Born in Paisley, Scotland, Phillips attended the common schools of Paisley. Immigrated to the United States in 1838 with his parents, who settled in Randolph County, Illinois. He engaged in agricultural pursuits. He was employed as a newspaper correspondent 1845-1862. He studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1855 and commenced practice in Lawrence, Kansas. First justice of the supreme court under the Leavenworth constitution. Founded the city of Salina, Kansas, in 1858. During the Civil War raised some of the first troops in Kansas in 1861. He was afterward commissioned colonel and served as commander of the Cherokee Indian Regiment. He served as prosecuting attorney of Cherokee County in 1865. He served in the State house of representatives in 1865. Attorney for the Cherokee Indians at Washington, D.C..
Phillips was elected as a Republican to the Forty-third, Forty-fourth, and Forty-fifth Congresses (March 4, 1873-March 3, 1879). He was an unsuccessful candidate for renomination in 1878. He was an unsuccessful candidate for election in 1890 to the Fifty-second Congress. He died at Fort Gibson, Muskogee County, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), November 30, 1893. He was interred in Gypsum Hill Cemetery, Salina, Kansas.