Wendell Phillips was a prominent and outspoken Boston abolitionist who worked closely with William Lloyd Garrison. In 1860, Phillips also helped George L. Stearns found the Boston Emancipation League, an organization that lobbied for full emancipation. As representatives of the league, Phillips and Stearns, among others, met with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to persuade him to appoint John C. Fremont as the military governor of North Carolina.
Although not a member of the “Secret Six” who funded John Brown, Wendell Phillips was closely involved with Brown, whom he called a “a regular Cromwellian dug up from two centuries.” After Brown’s execution in 1859, Phillips accompanied Brown’s wife Mary as she brought her husband’s body back to North Elba, New York, to be buried. Phillips spoke at the funeral service there, giving the eulogy for Brown. “Insurrection was a harsh, horrid word to millions a month ago. John Brown went a whole generation beyond it, claiming the right of the white man to help the slave to freedom by arms.”
On January 1, 1863, Phillips was present at the Jubilee Concert at the Boston Music Hall to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. That evening, Phillips was one of the honored guests at Stearns’s Medford estate. He gave a speech then tugged on a deep blue cloth decorated with silver stars to unveil Edward Augustus Brackett’s bust of John Brown.
Phillips owned his own plaster copy of Brackett’s bust of John Brown. When the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment departed Boston on May 28, 1863, Phillips, Garrison, and George L. Stearns’s son Frank P. Stearns watched them from Phillips’s balcony on Essex Street, Garrison with his hand placed atop the bust. “State Street roared with cheers,” he recalled. Phillips’s bust was passed on to Henry Ingersoll Bowditch.
After Garrison left his position as editor of the antislavery newspaper The Liberator, Wendell Phillips took over as president and Stearns joined the executive committee.