad for business for a man to go too far, you know. “I am not an Abolitionist,” said a million men at the North, “but I don’t think slavery ought to be extended into the territories.” Their intellectual descendants are thick today. “I am not a Socialist, but I don’t think Pierpont Morgan ought to own everything in the country.”
But you cannot extinguish a conflagration by sprinkling it from a bottle of rose water. Here was a tremendous conflict between two faiths diametrically op- posed. A basic principle of human life was at stake. When Mr. Phillips refused to join hands with the Free Soilers, calculating persons thought he was crazy. The next few years showed that he was perfectly right. In the fierce heat of battle between these opposing principles the Free Soil party was crumbled up in a way that made its champions seem highly ridiculous. When John Brown stepped upon the scaffold to die for freedom even dull men began to perceive that the proposals of the Insurgents were jokes for children and that here was a life and death struggle between colossal ideas.
It is part of the distinctive position of Wendell Phillips in our history that he alone of his element perceived the breadth of this struggle upon labor. He did not come at once upon this great fact; he could not have been expected to do so. In his day the accepted thinking of his country was so utterly different that the wonder is he came upon it at all. But the mind that sixty years ago foresaw and foretold the airship and wireless telegraphy was far too active and acute to rest with any superficial indications. Before the abolition of chattel slavery was more than a growing hope he had reached the conclusion that the real warfare was against the wage system. He believed that chattel slavery should be abolished first, and that attention should not be distracted from it until its destruction should be complete; but the moment that was assured he took up the larger cause and began to insist upon attention to the labor problem.
It is an odd fact that the popular conception of Mr. Phillips, so far as there can be said to be any, practically ignores this phase of his life. No great man has ever suffered so much in general esteem from persistent misrepresentation and suppression, but of all the campaign of injustice in which his memory has been involved so much, the most striking feature is the attitude of history toward his career after the war. To such of the rising generation as know him at all his one eminence is that he was an anti-slavery agitator. Everything seems to have stopped with him in 1863; whereas, as a matter of fact his activities were prolonged for twenty years in all of which time he never ceased to agitate. His offence lies in the fact that the world has forgiven the unpopular cause for which he labored from 1838 to 1865, but it has never forgiven the cause for which he labored from 1865 to the day of his death. Success, the magic American talisman, had gilded the Abolition of chattel slavery; it had not touched yet the abolition of wage slavery.
And here I am moved to some remarks on the enormous power of Capitalism to pervert and poison history so that even the fair-minded, even (if you like) the suspicious and the informed, are deceived. Here was the most remarkable man of his times and the greatest influence. Not one American public school graduate in one hundred thousand ever hears of his name. Here was probably the greatest orator that ever lived. He has almost no place in the printed accounts of oratory. Here was unquestionably the most effective of all agitators. He is almost never included in the lists of such men. Here was a man that for the purest of motives made in behalf of liberty the greatest sacrifices that it is possible for men to make. He is never mentioned as one of the lights of the human cause. In his own day, millions of men, including those that hated him looked daily for his utterances, and sentences of his swept across the continent cheering men’s minds or stirring them to action. You would never learn from history that he had even existed. Take such a matter as his oratory. That is an art, and one of the highest of arts. In art all considerations are supposed to be dropped except merely the achievement. The faith, convictions, er even the morals of the artist are supposed to be absolutely ignored. Yes. But here is a man of whose art in oratory such triumphs are recorded as were never told of any other. He has never been admitted to his true place in that art. Nothing that is related of the effects produced by Demosthenes, Cicero, Pitt, Erskine, Webster, Clay, Mirabeau, or any other man compare with a dozen instances of this man’s marvelous powers. Yet in the accepted histories of oratory he has almost no mention, and only such persons now alive as were privileged to hear him have any notion of his unequalled gifts. Why is all this manifest injustice? Because history is made in the interest of and to pleasure Capitalism and this man had mortally offended Capitalism. The moment the war was over and the end of chattel slavery assured, he took up the labor question and thrust into the faces of the employing class the painful question, “How about the slaves that labor for your profits”? and Capitalism has never forgiven him for that. He struck the death knell of all his chances for fame and recognition when on November 2, 1865, he went to Faneuil Hall and practically severed his relations with organized society in his famous declaration called “The Eight Hour Movement.” “The labor of these twenty-nine years,” said Mr. Phillips, “has been in behalf of a race bought and sold. That struggle for the ownership of labor is now some what near its end; and we fitly commence a struggle to define and to arrange the true relations of capital and labor. Today one of your sons is born. He lies in his cradle as the child of a man without means, with a little education, and with less leisure. The favored child of the capitalist is borne up by every circumstance, as on the eagle’s wings. The problem of today is how to make the chances of the two as equal as possible; and before this movement stops, every child born in America must have an equal chance in life.”
This speech put him clearly in the ranks of a cause that in one way was more unpopular at the North than Abolition had been. He was attacking, in their most sensitive point, the foremost pillars of society. When he stood forward that night in Faneuil Hall and naming the best known public men of Massachusetts demanded that they should declare themselves on the great labor question he aroused an unquenchable resentment. He was threatening sacred profits and there is no other crime so far beyond pardon.
