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Frederick Douglass, Audience, and Rhetorical Appeals

Language Arts 11

Frederick Douglass used the narrative non-fiction form to argue against slavery and for emancipation after escaping from a lifetime in slavery. To do so was quite courageous—when Douglass's 1845 Narrative was published, he was still legally considered an escaped slave. Had he been caught, he would have been returned to his master, who certainly would have sold him 'down the river' as punishment. For this writing assignment, you will use persuasive appeals to sway the audience into adopting your point of view.


One of the primary considerations in writing is audience. How does one write for a friendly audience? A hostile audience? An indifferent one?

Convincing the Audience: Douglass's Rhetoric

Douglass is a great master of words; he'll never use a word or a phrase without having a persuasive intent. List things that help convince you to try something, buy something, or believe something. Think about commercials that you find to be persuasive. From your brainstorm, there are three kinds of proof for convincing arguments:

Logos: appeal to reason

Ethos: appeal to one's own character

Pathos: appeal to emotion


From the list below, select one of Douglass’s arguments. This will be the topic for YOUR persuasive essay.

Freedom is intrinsic to human nature:

Freedom is intrinsic to human nature: As a toddler, Frederick faces the startling realization that his life is not his own when he sees his aunt Hester whipped. He begins to seek freedom as a child in Baltimore. Though he experiences relatively more freedom in the city than on the plantation, Frederick is still aware that his is not a true freedom; he roams only so far as the master’s will allows. In Chapter VII, he says to little white boys, “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (p. 44)

Education is the key to freedom:

Frederick learns as a child in Baltimore that depriving the enslaved people of education is the key to white people’s power over them. “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. . . . From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (p. 41). When he reclaims his pride after defeating Covey, he begins to teach others to read.

Degradation of human dignity is the destroyer of both the victim and the perpetrator:

Douglass mourns the loss of his mistress’s kind heart when the effects of slaveholding begin to work on her. “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. . . . Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (p. 43).

After you select your topic, write a 3-5 page paper which supports the statement. You must have at least 3 quotes from the text to back up your assertion. ALL 3 of the quotes MUST be cited in the paper and be supported in relation to your thesis. The more support you have, the more credible your paper will be. But be careful to not “lose your voice” by merely re-telling Douglass’s work. You are showing HOW the work proves the topic you select.


To earn an “A” on this paper:

A persuasive essay should utilize appropriate concrete details, explanations, cited quotations, resources and/or statistics to establish writer’s authority on the topic. The paper will be clear, precise, and original to engage an authoritative and educated audience. Writing should have a strong argument that appeals to the readers’ emotions, and intellect but also avoids fallacies of logic. Students’ papers will center around the ideals of logos, ethos, and pathos. This paper has made the leap into something special; it is outstandingly insightful.


TOTAL POINTS: 75 points in the 90%

Persuasive Techniques to help Write the Paper

Douglass’s Work:

Listen and concentrate not only on Douglass's voice, but also on what aspects of slave life he is trying to convey. As you listen, write down what aspects of slave life shocked you, surprised you, pained you. Put yourself in Douglass's place and imagine what he might have felt.

  • Douglass knew neither his birth date nor the name of his father

  • Douglass, as was typical of many slave children, was separated from his mother shortly after birth and never really knew her

  • Many slave children were products of liaisons between the master and one of his female slaves; how this relationship often produced antagonism between the master's wife and the slave children as well as between the master's "legitimate" children and his slave children; how the master/father would even sell his slave children

  • At any time, for any particular reason (or not) slaves could be subject to brutal violence.


Revisit the first introductory paragraphs—what do you think of Douglass?

What did you learn about Douglass?

Describe Douglass's "voice." What impressions do you have of him as a writer or a person?

Is Douglass "knowledgeable" about his subject? Why or why not?

Is Douglass "benevolent"? Does Douglass appear to have good will and moral character? How does this add to or subtract from our reception of his Narrative?

Along with the details above:

  • Douglass has a masterful command of the English language

  • Douglass gives specific dates, locations, and circumstances of his birth, including the fact that so many details of his life were unknown - a very common occurrence for slaves. This situates Douglass as a "believable" slave - e.g., he has the credentials and appropriate back-story of a slave in Maryland.

  • Douglass deliberately downplays his relationship with his mother, which increases his ethos with his audience. Example: "I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger." The technical name for this is litotes—where downplaying circumstances or accomplishments gains favor with the audience. In this case, we see that Douglass does, in fact, care for his mother (as he describes with great care her midnight visits), so her loss actually seems more dramatic rather than less (had he, for example, been more melodramatic).


Douglass outlines a topic that he will continue to pursue in much of his writing—the false use of Christianity as a justification of slavery. He writes (pages 4, 5):

Every year brings with it multitudes of this class of slaves. It was doubtless in consequence of a knowledge of this fact, that one great statesman of the south predicted the downfall of slavery by the inevitable laws of population. Whether this prophecy is ever fulfilled or not, it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase will do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.
Discuss Douglass's argument:

  • The "curse of Ham" refers to the biblical story in which Ham, seeing his father drunk and naked, refused to turn away as his two brothers did. When Noah awoke, he cursed Ham and his son Canaan, supposedly causing a darker pigmentation in their descendants. This so-called curse has often been wrongly used to justify racism.


Discuss the following passages in which the master, Captain Anthony, whips and beats Douglass's Aunt Hester. Consider the emotional, visual, auditory, and tactile impact on the reader of his words.

  • What effect does the repetition of certain words have on the reader?

  • Which words serve as strong images?

  • Which verbs seem particularly strong?

  • What rhetorical appeals—logos, ethos, pathos—is Douglass using? Is he effective? Why?

"He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an old aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move hisiron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it."

What do all of the details add up to?

  • The failure of slave owners to recognize slaves as human beings with human feelings and attachments

  • This also has a dehumanizing effect not only on the slave, but also the slave owner.

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