Wendell Phillips (1811-1884)
Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students tend not to know enough history (or, for that matter, geography) to understand the setting for Toussaint L'Ouverture. In addition, Phillips's view of race and racial difference will strike some students as condescending: He sets out to "prove" that Toussaint is "okay" and seems to imply that his sterling example proves that some blacks are "okay" too. This is not the sort of argumentation that we like nowadays, for we've understood this as tokenism.
A quick history/geography lesson here (including Napoleon and the French Revolution) is in order. Also, review the attitudes toward race generally taken in this period. I've given background reading in Stephen J. Gould's The Mismeasure of Man as a way of grounding that discussion. It is equally useful to pair Phillips with a figure such as Louis Agassiz to show what style of thought the "scientific" view of race could produce. Yet, students can and do understand that styles of argument get dated very readily, and this can be demonstrated for them with various NAACP sorts of examples.
Students often ask, "Is this a true story?" (Answer: Sort of.)
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Phillips's emphasis on the dignity of the individual. The idea of the hero (and the rather self-conscious way he develops it--that is, in his emphasis on Toussaint's "pure blood," and his deliberate contrast of Toussaint with Napoleon). It's useful to show Toussaint as Phillips's version of "the noble savage" (an eighteenth-century British idea still current in nineteenth-century America).
As the headnote points out, the immediate occasion of Phillips's speech was the issue of whether blacks should serve in the military. Since the issue of military service--that is, of women and homosexuals in the military--has been a vexed one in the recent past, it may be useful to point to this historical context for the speech and to the relationship between its rhetoric and content and its functions in its time. This may also raise the question of the symbolic significance of military prowess in general.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This piece needs to be placed in the broader context of circuit-speaking and in the specific context of abolitionist public speaking. It should also be located in the debate over slavery.
Phillips's assumptions about his audience are very clear: There is little doubt that he addresses an audience of white folks with the plain intent of persuading them to adopt his position, or at least to give it a fair hearing. Students may very well say that Phillips has no contemporary audience, and that is probably true. It's useful, however, to point out that long after Phillips's death black students memorized this piece and recited it on occasions such as school graduations. Thus, while the people who first heard this piece were certainly very much like Phillips, his second (and more enduring) audience was an audience of black people-- largely students--who probably knew and cared nothing about Phillips, but embraced Toussaint L'Ouverture as their hero. That phenomenon-- the half-life of polemic--is very interesting.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
It is useful (and easy) to present Phillips with other white abolitionists (such as Garrison and Thoreau) or to read Phillips against black orators (Douglass, H. H. Garnet, David Walker). Another tack is to put him in a wider spectrum of white anti-slavery writing: Read him with John Greenleaf Whittier or even Harriet Beecher Stowe. One approach to take is to compare his oratorical style with that of Garnet or Douglass. Another is to show the breadth of anti-slavery writing, particularly with reference to the particular genres involved. If the students don't notice this, it's important to point out that this is an anti-slavery piece by implication: Phillips does not address the subject directly.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I like to have students identify the intended audience for me: How do they know to whom Phillips is speaking?
2. From Phillips's vantage, what are the traits of this ideal black hero? (Part of the point here is to get them to understand Phillips's emphasis on Toussaint's appreciation for white people and to see what kinds of fears he implicitly addresses.)
3. In what ways is this effective (or ineffective) as a piece of argumentation?
4. Is this piece propaganda? And, if so, what is propaganda? What are the differences (in terms of content and specifics) between Phillips's argument and one that might be made in a contemporary civil rights speech?
5. A good topic for getting at the heart of the matter (a very good paper topic) is a comparison of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Uncle Tom.
Bartlett, Irving. Wendell Phillips, Brahmin Radical. Boston: Greenwood, 1973.
Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum: Town Meetings of the Mind. New York: S. Illinois University Press, 1968.
Korngold, Ralph. Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and Their Relationship with Abraham Lincoln. Boston, 1950.
Stewart, James Brewer. Wendell Phillips, Liberty's Hero. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.