HOW THE YOUNG KNIGHT OF FREEDOM LED
In the very year and month in which, in the Congress of
the United States, valiant old John Quincy Adams was fighting his
sturdiest for that right of petition which was the privilege and
birthright of every American, a young knight of freedom, in Faneuil Hall
in Boston, buckled on his armor and fought as gallantly as ever did
champion of old, and against overwhelming odds. It is one of the dramatic
scenes in American history.
His name was Wendell Phillips. Rich, handsome,
well-born, highly educated, refined, a gifted and cultured son of the
"bluest blood" of the Old Bay State, this young Boston lawyer,
but newly married and with a splendid future prophesied for him by a host
of admiring friends, strolled into Faneuil Hall one December day in the
year 1837, drawn
there partly by curiosity and partly by interest.
An antislavery man had been murdered in Illinois. A
martyr to the right of free speech, because he dared to speak out against
a negro-burning mob, Elijah P. Lovejoy, a New England minister, had been
brutally killed by a mob in
Alton. Lovers of free speech in Boston protested against this act of
called for an indignation meeting
in Faneuil Hall, that historic "cradle of liberty," and when
the meeting was held the old hail was crowded. Some of the throng were
in sympathy with the object of the meeting, but more were opposed; for
in 1837 even Boston was not favorable to "agitators and
abolitionists," as all were called who dared speak out against
William Ellery Channing, well styled the
"apostle of liberty," offered resolutions condemning the Alton
mob, and pleading for free speech and a free press. But the
attorney-general of Massachusetts opposed the resolution, and made a
speech that captured the crowd. He said that to free the negro was like
letting loose the hyena, that the mob which murdered Lovejoy was as
patriotic as that which threw overboard the tea in Boston harbor, and he
cast sneers and gibes at those who dared to stand against slavery.
His supporters applauded wildly. The wavering and
uncertain stampeded to the popular side. The friends of free speech were
left in a sad minority, expecting to see Dr. Channing’s resolutions
voted down, and censure turned into glorification.
Young Wendell Phillips, with no thought of speaking,
stood on the crowded floor, watchful and interested; his sympathies went
out toward the losing side of freedom. Could no one sway that throng and
bring it back to reason, justice, and right?
Suddenly the inspiration came to him to attempt that
very thing,—to strike one blow for freedom, and champion the cause of
the defeated and oppressed. Without a moment’s hesitation, he leaped
to the stage,
flung aside his overcoat, and faced that shouting,
swaying, unfriendly mass.
Calm-faced, clear-eyed, dignified, unruffled,
determined, he stood an instant, —the very picture of a young knight
superbly fronting his foes. Then he spoke. His melodious voice,
wonderful in tone and attractiveness, stilled the clamor for an instant,
but with his first words it broke out afresh, seeking to silence
him. But he would not be silenced, and then he made a speech such as had
not been heard in Boston since the day when James Otis, in old
Statehouse, flamed out for revolution, and lighted the path for
Massachusetts to resistance and liberty.
"The drunken murderers of Lovejoy compared to
those patriot fathers who threw the tea overboard "
he exclaimed. "
Fellow-citizens, is this Faneuil Hall doctrine ?
The mob at Alton were met to wrest from a citizen his just rights,—met
to resist the laws. We have been told that our fathers did the same. .
. . Our
State archives are loaded with
arguments of John Adams to
prove taxes laid by the British Parliament unconstitutional,—beyond
its power It was not till this was made out that
the men of New England rushed to arms. .
. . To draw the conduct of our ancestors into a
precedent for malice, for a right to resist laws we ourselves have
enacted, is an insult to their memory.
Sir, when I heard the gentleman lay down principles
which place the murderers of Alton side by side with Otis and Hancock,
with Quincy and Adams, I thought those pictured lips" (here he
pointed to the portraits in the hall) "would have broken into voice
to rebuke the recreant American, the slanderer of the dead!
The hall rang with cheers. The doubters rallied again
to the side of right. Mob law was in the minority. The young knight’s
lance had shivered the attorney-general’s shield. Then he ran at his
antagonist full tilt, and unhorsed him with this splintering charge:
"The gentleman said he should sink into
insignificance if he condescended to gainsay the principles of these
resolutions. For the sentiments he has uttered, on soil consecrated by
the prayers of Puritans and the blood of patriots, the earth should have
yawned and swallowed him up!"
The supporters of the overthrown attorney-general
rallied to his aid. With yells and howls, and force of fist and elbow,
they endeavored to create a riot and break up the meeting. But their
shouts were drowned in the cheers of the increasing majority; their
efforts toward force were quelled; and when again that calm, convinc
ing voice fell upon their ears, even the hostile
cries were hushed as hostile ears drank in the compelling words:
"Imprudent to defend the liberty of the press!
Why? Because the defense was unsuccessful? Does success gild crime into
patriotism, and want of it change heroic self-devotion to independence? .
. . With what scorn would that Tory have been
received who, after the battle of Bunker Hill, should have charged
Warren with imprudence! Who should have said that, bred as a physician,
he was ‘out of place’ in the battle, and ‘died as the fool dieth’!
" (Both of
these things the attorney-general had charged against Lovejoy.)
"But if success be, indeed, the only criterion of prudence, wait
till the end."
Thus he went on, while the crowded hail hung upon his
words. But when he boldly asserted that the principle for which Lovejoy
died was above even that which provoked the Revolution—taxation
without representation—the smoldering disapproval of the mob burst
into flame, and again the brave young fighter stood at bay.
