In the years leading to the U.S. Civil War, the controversy over slavery became not only a social issue but also a political and legal one as well. Opponents and proponents of slavery each looked to the American constitution, as well as the prevailing culture of the time, for direction in dealing with this matter. One such person who based their landmark works on this was Frederick Douglas, an emancipated slave, who fought tirelessly for the abolishment of slavery.
In 1852, Frederick Douglas was asked to speak at a July 4th celebration. In his speech, he made it known clearly, his despise for the treatment of Black slaves of the day, as well as the irony and hypocrisy, which was especially evident on that day. He explained that this hypocrisy aimed at the black population was evident on several fronts, and so, he refers to the fourth of July as “the birthday of your National Independence and your political freedom.”
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However, Frederick Douglas never lost hope. Although in his speeches and writing he eludes greatly to the detestable and horrid facts of black enslavement, he nonetheless saw a silver lining. “There is hope in the thought,” Douglas said after he explicated how America is a new and young nation, despite it being around the “old age for a man”.
Since the United States was recently formed, there is still plenty of room for reform and changes that would not have been possible had America been older. America, he said, was still in the “impressible stage of her existence.” As bleak and grim as the conditions were for blacks at the time, was nonetheless optimistic about the idea that blacks will one day be accepted and absorbed in all the ranks of society. He likened this to the analogy of rivers, which, he said, were like nations. Even though a river cannot be turned aside, “it may dry up”. If a nation “dries up”, there will be nothing left of that nation, except a “withered branch”. This withered branch is a symbol of what the nation believed in and what could happen to it if it unfairly cast aside certain members of its society.
Douglas also pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was one of the most valuable factors in the Nation’s destiny. The principles written in the Declaration of Independence should be kept and adhered to. “Be true to them on all occasions”, wrote Douglas. He believed that most documents that were written after the Declaration of Independence didn’t follow the significant ideology set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
To Frederick Douglas, slavery should never have been a legal question, especially when looking for direction in the spirit of the law, and the framer’s intent. In his Fourth of July speech, he began by recounting, and heralding the American Framers of the Constitution, and the great men that they were.
He explained how their revolution came about as a result of them not being in agreement with the laws as well as the ideals of the fatherland (England). “They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to”. He urged his listeners to take a lesson in that respect from their forefathers, and not to simply use their fathers to “eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own”.
In this speech, Frederick Douglas breaks his argument up into several parts. There is the introduction, the present, internal slave trade, religious liberty, and the responsibility of the church, religion in Europe and religion in America, and the constitution. Moreover, this speech “has rhetoric that attempts to justify the claims and legitimize the aspirations of the revolutionists (Niles 2).” These include but are not limited to:
- The exigency
- How the speaker establishes credibility
- Afrocentric versus a eurocentric approach
- Who the audience is
- What are the goals
- What are the constraints?
- The charisma of the speaker
- What is charisma based on
- How does one answer criticism
- The use of connotative, metaphors, allusions, extended metaphor, imagery
- Modes of argument
- The persona of the speaker
Let’s first look at the exigencies. The exigencies are a hurdle or imperfection that needs to be remedied. In this case, then, the exigencies would be for Douglas to get people to see that slavery was wrong and that the Constitution and religion pushed for equality. Frederick Douglas wanted to be seen as an equal, not as an outcast.
Frederick Douglas established credibility by integrating a style of speech that included his past. For example, he states, “the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable-and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight.” In essence, he is saying, I was once a slave and can relate, however, now I am educated and can relate to the white man.
“The entire message is centred around the Aristotelian statement, “rhetoric is using, in every given case, all available means of persuasion (Niles 149).” With Douglas, he uses a Eurocentric approach in his speech that “involves people, objects, and events” (Niles 149) to influence his audience.
Douglas realizes that he has a wide audience. He is speaking to the sympathetic landowner of the north, those who believe that slavery need not be abolished, the slave itself, government officials, and he is speaking to the church clergy. Frederick Douglas is arguing that if the constitution speaks that all men are created equal and that God loves all men, why are they treated differently.
His goals are to change the way people think, to uplift the slave, and to push for an understanding of how all men are equal. He knows, however, that solely on his skin colour that some will listen to him. He realizes he is constrained by the fact that others don’t see him as an equal. He counters this by saying, “let me ask if it is not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.”
Frederick Douglas established his credibility through his situation and by the person that he is. He shows that he is human, stating, “Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me.” Douglas even points out that he does not “despair” this country. He wants to show that he only wants to make a young nation better.
In order to answer his critics, Douglas shows that he has earned his right to speak to those who want to listen. He does this by saying, “The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable – and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight.” He even states, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty.” He gives us questions that make us ask, what is freedom.
The language used by Douglass encompasses imagery, allusions, metaphors, and several modes of argument. Imagery is used to create a figurative description such as, “The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence.”
Also, an allusion or an event from an outside source is seen when Douglass states, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
An extended metaphor, or a metaphor that is compared to something else, is “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
Another characteristic Douglass uses are modes of arguments. Douglass tries to argue using evidence, such as the Constitution and the Bible. Douglass tries to define what the Church should be. He even argues from definition to show that his rights are not up to standard with the rest of America. Frederick Douglass’ use of his argument gives him a persona of that of an activist, fighting for change.
In conclusion, I believe it is easy to argue that Douglass was indeed effective in getting his message across. It made people think about laws and think about equality in the sense of God’s eyes. Ultimately, this prevailing political environment had gripped the hearts and minds of all Americans during that trying era. The fate of the Nation was eventually to be decided on the battlefield, in one of the costliest and bloodiest wars this nation had ever fought.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 5 July 1852.
Niles, Lyndrey. African American Rhetoric: A Reader. Howard University. 1995.
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