Pieces People Ask For/Wendell Phillips (2)

For works with similar titles, see Wendell Phillips.


The power to discern right amid all the wrappings of interest, and all the seductions of ambition, was singularly his. To choose the lowly; for their sake to abandon all favor, all power, all comfort, all ambition, all greatness,—that was his genius and glory. He confronted the spirit of the nation and of the age. I had almost said, he set himself against nature, as if he had been a decree of God overriding all these other insuperable obstacles. That was his function. Mr. Phillips was not called to be a universal orator, any more than he was a universal thinker. In literature and in history he was widely read; in person most elegant; in manners most accomplished; gentle as a babe; sweet as a new-blown rose; in voice, clear and silvery. He was not a man of tempests; he was not an orchestra of a hundred instruments; he was not an organ, mighty and complex. The nation slept, and God wanted a trumpet, sharp, far-sounding, narrow, and intense; and that was Mr. Phillip. The long roll is not particularly agreeable in music or in times of peace; but it is better than flutes or harps when men are in a great battle, or are on the point of it. His eloquence was penetrating and alarming. He did not flow as a mighty gulf-stream; he did not dash upon the continent as the ocean does; he was not a mighty rushing river. His eloquence was a flight of arrows, sentence after sentence, polished, and most of them burning. He shot them one after the other, and where they struck they slew; always elegant, always awful. I think scorn in him was as fine as I ever knew it in any human being. He had that sublime sanctuary in his pride that made him almost insensitive to what would by other men be considered obloquy. It was as if he said every day, in himself, "I am not what they are firing at. I am not there, and I am not that. It is not against me. I am infinitely superior to what they think me to be. They do not know me." It was quiet and unpretentious, but it was there. Conscience and pride were the two concurrent elements of his nature. He lived to see the slave emancipated, but not by moral means.

He lived to see the sword cut the fetter. After this had taken place, he was too young to retire, though too old to gather laurels of literature, or to seek professional honors. The impulse of humanity was not at all abated. His soul still flowed on for the great under-masses of mankind; though, like the Nile, it split up into diverse mouths, and not all of them were navigable.

After a long and stormy life, his sun went down in glory. All the English-speaking people on the globe have written among the names that shall never die, the name of that scoffed, detested, mob-beaten Wendell Phillips. Boston, that persecuted and would have slain him, is now exceedingly busy in building his tomb, and rearing his statue. The men that would not defile their lips with his name are to-day thanking God that he lived.

He has taught a lesson that the young will do well to take heed to,—the lesson that the most splendid gifts and opportunities and ambitions may be best used for the dumb and the lowly. His whole life is a rebuke to the idea that we are to climb to greatness by climbing up on the backs of great men: that we are to gain strength by running with the currents of life; that we can from without add any thing to the great within that constitutes man. He poured out the precious ointment of his soul upon the feet of that diffusive Jesus who suffers here in his poor and despised ones. He has taught the young ambitions, too, that the way to glory is the way, oftentimes, of adhesion simply to principle; and that popularity and unpopularity are not things to be known or considered. Do right and rejoice, if to do right will bring you into trouble, rejoice that you are counted worthy to suffer with God and the providences of God in this world.

He belongs to the race of giants, not simply because he was in and of himself a great soul, but because he bathed in the providence of God, and came forth scarcely less than a god; because he gave himself to the work of God upon earth, and inherited thereby, or had reflected upon him, some of the majesty of his Master. When pygmies are all dead, the noble countenance of Wendell Phillips will still look forth, radiant as a rising sun,—a sun that will never set. He has become to us a lesson, his death an example, his whole history an encouragement to manhood,—to heroic manhood.Henry Ward Beecher.