"You Can Make Better Use Of Iron Than Forging It Into Chains"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: A confirmed abolitionist, Wendell Phillips was also a widely known orator. He was a Harvard graduate and a lawyer by profession, who abandoned his original career and joined William Lloyd Garrison in the fight against slavery. Most of the great speakers of the day employed flowery and heroic oratory, but Phillips adopted a more natural and familiar style. He was dynamic and forceful, pleasant, and immensely popular. Among other leading abolitionist voices was that of Henry Ward Beecher. When John Brown carried out his raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, a famous weapon figured prominently in the episode: this was a breech-loading carbine invented by Christian Sharps. In fact, these arms became known as "Beecher's Bibles." Brown captured the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859, hoping to set off a general uprising of slaves throughout the South. Abolitionists applauded this effort, though it was a failure; there was no uprising, and he and his men were taken after a brief siege. When Phillips, on the evening of November 1, spoke in Beecher's church his subject was "the lesson of the hour." This lesson, says Phillips, "is insurrection. . . . Insurrection of thought always precedes insurrection of arms. The last twenty years have been an insurrection of thought. We seem to be entering on a new phase of the great American struggle. . . ." He contrasts the Old World's distrust of "the average conscience" with the social awareness he sees in America. He describes the growing enlightenment of the nation and the extent of its intellectual and moral progress. Law, however, is nothing unless it is backed by public opinion; and Phillips does not advocate passive resistance if worst comes to worst. The public must see things as they are. Praising John Brown, Phillips likens him to the heroes of the American Revolution, and adds that he is no less heroic because the raid came to nothing. If slavery is to end, violence may be necessary:

I believe in moral suasion. The age of bullets is over. The age of ideas is come. I think that is the rule of our age. The old Hindoo dreamed, you know, that he saw the human race led out to its varied fortune. First, he saw men bitted and curbed, and the reins went back to an iron hand. But his dream changed on and on, until at last he saw men led by reins that came from the brain, and went back into an unseen hand. It was the type of governments; the first despotism, palpable, iron; and the last, our government, a government of brains, a government of ideas. I believe in it,–in public opinion.
Yet, let me say, in passing, I think you can make a better use of iron than forging it into chains. If you must have the metal, put it into Sharpe's rifles. It is a great deal better used that way than in fetters; types are better than bullets, but bullets a thousand times rather than a clumsy statue of a mock great man, for hypocrites to kneel down and worship in a State-House yard. . . . Some men seem to think that our institutions are necessarily safe, because we have free schools and cheap books, and a public opinion that controls. But that is no evidence of safety. . . . What India and France and Spain wanted was live men, and that is what we want to-day; men who are willing to look their own destiny, and their own responsibilities, in the face. . . .