What Is Defeat? Nothing But Education—Nothing But the First Step To Something Better

Wendell Phillips? George W. Phillips? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Wendell Phillips was a prominent orator and abolitionist who lived in the 1800s. He believed that suffering a defeat should not be dreaded because it provided a form of education. Also, it would often lead to something better. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1859 Wendell Phillips delivered a speech advocating the abolition of slavery. He mentioned the recent raid led by John Brown on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. Brown hoped to trigger an insurrection against slavery, but he was captured and executed. Phillips viewed Brown’s defeat as a temporary setback for a noble cause. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is the lesson of the age. The first cropping out of it is in such a man as John Brown. He did not measure his means. He was not thrifty as to his method; he did not calculate closely enough, and he was defeated. What is defeat? Nothing but education—nothing but the first step to something better.

Below are additional selected citations and commentary.

In 1860 the book “The John Brown Invasion: An Authentic History of the Harper’s Ferry Tragedy” included a reprint of the address by Phillips which included the quotation. 2

In 1872 “Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopaedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors” compiled by Maturin M. Ballou contained an entry for “defeat”, and these were the first two items under the entry: 3

DEFEAT.

What is defeat? Nothing but education, nothing but the first step to something better. — Wendell Phillips.

Defeat is a school in which truth always grows strong. — Beecher.

In 1894 George W. Phillips, an actuary of the Equitable Assurance Society of New York, addressed a meeting of insurance sellers, and he employed the saying: 4

Therefore, I would say to the timorous, hesitating agent: Be not dismayed by a defeat. What is defeat? Nothing but education—nothing but the first step to something better. Fight the battle of life with courage. Here a little excess of fierceness, even, is far more excusable than a distrustful sluggishness.

In conclusion, Wendell Phillips should receive credit for the words he spoke in 1859. George W. Phillips has a similar name, and he used the expression decades later, but he did not create it.

Image Notes: Picture of sad person sitting. Picture of one person helping another to achieve success. Both images from Sasin Tipchai at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Christopher Burd whose inquiry about a quotation attributed to Alexander Graham Bell led QI to uncover this tangentially related quotation. Next, QI performed this exploration and formulated this question.)

Notes:

  1. The Lesson of the Hour: Lecture of Wendell Phillips, Delivered at Brooklyn, N.Y., Tuesday Evening, November 1, 1859, Quote Page 18, Pamphlet with 24 pages; publisher not listed. (Digitized by Internet Archive at archive.org; original from Library of Congress) link
  2. 1860, The John Brown Invasion: An Authentic History of the Harper’s Ferry Tragedy, Section: The Lesson of the Hour: An Address by Wendell Phillips, Delivered at Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 1, 1859, Start Page 85, Quote Page 93, Published by James Campbell, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1872, Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopaedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors, Compiled by Maturin M. Ballou (Maturin Murray Ballou), Entry: Defeat, Quote Page 120, Column 1, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1894 June 21, The Daily Inter Ocean, Take Risks on Life: National Association of Underwriters in Convention (Continued from Page 1), Quote Page 7, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)