It seems that Obama has been reading Lincoln; this is encouraging. Some of Obama’s reading about Lincoln may be less encouraging. I am not getting ready to lead a nation or form a cabinet; I have been reading Wendell Phillips. Phillips, you may recall, is the only non-politician profiled in Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition: his type is the “agitator” (something Obama once was, not so incidentally).
I’m reading Phillips mostly because I’ve meant to do so ever since I was a TA in a course on the nineteenth century U.S. whose instructor confessed admiration for him, and I saw a reference to Phillips in something else I read just recently. Many of his speeches are now online, but unfortunately not in easily copy-and-pastable form. I’ve only read a few so far, but I can already say that Phillips is worth a look for anyone interested not just in his history, but in political and social movements and agitation in general.
We are apt to feel ourselves overshadowed in the presence of colossal institutions. We are apt, in coming up to a meeting of this kind, to ask what a few hundred or a few thousand persons can do against the weight of government, the mountainous odds of majorities, the influence of the press, the power of the pulpit, the organization of parties, the omnipotence of wealth. At times, to carry a favorite purpose, leading statesmen have endeavored to cajole the people into the idea that this age was like the past, and that a “rub-a-dub agitation,” as ours is contemptuously styled, was only to be despised.
The time has been when, as our friend observed, from the steps of the Revere House — yes, and from the depots of New York railroads — Mr. Webster has described this Antislavery Movement as a succession of lectures in school houses, — the mere efforts of a few hundred men and women to talk together, excite each other, arouse the public, and its only result a little noise. He knew better. He knew better the times in which he lived. No matter where you meet a dozen earnest men pledged to a new idea — wherever you have met them, you have met the beginning of a Revolution.
Revolutions are not made: they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back. The child feels; he grows into a man, and thinks; another, perhaps, speaks, and the world acts out the thought. And this is the history of modern society. Men undervalue the Antislavery Movement, because they imagine you can always put your finger on some illustrious moment in history, and say, here commenced the great change which has come over the nation. Not so. The beginning of great changes is like the rise of the Mississippi. A child must stoop and gather away the pebbles to find it. But soon it swells broader and broader, bears on its ample bosom the navies of a mighty republic, fills the Gulf, and divides a Continent.
“Rub-a-dub agitation” might be sort of a mid-nineteenth century version of “bloggers in their pajamas.” Later in that same speech Phillips takes up the subject of technology and organization:
In working these great changes, in such an age as ours, the so-called statesman has far less influence than the many little men who, at various points, are silently maturing a regeneration of public opinion. This is a reading and thinking age, and great interests at stake quicken the general intellect. Stagnant times have been when a great mind, anchored in error, might snag the slow-moving current of society. Such is not our era. Nothing but Freedom, Justice and Truth is of any permanent advantage to the mass of mankind. To these society, left to itself, is always tending.
In our day, great questions about them have called forth all the energies of the common mind. Error suffers sad treatment in the shock of eager intellects. “Everybody,” said Talleyrand, “is cleverer than anybody”; and any name, however illustrious, which links itself to abuses, is sure to be overwhelmed by the impetuous current of that society which, (thanks to the press and a reading public) is potent, always, to clear its own channel. Thanks to the Printing-Press, the people now do their own thinking, and statesmen, as they are styled — men in office, — have ceased to be either the leaders or the clogs of society.
Note: I have broken up the speech text into more readable paragraph lengths. The hyperlinks, of course, are in the original – that’s just how far ahead of his times Phillips was.