Digital History>eXplorations>John Brown: Hero or Terrorist?>The Public Response>Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips, “The Lesson of the Hour,” November 1, 1859

Source: James Redpath, Echoes of Harper's Ferry (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), pp. 51 52, 57 58.

I said that the lesson of the hour was insurrection. I ought not to apply that word to John Brown of 0sawatomie, for there was no insurrection in his case. It is a great mistake to call him an insurgent. This principle that I have endeavored so briefly to open to you, of absolute right and wrong, states what? Just this: "Commonwealth of Virginia!" There is no such thing. Lawless, brutal force is no basis of a government, in the true sense of that word . . . . No civil society, no government, can exist except on the basis of the willing submission of all its citizens, and by the performance of the duty of rendering equal justice between man and man.
Whatever calls itself a government, and refuses that duty, or has not that assent, is no government. It is only a pirate ship. Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginial She is only a chronic insurrection. I mean exactly what I say. I am weighing my words now. She is a pirate ship, and John Brown sails the sea a Lord High Admiral of the Almighty, with his commission to sink every pirate he meets on God's ocean of the nineteenth century. [Cheers and applause.] I mean literally and exactly what I say. In God's world there are no majorities, no minorities; one, on God's side, is a majority. You have often heard here, doubtless, and I need not tell you, the ground of morals. The rights of that one man are as sacred as those of the miscalled Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia is only another Algiers. The barbarous horde who gag each other, imprison women for teaching children to read, prohibit the Bible, sell men on the auction block, abolish marriage, condemn half their women to prostitution, and devote themselves to the breeding of human beings for sale, is only a larger and blacker Algiers. The only prayer of a true man for such is, "Gracious Heaven! unless they repent, send soon their Exmouth and Decatur." John Brown has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise, as Governor Wise has to hang him. (Cheers and hisses.) . . .

. . . Now, the South has extensive schemes. She grasps with one hand a Mexico, and with the other she dictates terms to the Church, she imposes conditions on the state, she buys up Webster with a little or a promise, and Everett with nothing. (Great laughter and applause.) John Brown has given her something else to think of. He has turned her attention inwardly. He has taught her that there has been created a new element in this Northern mind; that it is not merely the thinker, that it is not merely the editor, that it is not merely the moral reformer, but the idea has pervaded all classes of society. Call them madmen if you will. Lard to tell who's mad. The world says one man is man is mad. John Brown said the same of the Governor. You remember the madman in Edinburgh. A friend asked him what he was there for. "Well," cried he, "they said at home that

I was mad; and I said I was not; but they had the majority."
[Laughter. Just so it is in regard to John Brown. The nation says he is mad. I appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober; I appeal from the American people drunk with cotton, and the New York Observer, (loud and long laughter,) to the American people fifty years hence, when the light of civilization has had more time to penetrate, when self-interest has been rebuked by the world rising and giving its verdict on these great questions, when it is not a small band of Abolitionists, but the civilization of the twentieth century, in all its varied forms, interests, an elements, which undertakes to enter the arena, and discuss this last great reform. When that day comes what will be thought of these first martyrs, who teach us how to live and how to die? . . .



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