May 9, 1865: Antislavery society — Wendell Phillips’ speech

Wendell Phillips

In the New York Times
, the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society after then end of the war was held in New York. The first speaker (after prayers and hymns) was Wendell Phillips. He celebrated the freedom of the slaves, but held that freedom was not complete without land and political power.


The first session of the thirty-second anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society was held yesterday morning, at 10:30 o’clock, in the Church of the Puritans, (Rev. Dr. CHEEVER’S.) The heavy fall of rain in no way interfered with the entire numerical success of the occassion, as at 9:30 the spacious edifice was crowded to its fullest capacity.

Upon the platform sat the venerable Wm. Lloyd Garrison, the perpetual President of the Society, Wendell Phillips, George Thompson, of England, Mrs. Francis Watkins Harper, Thomas Garrett, of Delaware, Robert Purvis, of Philadelphia, Samuel May, Jr., Rev. J.T. Sargent, Hon. George B. Lincoln, of Brooklyn, and Edmund Quincy, Esq., of Boston, and one or two others of note. The entrance of Messrs. GARRISON and PHILLIPS was the signal for enthusiastic applause and most friendly greeting on the part of the audience.

Mr. PHILLIPS was then introduced and said:

MR. PRESIDENT, AND LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I am very sorry to say, as you perceive, that I am laboring under a heavy cold, and am not at all able to make a speech. I come upon the platform simply to redeem the pledge made by the committee in their advertisement that I should be one of the speakers, and I know you will be considerate of my feeble voice, and allow me to make not a speech, but a few suggestions, which seem to me pertinent to the occasion. Everything on this platform is looked at in the light of the interest of the colored race. It is as Abolitionists that we meet here, and, therefore, all general considerations of citizenship are to be subordinated to Abolitionism. What I shall say on this occasion is in regard to the next national step to secure to the colored man his new-found rights.

If the anti-slavery amendment to the constitution shall be indorsed, the parchment will guarantee to the slave his liberty. Our duty as Americans and clear-sighted Abolitionists is in the re-formation of the elements of State, so that the great forces of society shall guarantee the right recognized by the parchment. No freedom is real or emancipation effectual unless we arrange the forces of society that underlie law, so that they secure may to the freedmen their rights now and for all time. Now, what light do the events of the last four years throw upon the subject? The military part is closing fast. What does it teach us? Let me take two men as the representatives of what the nation has done, and we shall see.

[…]and our first national purpose was incarnated in the idea that the South was not angered but misled; not hostile but wayward; that she loved the Union as much as we, and that misled and mistaken as she was, it was only by magnanimity, and an exhibition of power that we could win her back to us. McCLELLAN was the exponent of that idea — he contended that no crime was intended. That form of war was made evident by slaves sent back to their masters, by proclamation that insurrection should be put down with a heavy hand, by the guard over the house of Gen. LEE while dying men lay shelterless in the field; by the guard over a spring in the garden while fevered soldiers died of thirst in the very sight of the pickets over the garden, so that wounded soldiers had to be carried half a mile around the place before they could reach the hospital. Did it do any good? The South hugged the delusion to her breast that the North had no strength, or that we dared not use it, and what had been the comparatively despicable shape of Rebellion, appeared in the hated guise of civil war.

Two years and another phrase appears. SHERMAN sweeps like a tornado across Georgia, leaving a broad track of desolation behind him, but holding the thunder-bolt of power in his hand. One day he crossed into South Carolina, and sees three of his soldiers lying dead with their throats cut, and on their breasts, the words “death to every forager.” Then he spreads the wings of his desolating host forty miles wide, burns every house, leaving neither fence nor shed, and man and woman excepted, neither biped nor any four-footed creature, but one dead uniform violence. In this guise he march up to Greensboro, taking behind him thousands of houseless beggars craving of their conqueror their daily bread. They but two years felt secure in the quiet of the North; then they saw the difference. SHERMAN wrote with the sharp point of his sword, in letters forty miles long, upon the dust of South Carolina, and the astounded Confederacy dropped into pieces, discomfited, annihilated.

The new President, in taking charge of the ship of state, announces the purposes which will guide his course, when he says that treason is a crime to be punished, not a mere difference of opinion, and the question now is, with the light of four years’ experience, and with the announcement from the Presidential chair, what shall be the destination of our people? What shall be done to assassins? If the hand of DAVIS, red with the blood of our Chief Magistrate, be brought under the fetter, we must leave him in the charge of the government, but when we speak of the greatness of the people, aliens, not rebels, on the other side of the picket, we ask what shall be the policy of the government, which will be the quickest and surest guarantee for the liberty of the negro?

