Most dramatic orator in the American antislavery movement

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society announced that on October 21, 1835 George Thompson would be speaking at their annual meeting, Anti-Slavery Hall, 46 Washington Street. Pro-slavery goons posted some 500 notices around Boston saying, "A purse of $100 has been raised by a number of patriotic citizens to reward the individual who shall first lay violent hands on Thompson, so that he may be brought to the tar kettle before dark." After Garrison appeared at the hall, a lynch mob gathered, and he escaped through a back window and hid in a carpenter's shop on Wilson's Lane. The mob found him, threw a noose around his neck and dragged him away. Fortunately, several big men intervened and took him to the Leverett Street Jail, about a mile away, where he might be safe.

One who witnessed this attempted lynching was 24-year-old Wendell Phillips, watching from his law office on Court Street. His father John Phillips had been a prosecutor, State Senator, Member of the House of Representatives, judge in the Court of Common Pleas and Mayor of Boston. Phillips' mother Sally Walley was the daughter of a Boston merchant. Wendell Phillips grew up in the family mansion at Beacon and Walnut streets, and reportedly his oratorical career began at age 5 when he began giving speeches about the Bible to his family. He attended Boston Latin School, Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Phillips' professor of rhetoric and oratory, Edward T. Channing, criticized the fashionable flowery style, used by speakers like Daniel Webster, and urged the value of plain talk. Phillips took it to heart.

According to biographer Ralph Korngold, he was "six feet tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered and with a soldierly bearing. His complexion was ruddy. His reddish-brown hair waved back from a high, domed forehead. His gray-blue eyes, small and piercing, had a kindly twinkle. His aquiline nose gave force and dignity to his countenance. His well-formed lips, which he was in the habit of compressing, and his firm rounded chin spoke of resolution."A college friend, one Dr. Buckingham, described him as "the most beautiful person I had ever seen, handsome, indeed, in form and feature...a young Apollo."

Watching the mob attack Garrison, he recalled later, "I did not understand anti-slavery then; that is I did not understand the country in which I lived. My eyes were sealed, so that, although I knew the Adamses and Otises of 1776, and the Mary Dyers and Ann Hutchinsons of older times, I could not recognize the Adamses and Otises, the Dyers and Hutchinsons, whom I met in the street of '35."

Phillips horrified his family when he joined the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. "My good, noble, dear mother, we differed utterly on the matter of slavery," he remarked. There were efforts to have him confined to a lunatic sanitarium.

A tragic event in Alton, Illinois propelled him to the front ranks of the abolitionist movement. Elijah P. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister from Maine, had moved to St. Louis where he edited a religious newspaper. He saw Garrison give a speech, and it convinced him to abandon his gradualist views and support immediate emancipation. After he condemned the lynching of a black man, a pro-slavery mob broke into his offices, destroyed his printing press and nearly tarred and feathered him. He moved about 30 miles north to Alton, Illinois where he ordered a new printing press. But as the boat arrived with it, a pro-slavery mob seized it and threw it into the Mississippi. Lovejoy ordered two more printing presses, and they too were thrown into the river. Lovejoy's house was pelted with stones almost every night. On November 7, 1837, local people learned that a fourth printing press had been delivered to Lovejoy's house. They broke in, destroyed it and shot him five times.

News of his murder outraged people in Boston. There were petitions to hold a meeting at Fanueil Hall which could accommodate about 5,000 people. It had been given to the city in 1742 by Peter Faneuil, a merchant who had prospered in the slave trade, as a forum for discussing issues of the day. It had become known as the "Cradle of Liberty" because during the American Revolution, Sam Adams, John Hancock and James Otis had given speeches there. City officials denied the petitions, arousing influential people like William Ellery Channing who pleaded: "Are our fellow citizens to be murdered in the act of defending their property and of asserting the right of free discussion; and is it unsafe in the metropolis, once the refuge of liberty, to express abhorrence of the deed?"

The Fanueil Hall meeting was held. Channing spoke, and motions were presented to uphold freedom of speech and freedom of the press -- there wasn't any reference to slavery. Then Massachusetts Attorney General James Trecothick Austin denounced Lovejoy as "presumptuous and impudent." Austin was cheered when he compared the murderers to heroes of the American Revolution, and then he stalked out of the hall.

Phillips climbed onto the speaker's platform. His commanding presence silenced the crowd. He ridiculed Austin's efforts to associate the mob with Revolutionary heroes. He attacked "the tyranny of this many-headed monster, the mob, where we know not what we may do or say, till some fellow-citizen has tried it, and paid for the lesson with his life...[the mob] deprives not only the individual and the minority of their rights, but the majority also, since the expression of their opinion may sometimes provoke disturbance from the minority...Presumptuous to assert the freedom of the press on American ground? Who invents this libel on his country? It is this the very thing which entitles Lovejoy to greater praise." Phillips was greeted with tumultuous applause. Linking emancipation with freedom of speech and freedom of the press proved a breakthrough.

Garrison gained his most important associate, and the abolitionist movement gained its greatest orator. Reviewing the texts of his antislavery speeches, Korngold noted that "Ninety per cent of the words he uses are two syllables or less. His average sentence is composed of twenty-three words and conveys the thought it was meant to convey as unmistakably as a rifleshot."

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