Wendell Phillips: The Scholar in a Republic


The other day, as part of an informal self-reeducation in American history prompted by our current political fix, I was rereading after many decades Richard Hofstadter’s 1948 The American Political Tradition, a series of portraits of leading American politicians from the founders to FDR.  Only one of Hofstadter’s subjects, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, never held public office.  Moreover, by 1948 Phillips’s reputation was pretty much in tatters, his rhetoric and his efforts most often deemed quixotic and ineffective.  Hofstadter’s treatment, which celebrated Phillips as an agitator and “a thorn in the side of complacency,” began a rehabilitation that would continue through a 1961 biography by Irving Bartlett, another biography by James Brewer Stewart from 1998, and a 2016 collection of almost hagiographic essays highlighting the abolitionist’s contemporary relevance.

Statue of Wendell Phillips in the Boston Public Garden

Initially a Garrisonian moralist of patrician background, by the Civil War Phillips had grown more politically engaged, and in the wake of emancipation continued fighting for the civil and economic rights of freedmen, for women’s suffrage, and in support of labor against capital.  As Hofstadter writes, “Karl Marx, looking upon slavery as a socialist, had said that white labor could never be free while black labor was in bondage.  Phillips, approaching socialism as an abolitionist, was arriving at the conclusion that black labor could never be truly free until all labor was released from wage slavery.”

Despite his waning popularity in polite society, in 1881 late in his life (he died in 1884) Phillips was invited to deliver an address at Harvard to celebrate the centennial of Phi Beta Kappa at that hallowed institution.  His speech, “The Scholar in a Republic,” was, in Hofstadter’s words, “an opportunity for the aging orator to heal the old breach with the scholarship of Cambridge, which had spurned him and his causes for forty years.  Instead he flung his last challenge at respectability. . . .  His theme was an arraignment of American learning for its lack of social leadership and its moral cowardice.”

Reading that address today one finds much that is dated, even somewhat archaic; in places only historians will recognize the references.  But Phillips’s fundamental message remains uncannily timely.  After an initial celebration of American democracy (and of the French Revolution, which he deems ” the greatest, the most unmixed, the most unstained and wholly perfect blessing Europe has had in modern times”), Phillips begins to address the role of scholars in a mass democracy:

We all agree in the duty of scholars to help those less favored in life, and that this duty of scholars to educate the mass is still more imperative in a republic, since a republic trusts the state wholly to the intelligence and moral sense of the people.  The experience of the last forty years shows every man that law has no atom of strength, either in Boston or New Orleans, unless, and only so far as, public opinion endorses it, and that your life, goods, and good name rest on the moral sense, self-respect, and law-abiding mood of the men that walk the streets, and hardly a whit on the provisions of the statute-book.  Come, any one of you, outside of the ranks of popular men, and you will not fail to find it so.  Easy men dream that we live under a government of law.  Absurd mistake! we live under a government of men and newspapers.  Your first attempt to stem dominant and keenly-cherished opinions will reveal this to you.

But what is education?  Of course it is not book-learning.  Book-learning does not make five per cent of that mass of common sense that “runs” the world, transacts its business, secures its progress, trebles its power over nature, works out in the long run a rough average justice, wears away the world’s restraints, and lifts off its burdens.  The ideal Yankee, who “has more brains in his hand than others have in their skulls,” is not a scholar; and two-thirds of the inventions that enable France to double the world’s sunshine, and make Old and New England the workshops of the world, did not come from colleges or from minds trained in the schools of science, but struggled up, forcing their way against giant obstacles, from the irrepressible instinct of untrained natural power.  Her workshops, not her colleges, made England, for a while, the mistress of the world; and the hardest job her workman had was to make Oxford willing he should work his wonders. . . .

Hence I do not think the greatest things have been done for the world by its book-men.  Education is not the chips of arithmetic and grammar,—nouns, verbs, and the multiplication table; neither is it that last year’s almanac of dates, or series of lies agreed upon, which we so often mistake for history.  Education is not Greek and Latin and the air-pump.  Still, I rate at its full value the training we get in these walls.  Though what we actually carry away is little enough, we do get some training of our powers, as the gymnast or the fencer does of his muscles: we go hence also with such general knowledge of what mankind has agreed to consider proved and settled, that we know where to reach for the weapon when we need it. . . .

Gibbon says we have two educations, one from teachers, and the other we give ourselves. This last is the real and only education of the masses,—one gotten from life, from affairs, from earning one’s bread; necessity, the mother of invention; responsibility, that teaches prudence, and inspires respect for right.

