Rhetorical Analysis of “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was born as a slave who became the best-known African American in the 19th century. His famous speech, “The hypocrisy of American Slavery was delivered on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York. Douglass’ speech spurred the motivation of blacks towards their struggle for slavery emancipation and the same time ridiculing white’s hypocrisy and double standards towards blacks. The speech depicted the United States as a nation that was celebrating independence and freedom while at the same time dehumanizing and enslaving blacks. To convey the message clearly, Douglass used various literary techniques and styles in the speech that was meant to convince his audience about the irony of slavery in a free and independent nation. Some of the techniques that Douglass used in his speech were rhetorical aspects such as ethos, kairos, pathos and logos. Furthermore, Douglass incorporated figures of speech including metaphors, rhetorical questions, and repetition among others which assisted the audience to visualize and memorize the main points discussed from the speech. Use of all these styles was further augmented by the strong, non-faltering and confident voice that Douglass used to deliver his speech. In essence, Frederick Douglass’ speech in 1852 was full of rhetorical appeals and canons that helped in abolishment of slave trade in America and across the world.
The first rhetorical aspect used by Douglass in his speech was kairos. This aspect was used to persuade the audience and was very effective taking into consideration the venue at which the speech was delivered. Frederick Douglass gave his speech in the Corinthian Hall at Rochester, New York before the president of the USA. This speech was thus presented to citizens who had gathered to celebrate seventy-six years (76) of national independence and political freedom. These factors gave his speech more strength as he tried to show the president and Americans that even though they were celebrating national freedom, the slaves had nothing to celebrate. The slaves were therefore yearning for their freedom to join the other American citizens in celebrating national independence (Douglass, 23). The speech usage of Kairos was effective and succeeded in relaying the information to the masses. The overall result is that it helped Douglass to be very persuasive and convinced the president and slave owners that slaves had a constitutional right to be free and enjoy the fruits of independence as “others”.
The second rhetorical aspect that Douglass utilized in his speech was pathos and is the major tool that was employed by Frederick Douglass in his speech. Pathos is a very effective tool because it concentrates on manipulating emotions of the audience. It shows the emotional power of a speech. An example of pathos that Douglass used in his speech is when he says, “For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, which would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? (Douglass 54).” These statements influence and trigger emotions of the audience. The statement vividly portrays the suffering faced by slaves in USA by making the audience to visualize the suffering in their memories. Slave owners present in the audience are also made to feel the emotional and physical torture by reflecting the guilt they had in oppression of innocent people. Douglass realized that peoples’ emotions are usually very strong and more often they influence the decisions they made. This is why he decided to use a lot of pathos in his speech to connect with his audience. The statement above echoes what was exactly in the minds of all slaves in America at that time; that the slaves did not feel part of the celebrations and were not proud in any way since they still had “chains of servitude in their limbs”. Another example of pathos in the speech delivered by Douglass is depicted in this sentence in which he says, “Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! Weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! (Douglass 83)” In these statements, Douglass makes the audience to imagine the problems experienced by the slaves. He makes them visualize the weeping and screaming of slaves in response to the whips they receive from their masters. In this way, the author knows the end result was to make the audience to be emotional and take drastic measures to deter the suffering of slaves. Subsequently, that method yielded positive results through abolishment of slave policies and massive demonstrations to protest the vice.
The third rhetoric tool that was employed by Douglass in his famous speech is ethos. Ethos represents the credibility of a person as a speaker. The way Douglass introduces his speech makes the audience to slowly believe and have trust in him (on the message he was relaying to them). He starts by describing his woes and predicament as a slave and the pain he had gone through to attain freedom. Douglass also talks of the great disparity that exists between the American whites and blacks. He talks of his low learning levels and experience that hampered him from giving a good speech. In this way, the audience trusts him in his words as they connect the experiences undergone by Douglas to what he is trying to convey. They know that the man addressing them has first hand information about the topic being discussed since he was also a victim of slavery. The method is effective as the audience is bound to trust in his words. Additionally, Douglass refers to several places in his speech; he talks of Pharaoh and Israelites in Egypt, the American independence and its implications, and many other events that happened in England (Douglass 97). This makes the audience to trust him more. The end result is gaining credibility that he is knowledgeable and possesses well researched information.
Finally, Douglass’ speech is also characterized by use of logos as a rhetoric tool. Logo in itself gives the speech intellectual power. Douglass uses this tool to drive home his message by appealing to the logical beliefs of the people. Douglas says, “Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work (102).” In this sentence, Douglass uses the common belief that all people have; that man is born, he lives and finally has to die. He uses this belief to urge the audience that they should not try to act like their fathers, who embraced slavery. Instead, they should do their own part in life and live a legacy for their children just like their fathers did. This tool is very effective in that it encouraged the audience to have an urge to change the world by abolishing slave trade and hence remain in the history books for doing bold and noble initiatives. Douglass also refers to the bible more often than not in order to deliver his message. He capitalizes on the fact that most of his audience are Christians and believe in the bible and its teachings. He therefore goes ahead and uses illustrations from the bible (Christian holy book) to convince his audience on the evils of slavery in America. In one of his statements, he alludes that, “…This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act… (99)” He uses this allusion to refer to the American Independence Day celebrations that are similar to the Passover feast celebrated by the Israelites. The Israelites celebrated Passover to mark the day they were liberated from the hands of the Egyptians. It helped him cement the point he was about to describe to the audience.
To cap it all, Frederick Douglass’ speech at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester was one among the famous speeches in the world. The speech portrays him as one of the most influential speakers who tried to change the course of abuse through literary power. Although the speech results did not take effect immediately on the intended audience, it is one of the main contributors of the liberation of slaves in the USA. All these elements can be attributed to the use of rhetoric that has the advantage of helping the audience to memorize speeches. Rhetoric tools are therefore very critical and indispensable in public speaking.
Douglass, Frederick. The Hypocrisy of American Slavery. 1st edition. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1845. 1-192.