After the war a great change had taken place in the public attitude toward the leading Abolitionists. They now became the heroes of the hour. Mr. Phillips himself was offered a seat in Congress, the Governorship and a prospective place in the Senate. When in the face of such alluring prospects he deliberately thrust aside every honor and took his place in the little army of labor reformers all men saw clearly that he was insane. Nothing else could explain such monumental perversity. His family, years before, had tried to have him committed to an asylum for championing the negro slave. Wise persons now shook their heads and declared that the family must have been right. A man that would refuse the Governorship of Massachusetts and then herd with common laboring men and labor party fanatics was an incurable maniac.
Mr. Phillips went his way serenely, insisting upon public attention to the labor problem that every interest in the country was. striving to have suppressed. He perceived infallibly upon what a downward path the nation had been launched, and what alone could save it. In his great speech entitled “The Labor Question,” he said:
“I hail the Labor movement for two reasons, and one is that it is my only hope for democracy. At the time of the Anti- Slavery agitation, I was not sure whether we should come out of the struggle with one republic or two; but republics I knew we should still be. I am not so confident, indeed, that we shall come out of this storm as a republic, unless the Labor movement succeeds. Take a power like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, and there is no legislative independence that can exist in its sight. As well expect a green vine to flourish in a dark cellar as to expect honesty to exist under the shadow of those upas trees, unless there is a power in your movement, industrially and politically, the last knell of democratic liberty in this Union is struck.”
His speeches in all these years resound with warnings to his countrymen of the enslavement of the masses that was certain to follow from the rapid growth of the capitalistic power and appeals to working-men to unite and save the country and themselves by taking the government into their own hands. No wonder the entire capitalist press regarded him as a dangerous lunatic.
The best expression of his economic faith is found in the platform that he wrote for the Labor Reform convention, held at Worcester, September 4, 1871, largely at his instigation. He seems to have aimed in these sentences to make his radical position so clear that no one could question his unreserved support of the labor cause. He wrote:
“We affirm, as a fundamental principle, that labor, the creator of wealth, is entitled to all it creates.
“Affirming this, we avow ourselves willing to accept the final results of operation of a principle so radical—such as the overthrow of the whole profit-making system, the extinction of all monopolies, the abolition of privileged classes, universal education and fraternity, perfect freedom of exchange, and, best and grandest of all, the final obliteration of that foul stigma upon our so-called Christian civilization, the poverty of the masses.”
Other paragraphs “declare war with the wages system, which demoralizes alike the hirer and the hired, cheats both and enslaves the workingman,” and demand “that every facility and all encouragement shall be given by law to co-operation in all branches of industry and trade, and that the same aid be given to co-operative efforts that has heretofore been given to railroads and other enterprises.”
Many other quotations from his utterances equally apt, forceful and socialistic I should give here if I had space. All that he said in favor of the revolt of labor and against the growth of capitalistic power should be carefully reread today. It will sound now like a strangely verified prophecy and the unheeded appeal of a wise, humane and thoughtful man struggling to arouse his countrymen to a sense of their danger.
All this was exactly in accord with the principle of life that he had consistently followed from the time he began to think about underlying causes. He utterly eliminated himself from his plans.
He would not accept any reward or any distinction for his service, which he jealously kept pure. He declined the Re- publican nomination for Governor when it meant election and a long career of political success, to accept the Labor nomination when it meant arduous and hopeless campaigning and certain defeat. A truly unique figure in American public life he never once considered the popularity or unpopularity of any cause; he only asked if it were right. Still more remark- able fact, he never even considered the consequences of what he did or said. If any cause were right, true, for humanity and democracy, he was for it if he were the only man in the country to take it up and if it brought upon him a flood of obloquy; without hesitation and without regret, he was for it, and if the flood came, why, let it come down.
Some time is usually required to convince one unacquainted with Phillips that all this is literally true and that America actually has produced one public man that was absolutely unafraid. That never temporized, never compromised, never bargained with conscience, never abated his utmost scorn for expediency and opportunism; was oblivious to the temptations of success and fought steadily on year by. year with unshaken courage. Yet, such is the record in this man’s case. He would not yield one jot of the faith either to an attack in front nor temptation at his side, and I know of but one other man in history that can be classed with him, Giuseppe Mazzini!
This is why it seems to me a calamity that the youth of America know almost nothing about this exponent of the highest American ideals. Our schools teach all kinds of trash about this hero or that, supposed to have won renown by killing people. They consistently say not one word about the man that strove through moral agencies instead of by force, devoted his life to freedom and democracy, unselfishly gave all he had to the cause of man, and displayed all his life a higher and greater courage than any soldier ever showed upon any battle field. But the man that defied and assaulted the smug hypocrisy of New England capitalism is not yet forgiven. He is still the “reckless fanatic” and “noisy agitator” from whom must be kept the admiration of young minds invited rather to fix their thoughts upon the glorious achievements of wholesale murder.
Courage and conscience were the first of the distinguishing traits of this man. There is the kind of courage that tramples upon fear when a man rushes up the hill in the attack upon a battery. There is another kind that Macaulay describes as “that nobler courage that comes of reason and reflection.” I think there is still another and infinitely higher. It is the courage that Phillips felt when without shrinking he faced for more than forty years a ceaseless storm of bitter hatred, malice, lies, calumny, misrepresentation, ostracism, isolation and poisonous detraction, Capitalism covered his grave with its venom. On this one hundredth anniversary of his birth it should be the duty of American Socialists to see that his name is rescued from the oblivion to which hypocrisy and canting greed have tried to consign it.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n06-dec-1911-ISR-gog-Corn.pdf