Speeches, Lectures, and Letters

Author: Wendell Phillips  | Date: 1863

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The War of Liberty (1861)


MANY times this winter, here and elsewhere, I have counselled peace,—urged, as well as I knew how, the expediency of acknowledging a Southern Confederacy, and the peaceful separation of these thirty-four States. One of the journals announces to you that I come here this morning to retract those opinions. No, not one of them! I need them all,—every word I have spoken this winter,—every act of twenty-five years of my life, to make the welcome I give this war hearty and hot. Civil war is a momentous evil. It needs the soundest, most solemn justification. I rejoice before God to-day for every word that I have spoken counselling peace; but I rejoice also with an especially profound gratitude, that now, the first time in my antislavery life, I speak under the stars and stripes, and welcome the tread of Massachusetts men marshalled for war. No matter what the past has been or said; to-day the slave asks God for a sight of this banner, and counts it the pledge of his redemption. Hitherto it may have meant what you thought, or what I did; to-day it represents sovereignty and justice. The only mistake that I have made, was in supposing Massachusetts wholly choked with cotton-dust and cankered with gold. The South thought her patience and generous willingness for peace were cowardice; to-day shows the mistake. She has been sleeping on her arms since ’83, and the first cannon-shot brings her to her feet with the war-cry of the Revolution on her lips. Any man who loves either liberty or manhood must rejoice at such an hour.

. . . I do not acknowledge the motto, in its full significance, "Our country, right or wrong." If you let it trespass on the domain of morals, it is knavish. But there is a full, broad sphere for loyalty; and no war-cry ever stirred a generous people that had not in it much of truth and right. . . .

Plain words, therefore, now, before the nation goes mad with excitement, is every man’s duty. Every public meeting in Athens was opened with a curse on any one who should not speak what he really thought. "I have never defiled my conscience from fear or favor to my superiors," was part of the oath every Egyptian soul was supposed to utter in the Judgment-Hall of Osiris, before admission to heaven. Let us show today a Christian spirit as sincere and fearless. No mobs in this hour of victory, to silence those whom events have not converted. We are strong enough to tolerate dissent. That flag which floats over press or mansion at the bidding of a mob, disgraces both victor and victim.

All winter long, I have acted with that party which cried for peace. The antislavery enterprise to which I belong started with peace written on its banner. We imagined that the age of bullets was over; that the age of ideas had come; that thirty millions of people were able to take a great question, and decide it by the conflict of opinions; that, without letting the ship of state founder, we could lift four millions of men into Liberty and Justice. We thought that if your statesmen would throw away personal ambition and party watchwords, and devote themselves to the great issue, this might be accomplished. To a certain extent it has been. The North has answered to the call. Year after year, event by event, has indicated the rising education of the people,—the readiness for a higher moral life, the calm, self-poised confidence in our own convictions that patiently waits—like master for a pupil—for a neighbor’s conversion. The North has responded to the call of that peaceful, moral, intellectual agitation which the antislavery idea has initiated. Our mistake, if any, has been that we counted too much on the intelligence of the masses, on the honesty and wisdom of statesmen as a class. Perhaps we did not give weight enough to the fact we saw, that this nation is made up of different ages; not homogeneous, but a mixed mass of different centuries. The North thinks,—can appreciate argument,—is the nineteenth century,—hardly any struggle left in it but that between the working class and the money-kings. The South dreams,—it is the thirteenth and fourteenth century,—baron and serf,—noble and slave. Jack Cade and Wat Tyler loom over its horizon, and the serf, rising, calls for another Thierry to record his struggle. There the fagot still burns which the Doctors of the Sorbonne called, ages ago, "the best light to guide the erring." There men are tortured for opinions, the only punishment the Jesuits were willing their pupils should look on. This is, perhaps, too flattering a picture of the South. Better call her, as Sumner does, "the Barbarous States." Our struggle, therefore, is between barbarism and civilization. Such can only be settled by arms. The government has waited until its best friends almost suspected its courage or its integrity; but the cannon shot against Fort Sumter has opened the only door out of this hour. There were but two. One Was compromise; the other was battle. The integrity of the North closed the first; the generous forbearance of nineteen States closed the other. The South opened this with cannon-shot, and Lincoln shows himself at the door. The war, then, is not aggressive, but in self-defence, and Washington has become the Thermopylae of Liberty and Justice. Rather than surrender that Capital, cover every square foot of it with a living body; crowd it with a million of men, and empty every bank vault at the North to pay the cost. Teach the world once for all, that North America belongs to the Stars and Stripes, and under them no man shall wear a chain. In the whole of this conflict, I have looked only at Liberty,—only at the slave. Perry entered the battle of the Lakes with "DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP!" floating from the masthead of the Lawrence. When with his fighting flag he left her crippled, heading north, and, mounting the deck of the Niagara, turned her bows due west, he did all for one and the same purpose,—to rake the decks of the foe. Steer north or west, acknowledge secession or cannonade it, I care not which; but "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." . . .

The noise and dust of the conflict may hide the real question at issue. Europe may think, some of us may, that we are fighting for forms and parchments, for sovereignty and a flag. But really the war is one of opinions: it is Civilization against Barbarism: it is Freedom against Slavery. The cannon-shot against Fort Sumter was the yell of pirates against the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE; the war-cry of the North is the echo of that sublime pledge. The South, defying Christianity, clutches its victim. The North offers its wealth and blood in glad atonement for the selfishness of seventy years. The result is as sure as the throne of God. I believe in the possibility of justice, in the certainty of union. Years hence, when the smoke of this conflict clears away, the world will see under our banner all tongues, all creeds, all races,—one brotherhood,—and on the banks of the Potomac, the Genius of Liberty, robed in light, four and thirty stars for her diadem, broken chains under feet, and an olive-branch in her right hand.

Wendell Phillips, (Boston, 1863), 396–414 passim.


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Chicago: Wendell Phillips, "The War of Liberty (1861)," Speeches, Lectures, and Letters in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7MKWCULX1KEG3S.

MLA: Phillips, Wendell. "The War of Liberty (1861)." Speeches, Lectures, and Letters, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7MKWCULX1KEG3S.

Harvard: Phillips, W, 'The War of Liberty (1861)' in Speeches, Lectures, and Letters. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7MKWCULX1KEG3S.