Philip Phillips (1807-1884) was the U.S. Representative for Alabama’s First Congressional District from 1853 to 1855. Prior to that, he served two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives and one term in the South Carolina State House. He was a lawyer in Mobile, Mobile County, and a member of the bar for the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. As a politician during the sectional crisis, he supported popular sovereignty, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Missouri Compromise while firmly opposing secession.
Philip Phillips Phillips was born on December 17, 1807, to Aaron Pfeiffer and Caroline Lazarus Phillips in Charleston, South Carolina; he was one of five children. (Some sources state his date of birth as the 13th whereas his headstone says the 17th.) His father was a Jewish immigrant from Ansbach, Bavaria, who changed his last name from Pfeiffer to Phillips in an effort to assimilate in the United States prior to his arrival in 1800. Caroline Phillips was the daughter of Marks Lazarus, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Philip Phillips grew up in Charleston and attended private schools in the city. Following his early education, Phillips attended the Middletown Military Academy in Connecticut. He returned to Charleston in 1825, where he studied law under U.S. District Attorney John Gadsden. Phillips was admitted to the bar in 1828 and began practicing law in Cheraw, South Carolina.
After practicing law for several years, Phillips became involved in politics. In 1832, he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina Nullification Convention, where he argued against the state’s possible secession over tariff disputes with the federal government. In 1834, he was elected to the South Carolina state legislature. Phillips and fellow South Carolina legislator Thomas Williams learned of financial opportunities in the growing town of Mobile, and so both men resigned their elected positions in 1835 and moved to Alabama. Once in Mobile, they established a law partnership. Other members of their firm would include former Alabama governor John Gayle, future Alabama Supreme Court justice Edmund Strother Dargan, and R. B. Sewall. Phillips took an interest in Alabama’s legal history and compiled a digest of Alabama Supreme Court decisions that was published in 1840. After practicing law in Alabama for approximately one year, Phillips briefly returned to South Carolina to marry Eugenia Levy, a member of a prominent Jewish family, on September 7, 1836. The marriage would produce ten children.
By 1838, Phillips had become involved in Alabama politics and was serving as the president of the Alabama Democratic Convention. He was elected to the Alabama House and served two terms: 1843 to 1844, and 1851 to 1852. As a member of the legislature, Phillips chaired the Committee on Federal Relations, the House and Senate Joint Select Committee, the Committee on the Code, and the House Committee for Internal Improvements.
Phillips was a strong advocate for internal improvements, and unsuccessfully pushed for the construction of railroads that would link north and south Alabama by using the state’s waterways and railroads to complement each other. Alabama was divided, or as Phillips argued, there were two separate Alabamas with regard to commerce and transportation. South Alabama shipped goods through Mobile, whereas north Alabama shipped goods using the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers to reach New Orleans. Phillips, who was the president of the Railroad Convention at Talladega in 1849, argued that building more railroads would provide the solution to these shipping problems.
In addition to serving in the legislature, Phillips chaired the Alabama Democratic Party and was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1852 that nominated Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire for president and Alabamian William Rufus King for vice president. During this convention, Phillips spoke in favor of sustaining the Union and upholding the Fugitive Slave Act. Phillips also served as the attorney for the Bank of Mobile for a time during this period, ending in 1852.
In 1853, Phillips was elected to the U.S. Congress to represent Alabama’s First Congressional District. It covered the southwestern counties of the state and was often referred to as the “Mobile District.” He replaced John Bragg who declined to run for reelection and was popular for his support for infrastructure improvements in Mobile. As a member of the 33rd Congress, Phillips was a political ally of Sen. Steven Douglas of Illinois, who believed in the idea of popular sovereignty in the territories. Phillips’ most notable contribution during his tenure in Congress was his influence on Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. He wrote the final wording of the last amendment of the act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the territories. By opening the possibility of slavery to popular vote (or popular sovereignty) in both Kansas and Nebraska, its repeal furthered political and sectional tensions regarding slavery.
Phillips’ wife and daughters were a source of contention in his career. Whereas Phillips himself was a staunch Unionist, his wife and daughters were vocal supporters of secession. When Phillips’ term in Congress was over, he declined to run for reelection and was replaced by Percy Walker, a native of Huntsville, Madison County. Phillips remained in Washington, D.C., to practice law as a member of the bar for the U.S. Supreme Court. The onset of the Civil War led Union authorities to place the Phillips family under house arrest, as Eugenia’s support of slavery and secession was well known. By the end of 1862, the family had moved to New Orleans, where Eugenia was accused of insulting a dead Union soldier as his funeral procession passed by her. Union general Benjamin Butler had her arrested, and she was imprisoned on Ship Island for three months.
Following the Civil War, the family returned to Washington, where Phillips continued arguing cases before the Supreme Court. In 1874, he published a book entitled The Statutory Jurisdiction and Practice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Phillips died in Washington on January 14, 1884, and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.
- Learned, Henry Barrett. “The Relation of Philip Phillips to the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 7 (March 1922): 303-17.
- Morgan, David T. “Philip Phillips and Internal Improvements in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Alabama.” Alabama Review 34 (April 1981): 83-93.