But, Phillips continues, “It is here that letters betray their lack of distinctive American character.”  Embracing the centrality of free speech to education, he goes on,

A chronic distrust of the people pervades the book-educated class of the North; they shrink from that free speech which is God’s normal school for educating men, throwing upon them the grave responsibility of deciding great questions, and so lifting them to a higher level of intellectual and moral life.  Trust the people—the wise and the ignorant, the good and the bad—with the gravest questions, and in the end you educate the race.  At the same time you secure, not perfect institutions, not necessarily good ones, but the best institutions possible while human nature is the basis and the only material to build with.  Men are educated and the state uplifted by allowing all—every one—to broach all their mistakes and advocate all their errors.  The community that will not protect its most ignorant and unpopular member in the free utterance of his opinions, no matter how false or hateful, is only a gang of slaves!

When Phillips turns to the question of universal suffrage, the contemporary reader can’t help but think of the efforts at voter suppression today, the implication of which is that only those of property and position are worthy to decide political questions:

The white South hates universal suffrage; the so-called cultivated North distrusts it.  Journal and college, social-science convention and the pulpit, discuss the propriety of restraining it.  Timid scholars tell their dread of it.  Carlyle, that bundle of sour prejudices, flouts universal suffrage with a blasphemy that almost equals its ignorance.  See his words: “Democracy will prevail when men believe the vote of Judas as good as that of Jesus Christ.”  No democracy ever claimed that the vote of ignorance and crime was as good in any sense as that of wisdom and virtue.  It only asserts that crime and ignorance have the same right to vote that virtue has.  Only by allowing that right, and so appealing to their sense of justice, and throwing upon them the burden of their full responsibility, can we hope ever to raise crime and ignorance to the level of self-respect.  The right to choose your governor rests on precisely the same foundation as the right to choose your religion . . .

. . . When the easy class conspires to steal, what wonder the humbler class draws together to defend itself?  True, universal suffrage is a terrible power; and, with all the great cities brought into subjection to the dangerous classes by grog [Phillips, like many reformers of his day, was a temperance advocate], and Congress sitting to register the decrees of capital, both sides may well dread the next move.  Experience proves that popular governments are the best protectors of life and property.  But suppose they were not, Bancroft allows that “the fears of one class are no measure of the rights of another.”

Suppose that universal suffrage endangered peace and threatened property.  There is something more valuable than wealth, there is something more sacred than peace. . . .

Phillips then turns to the duty of “college-bred men” to embrace agitation:

I urge on college-bred men, that, as a class, they fail in republican duty when they allow others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions which stir and educate the age.  Agitation is an old word with a new meaning.  Sir Robert Peel, the first English leader who felt himself its tool, defined it to be “marshalling the conscience of a nation to mould its laws.”  Its means are reason and argument,—no appeal to arms.  Wait patiently for the growth of public opinion.  That secured, then every step taken is taken forever.  An abuse once removed never re-appears in history.  The freer a nation becomes, the more utterly democratic in its form, the more need of this outside agitation.  Parties and sects laden with the burden of securing their own success cannot afford to risk new ideas.  “Predominant opinions,” said Disraeli, “are the opinions of a class that is vanishing.”  The agitator must stand outside of organizations, with no bread to earn, no candidate to elect, no party to save, no object but truth,—to tear a question open and riddle it with light.. . .

It is not so much that the people need us, or will feel any lack from our absence.  They can do without us.  By sovereign and superabundant strength they can crush their way through all obstacles.

“They will march prospering,—not through our presence;
Songs will inspirit them,—not from our lyre;
Deeds will be done—while we boast our quiescence;
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bid aspire.”

The misfortune is, we lose a God-given opportunity of making the change an unmixed good, or with the slightest possible share of evil, and are recreant beside to a special duty.  These “agitations” are the opportunities and the means God offers us to refine the taste, mould the character, lift the purpose, and educate the moral sense of the masses, on whose intelligence and self-respect rests the state.  God furnishes these texts.  He gathers for us this audience, and only asks of our coward lips to preach the sermons.

Phillips identifies “four or five . . . great opportunities” for agitation.  First, of course, was “the crusade against slavery,” in which sadly, he concludes, “scholarship sat dumb for thirty years until imminent deadly peril convulsed it into action.”  Then there is the “reform of penal legislation,” with its echoes of our present-day fight against mass incarceration, and the movement for temperance.  Of special note was the movement for women’s suffrage.  “Social science affirms that woman’s place in society marks the level of civilization,” Phillips begins.  From this, he concludes, “If, in this critical battle for universal suffrage,—our fathers’ noblest legacy to us, and the greatest trust God leaves in our hands,—there be any weapon, which, once taken from the armory, will make victory certain, it will be, as it has been in art, literature, and society, summoning woman into the political arena.”  (Interestingly, Phillips also sees women’s suffrage as key to ending “that ghastly curse, the vice of great cities,” intemperance.  And in fact as it turned out votes for women and prohibition were, in the early twentieth century, closely linked.)