One thousand men banded together by determined principle, intellectual, fierce, cunning and brave are the rebellion. It is not safe that these thousand men should continue to dwell in North America. Living or dead here is no place for them. Men say a jury has no power to banish citizens. Very likely, I never intended to try a public enemy by a jury. I should as soon have expected or asked WASHINGTON to try by jury the red coats at Bunker Hill. The idea of a jury impanneled to try JEFF. DAVIS as a traitor would be a “lamentable and tragical comedy.” For four years the Supreme Court and the United States Executive have proclaimed, in word and deed, by proclamation of blockades, and by exchange of prisoners, that the men the other side of the picket line are public enemies. I would have an act of Congress select one thousand men, the leading men of the South, and announce to the world that these are alien enemies, and thereby forever forbid, under pain of death, any one of them being found again in our territories. [Applause.] An act of Congress, under the war powers with no relation to treason, can declare them public enemies, aliens, who shall not be naturalized, nor permitted to come here. Of course, when they are banished their property falls into the hands of the government, to which I would add that of ten thousand more, the subordinates in the conspiracy, who are not strong enough to banish them, but enough to be crippled, and having the land, would then give it to the loyal white and black people of the South. Land I consider one of the two important elements in a politic reconstruction.

Now for the other. Political power is in the ballot. In revolutionary times, except in South Carolina, every man, black and white, born free, voted, with the exception of a property qualification in some States. Our fathers were too wise to require book learning as a primary qualification for the use of the ballot. I am surprised that so masterly a mind as that of JOHN S. MILL should make such a mistake as to say that men should read before they can vote. Does he suppose that education is the exclusive prerogative of colleges? It is by work, not reading, that good voters are made. Whoever works develops his intellectual capacities, and taking men by the masses, they who work and don’t read are half a century ahead of those who read and don’t work, and this is the reason that the slaves will make better voters than the poor whites of the South. The negro inherited a brain which work had cultivated for four generations, and whether the soldier goes to him for advice, or the merchant for counsel, the negro is the only one who, at the South, can give either what he needs. Fairly considered, the only class ready for suffrage in the South is the negro. I would not exclude the white man on account of his ignorance, [Laughter] but the only class which, as a class, has had the education of work, is the black man. I scout as irrelevant the whole question of suffrage in connection with simple information.

I read a circular the other day of a benevolent association, and it solicited subscriptions “to elevate the degraded black.” I stopped there and thought that if we would remember that black lips and black hearts were the ones which alone gave comfort and sympathy to our armies, and that when SEWARD said that the war would change the status of no one; that the negro saw the hand of God behind the bullet, and if then we could speak of the degraded black, we were like the Borubon, who never forgets and never learns anything.

History will say that the Christianity and intellect of America culminated under a black skin. I would give to white and black the right of suffrage, and then have in our hands the two elements of success, land and the ballot.

Slavery did not create the rebellion. It was the determination of a thousand men, to model a government based on classes and castes like that of England. They dared not confess it, as it would not fire the Southern heart. So this aristocracy used slavery as the instrument to rouse the South. The Anti-Slavery Amendment has torn that weapon from their hands, but the purpose remains the same. You can’t kill or appal them, but you can flank them, as GRANT flanked LEE. He flanked him at every step, and finally at Burkesville, which has not, however, and will not come to us this fifteen years yet.

Now, the hatred of the poor black and white, which still characterizes the people of the South, is as strong as ever. What shall be done with it? We must check it by new parchment securities. We must reconstruct South Carolina. She can put on her statute books to-day that no black man shall vote. Now, I like State rights, for, if properly bounded, it is good; but carried to the CALHOUN extreme, it is damnable, and that we may check State Rights at the proper time and place, I want to have another amendment passed which shall read thus: no State shall at any time make a distinction of civil privileges between the children of parents living on or born on her soil, either of race, condition or color. [Applause.] I hope some day to be bold enough to add “sex.”

However, my friends, we must take up but one question at a time, and this hour belongs exclusively to the negro. Let us see to this, that no State shall make a distinction among its citizens either of race, color, or condition, and when, as Abolitionists, we have achieved that, we will have checkmated States Rights, and put the negro in the full enjoyment of his liberty. Until then we leave him in the power of those who have always oppressed him, who have had him for years beneath their feet, and who yet hate him with a perfect hatred.

When we have secured this we will remember the freedmen. We know that their little houses are destroyed, that their beasts of burden were either taken by SHERMAN or stolen by WHEELER; their tools are worn out or lost or stolen, and not much can be expected from them for some time to come.

Friends, the beauty of this hour we find in the race with which we have to deal. The white men of the South sit sullen, morose, defiant; the black man sits loving, Christian and grateful. One of them said to a friend of mine in SHERMAN’s army: “The soldiers have taken away my two horses, and I have nothing with which to work; but, thank the Lord, they have given me my freedom, and I am happy.” I thank the Lord that there sits holding the helm of the State to-day a man who knows by experience, by the burning of his own roof, by the exile of his family, and by the terrible sufferings of himself, the bitterness of this pro-slavery caste, and who has given official utterance to the sentiments that “treason is a crime to be punished, and not a mere difference of opinion,” and to-day, unless the telegraph tells untrue, he announces that the land and the ballot are the guarantee of the Union in the hand of the black man.

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