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Reviewed by:
  • Wendell Phillips: Social Justice and the Power of the Past ed. by A. J. Aiseirithe and Donald Yacovone
  • Ryan C. McIlhenny (bio)
Key Words

Wendell Phillips, Social justice, Agitation, Radicalism, Rights

Wendell Phillips: Social Justice and the Power of the Past. Edited by A. J. Aiseirithe and Donald Yacovone. ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. 384. Cloth, $55.)

Wendell Phillips: Social Justice and the Power of the Past recaptures the intellectual acumen, class-defying egalitarianism, and penetrating oratory skills of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century radicals. The authors place Phillips within a larger transatlantic context that encourages readers to examine current social justice issues through a kind of sustained meditation on such a heroic figure. The book opens with a discussion of the heart of Phillips's radicalism: agitation. Philosophical "isms" or social programs were, for Phillips, pragmatic means toward reaching a more extensive and stable democracy, for neither programs nor parchments could replace the agitator. Agitation became his mantra, as he penned in 1837: "Agitate, write, talk; hope on. Never give up" (242). Unmolested by the whims of the herd, the agitator, W. Caleb [End Page 186] McDaniel writes in Chapter 2, called "out both the imperfections and possibilities of popular democracy" (69).

Drawing on history, traditional Protestantism, and the rule of law, Phillips endeavored to preserve what he considered the foundations of a free society. Social egalitarianism rested, first, on classical political philosophy, especially "free discussion, agitation, and eternal vigilance," which, McDaniel explains, Phillips "borrowed from the Greeks" (65). His use of history was indeed progressive, reshaping classical republicanism by appropriating the ideas and arguments of contemporaries like John Stuart Mill and Alexis De Tocqueville. But by refusing to "entertain restrictions on democracy," Phillips's liberalism "set him apart" from European intellectuals (68). He was not one to place restrictions on speech, especially the press, the "democratizing force in modern society" (56) or suffrage, two of the most important weapons in the agitator's tool kit. His radicalism was also shaped by his observations of the social consequences of capitalism. During his travels abroad, Peter Witzbicki writes, Phillips became convinced that "slavery and unfettered capitalism" represented a common threat to "democratic self-rule" (156), though he was quick to articulate the differences between slavery and labor. Far from a material determinist (his belief in the agitator kept him from a rigid teleology), Phillips nonetheless understood that reformers needed to confront the political and economic conditions that produced systems of oppression.

Dan McKanan takes seriously the role of Protestantism in Phillips's pragmatics of agitation. The faith of this Boston Brahmin was, McKanan writes, "neither theologically Calvinist nor fully aligned with the heterodoxy of other radicals" but rather "characterized by a preference for action over speculation and a refusal to accept any arbitrary authority in the church" (73). Finally, as Dean Grodzins argues, despite his rejection of the Constitution, which contributed to his very short tenure as a lawyer, and, at least early on, to his support of the Union, Phillips showed "a deep, if unconventional commitment to the rule of law" (90). Such a commitment fed into his wariness of the role of antislavery violence. Yet violence was not without its purpose in the absence of law, Grodzins explains. And Phillips was quick to point out the violence endemic to the Constitution itself. Proslavery advocates "flouted the law" in order to preserve a legally approved system of violence. "In America," Grodzins concludes, "the people made laws to govern themselves, and when they [End Page 187] made bad laws, such as those protecting slavery, they could be persuaded by agitators to unmake them" (106).

The abolitionist movement was Phillips's "training ground," the editors argue, "for a broad conception of reform," paving the way for further activism in other rights movements: uncovering the dangers of corporate power; opposing capital punishment; and advocating for the rights of women, the poor, Native Americans, and emigrants (5). In each case, the battle was waged not only against a domineering elite, but also toward the universal rights of others. The chapters written by Millington Bergeson-Lockwood (Chapter 8), Helene Quanquin (Chapter 9), and Angela Murphy (Chapter 10...


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pp. 186-189
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