Two other causes identified by Phillips for scholarly agitation are the Irish question and, of most interest to me as an historian of Russia, the fate of Russia’s “nihilists,” arguably the original “terrorists.”  Speaking just months after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the People’s Will, Phillips boldly, even enthusiastically, flaunted popular and scholarly opinion, noting “the scorn and disgust with which we gather up our garments about us and disown the Sam Adams and William Prescott, the George Washington and John Brown, of St. Petersburg, the spiritual descendants, the living representatives, of those who make our history worth any thing in the world’s annals — the Nihilists.”

Nihilism is the righteous and honorable resistance of a people crushed under an iron rule.  Nihilism is evidence of life.  When “order reigns in Warsaw” [a reference to suppression of the Polish revolt of 1863], it is spiritual death.  Nihilism is the last weapon of victims choked and manacled beyond all other resistance.  It is crushed humanity’s only means of making the oppressor tremble.  God means that unjust power shall be insecure; and every move of the giant, prostrate in chains, whether it be to lift a single dagger or stir a city’s revolt, is a lesson in justice.  One might well tremble for the future of the race if such a despotism could exist without provoking the bloodiest resistance.  I honor Nihilism; since it redeems human nature from the suspicion of being utterly vile, made up only of heartless oppressors and contented slaves.  Every line in our history, every interest of civilization, bids us rejoice when the tyrant grows pale and the slave rebellious.  We cannot but pity the suffering of any human being, however richly deserved; but such pity must not confuse our moral sense. . . .

. . . In Russia there is no press, no debate, no explanation of what government does, no remonstrance allowed, no agitation of public issues.  Dead silence, like that which reigns at the summit of Mont Blanc, freezes the whole empire, long ago described as “a despotism tempered by assassination.”  Meanwhile, such despotism has unsettled the brains of the ruling family, as unbridled power doubtless made some of the twelve Cæsars insane: a madman, sporting with the lives and comfort of a hundred million of men.  The young girl whispers in her mother’s ear, under a ceiled roof, her pity for a brother knouted and dragged half dead into exile for his opinions.  The next week she is stripped naked, and flogged to death in the public square.  No inquiry, no explanation, no trial, no protest, one dead uniform silence, the law of the tyrant.  Where is there ground for any hope of peaceful change?  Where the fulcrum upon which you can plant any possible lever? . . .

. . . in such a land dynamite and the dagger are the necessary and proper substitutes for Faneuil Hall and “The Daily Advertiser.”  Any thing that will make the madman quake in his bedchamber, and rouse his victims into reckless and desperate resistance.  This is the only view an American, the child of 1620 and 1776, can take of Nihilism.  Any other unsettles and perplexes the ethics of our civilization.

Moving toward his conclusion, Phillips returns to the victory over the slave power, drawing from it a lesson of scholarly engagement:

At last that disgraceful seal of slave complicity is broken.  Let us inaugurate a new departure, recognize that we are afloat on the current of Niagara,—eternal vigilance the condition of our safety,—that we are irrevocably pledged to the world not to go back to bolts and bars,—could not if we would, and would not if we could.  Never again be ours the fastidious scholarship that shrinks from rude contact with the masses.  Very pleasant it is to sit high up in the world’s theatre and criticise the ungraceful struggles of the gladiators, shrug one’s shoulders at the actors’ harsh cries, and let every one know that but for “this villainous saltpetre you would yourself have been a soldier.”. . .

To be as good as our fathers we must be better. They silenced their fears and subdued their prejudices, inaugurating free speech and equality with no precedent on the file.  Europe shouted “Madmen!” and gave us forty years for the shipwreck.  With serene faith they persevered.  Let us rise to their level. . . .  Intrench labor in sufficient bulwarks against that wealth, which, without the tenfold strength of modern incorporation, wrecked the Grecian and Roman States; and, with a sterner effort still, summon women into civil life as re-enforcement to our laboring ranks in the effort to make our civilization a success.

Sit not, like the figure on our silver coin, looking ever backward.

Looking back on this remarkable oration, dismissed by those who heard it as “a delightful discourse but preposterous from beginning to end,” one hopes today’s scholars would not be judged by Phillips as harshly.  Less than 35 years later the AAUP would be founded and while its mission was a defense of academic professionalism, from the start there was, initially in the person of its first president, John Dewey, among others a sense in the Association of democratic engagement that, while not quite so radical as that of Phillips, retained much of his agitational spirit.  I don’t know if Phillips’s address had any impact on the AAUP’s founders — I find no reference to it in Walter Metzger’s seminal Academic Freedom in the Age of the University — but his call for engaged and democratic scholarship certainly resonates today.

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