"One word, gentlemen," he said, waving back
the disturbance. "As much as thought is better than money, so much
is the cause in which Lovejoy died nobler than a mere question of taxes.
James Otis thundered in this hail when the king did but touch his
pocket. Imagine, if you can, his indignant eloquence had England offered
to put a gag upon his lips."
Again the hail rang with cheers, and hostility sank,
baffled, while the young orator proceeded.
"The question that stirred the Revolution,"
he said, touched our civil interests. This concerns us not only
as citizens, but as immortal beings. Wrapped up
in its fate, saved or lost with it, are not
only the voice of the statesman, but the instruction of the pulpit and
the progress of our faith."
How true a prophet was this miracle-made young orator
the future was to show. For wrapped up in the cause that he so
fearlessly championed were the life of the republic and the test of
Thus he fought on to a finish, with one last spear
thrust carrying away the prize for which he had sprung into the lists.
I am glad, sir," he said, "to see this
crowded house. It is good for us to be here. When liberty is in danger,
Faneuil Hall has the right, it is her duty, to strike the keynote for
these United States. I am glad, for one reason, that remarks such as
those to which I have alluded have been uttered here. The passage of
these resolutions, in spite of this opposition led by the
attorney-general of the commonwealth; will show more clearly, more
decisively, the deep indignation with which Boston regards this
He closed amid a storm of applause. The chairman put
the resolutions; they were carried by an overwhelming vote. The young
knight of freedom had won his spurs in an unequal fight, and the fame of
Wendell Phillips as an orator was laid in that
wonderful and magnetic victory.
He championed a weak, unpopular, detested cause; for
the people woke but slowly to the real wickedness of a condition with
which they had always been familiar, and which had existed in America
from earliest years.
To be sure, Massachusetts recognized
almost in its very beginning the injustice of slavery. Section 91 of the
"Body of Liberties," adopted by the Massachusetts Bay colony
in 1641, expressly decreed that" there shall never be any bond
slavery, villanage, or captivity among us, unless it be lawful captives
taken in just wars ;" and a certain enterprising sea captain who
had brought over a cargo of captured Africans as a speculation was
imprisoned, while the kidnapped negroes were at once sent home at the
But the chances for money-making in this unlawful
pursuit, and the existence of slavery in other colonies, proved too much
for the enterprising Yankee of the Bay colony; in 1700
the slave trade was a recognized Boston
industry, and slavery was permitted in Massachusetts.
But the Puritan conscience was against it; the custom
of slaveholding was not really suited to Massachusetts soil; it
gradually declined, and when the new State of Massachusetts was formed,
the courts held that this first article in the Constitution of
Massachusetts abolished slavery in the State: "
All men are born free and equal, and have certain
natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned
the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties."
So died slavery in Massachusetts. But when the
agitation for its abolition in all the States of the Union was begun,
people were slow to respond. They thought it looked too much like
interfering in their neighbors’ business, and no American likes to do
But gradually the people of Massachusetts grew to
think more seriously about this increasing evil, and to feel
that if slavery were a blot on the fair
name of America, all the States had equal interest in having the stain
The cause of abolition enlisted the sympathies of
many wise and good and
justice-loving people; but so, too, was it espoused by unwise,
fanatical, and reckless folk. These gave it a bad name; but it grew, in
spite of its overzealous friends, and triumphed finally, not from the
acts of the fanatic, but because of the stern and the
republic—men who, like Abraham Lincoln, saw that
slavery was sapping the strength of the nation, and so,
when the time came, put an end to it.
But in that stern, unceasing, bitter,
and relentless fight against slavery Massachusetts led, because
Massachusetts stood for and was pledged to equal rights.
And in the van, fighting ever with his face toward
the foe, often far outstripping his
was the young knight of freedom who won his spurs in
Faneuil Hall—Wendell Phillips of Boston.
Fearless, though often hot-headed; valiant, though
often relentless; with a tongue that was as sharp as a sword, and a wit
that was as ready as a spear; often doing things that those who admired
him coul4 not approve; defeated, but never dispirited; cast down, but
never dismayed; fighting, fighting, fighting still, until he grew gray
in the service,—at last Wendell Phillips saw victory perch upon the
banners of his hope, and freedom established in America.
And when, at last, the work begun by
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was completed by the Fifteenth
Amendment, under Grant, in 1870, Wendell Phillips telegraphed to a
friend who had fought beside him in, that forty years’ war:
"Let me exchange congratulations with you. Our
long work is sealed at last. The nation proclaims equal liberty. Today
is its real birthday. ‘Io! Triomphe!’ Thank God."
Thereupon the American Antislavery Society, of which
Wendell Phillips was president, died because it had nothing to do.
Following the dauntless lead of Wendell Phillips, it had fought its way
to victory; then it dissolved. And Massachusetts had been the bone and
sinew of that famous organization.
"When I read a sublime fact in Plutarch,"
said Phillips, at the final meeting of his society, "an unselfish
deed in a line of poetry, or thrill beneath some heroic legend, it is no
longer fairyland; I have seen it matched,"
"Wolfe died in the arms of victory,"
of Massachusetts wrote to him, "and such is the
fortune of your noble society."
Today in Essex Street, Boston, a tablet marks the
site of the home of Wendell Phillips—the brave Bostonian who
championed an unpopular cause and turned protest into victory.
And the republic, now that the strife is past and old1
sores are healed, forgets the faults and errors of those stirring days,
and, recognizing the fervor of the reformer rather than of the fanatic,
thanks God alike for Wendell Phillips, the Antislavery Society, and the
firm front of Massachusetts.