Wendell Phillips (29 November 1811 – 2 February 1884), born in Boston, Massachusetts, (a descendent of that city’s first mayor) was an American abolitionist, Native American advocate and orator.
After graduating from Harvard in 1831, he went on to attend its law school from which he graduated in 1833. In 1834, Phillips was admitted to the state bar, and in the same year, he opened a law practice in Boston.
After being converted to the abolitionist cause by William Lloyd Garrison in 1836, he stopped practicing law in order to fully dedicate himself to the movement. He joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and frequently made speeches at its meetings. It was Phillip’s contention that racial injustice was the source of all society’s ills.
He first spoke publicly on December 8, 1837, at a gathering in Boston protesting the death of Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper owner and abolitionist who had been murdered in Alton, Illinois. His passionate speech and fiery spirit led many to say that he should be the leading speaker for the abolitionist movement.
He authored abolitionist pamphlets, wrote editorials for William Lloyd Garrison ‘s The Liberator, and spoke widely for the cause. Like Garrison, Phillips rejected as morally corrupt both the Constitution and the political process for bolstering the institution of slavery. He therefore refused to vote until after emancipation was accomplished. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, he called for the expulsion of the South from the Union, so that the North could avoid the taint of slavery.
After the 15th Amendment was passed, Phillips concentrated on issues such as women’s rights, universal suffrage, and temperance. Phillips was also active in efforts to gain equal rights for Native Americans. He argued that the 15th Amendment also granted citizenship to Indians. He proposed that the Andrew Johnson administration create a cabinet-level post that would guarantee Indian rights. Phillips helped create the Massachusetts Indian Commission with Indian rights activist Helen Hunt Jackson and Massachusetts governor William Claflin.
Although publically critical of President Ulysses Simpson Grant’s drinking, he worked with his second administration on the appointment of Indian agents. Phillips lobbied against military involvement in settling Native American problems on the western frontier. He accused General Philip Henry Sheridan of pursuing a policy of Indian extermination. Public opinion turned against Native American advocates after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Phillips continued to support the claims of the Lakota (Sioux). In the 1870’s, Phillips arranged public forums for reformer Alfred B. Meacham and Indians affected by the country’s removal policy, including Ponca chief Standing Bear and the Omaha Susette La Flesche.
He is credited with the quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” the full context of which reads: “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”. From a speech in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 1852, published in Speeches Before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, p. 13 (1853). The phrase, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” was not in quotation marks in the printed edition of this speech. Burton Stevenson in The Home Book of Quotations, 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.”
Wendell Phillips died February 2, 1884, in Boston.