Our Greatest Want: An Examination of the Rhetorical Tendencies Employed by

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Our Greatest Want:

An Examination of the Rhetorical Tendencies Employed by

African American Female Abolitionist

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


Lauren Deborah Nye

Submitted for Honors in English

University at Albany, SUNY

Directed By: Stephen North

May 8, 2009

To Stephen North: for the careful readings, patience, and emoticon smiley faces that kept me motivated throughout this grueling process.
To jil hannifan: for her constant support and dedication toward making sure I succeeded in my writing process.
To Helene Sheck: for helping me establish this project, and her motivation throughout.
To my brave army of English Honors Thesis Writers: for continually providing me with emotional support, comraderie, and of course, entertainment.
To my parents: for always supporting me fully in any endeavor I commit myself too, and of course, for their constant love.
To my little sister: for coming to the library on days I thought I would never escape from behind the keyboard, to tell me a funny story, and let me know that I could do this.
To my best friend Rachel: for always listening, giving me hope, and showing me that with some determination—one can have her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and eat it too.
And lastly, too all my friends, who will now know what it means to hang!

Table of Contents
Introduction: My Recovery Project 1
Part One: Trends in the Rhetoric of Abolition from 1830-1860

  • William Lloyd Garrison 4

  • Frederick Douglass 17

Part Two: Frances Harper’s place in the Abolitionist Movement 34
Part Three: Frances Harper’s Common Rhetorical Tendencies 43
Part Four: Frances Harper’s Contribution to Abolitionist Rhetoric 49
Conclusion: Frances Harper’s Rhetoric On Today’s Public Platform 71
Works cited 74
Appendix A: Complete Editorials from William Lloyd Garrison 80

  • “To the Public” 80

  • “The American union” 81

  • “Address to the Slaves of the United States” 83

Appendix B: Complete Speeches from Frederick Douglass 86

  • “The church and Prejudice” 86

  • “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” on Page 87

Appendix C: Complete Letters, Poems, and Speeches from Frances Ellen 106

Watkins Harper

  • “The Colored People in America” 106

  • “Could We Trace the Record of Every Human Heart” 108

  • “Our Greatest Want” 109

  • “The Slave Mother” 111

  • “Slave Auction” 112

  • “Breathing the Air of Freedom” 113

  • “Miss Watkins and the Constitution” 114

Introduction: My Recovery Project
If silence and slavery are linked, so are freedom and rhetoric”

Jacqueline Bacon (The Humblest May Stand Forth 14)

You are standing at the doorway of a church in Philadelphia. Looking in, you see a mass of heads, all turned toward the podium, waiting for someone to get behind that podium. Then you see her. She is an attractive African American with “a fair figure, long, lustrous hair, and facial features pleasant to behold” (Logan 49). You overhear one person comment that she looks like “a bronze muse” (Logan 31). A reporter will later write that she has “a strong face, with a shadowed glow upon it, indicative of thoughtful fervor, and of a nature most femininely sensitive, but not in the least morbid. Her form is delicate, her hands daintily small” (Still 779). There is a “captivating eloquence” about her, which tells you she will “hold her audience in rapt attention from the beginning to the close” (Still 779). And, as you soon find out, she does. A man standing by you, who has seen her lecture before, explains: “She is a lady of much talent, and always speaks well, particularly when her subject relates to the condition of her own people, in whose welfare, before and since the war, she has taken the deepest interest. As a lecturer Mrs. Harper is more effective than most of those who come before our lyceums; with a natural eloquence that is very moving” (Still 779). Excited and interested to hear this abolitionist orator for the first time, you enter the hot and stuffy room curious about whether you, too, might become an abolitionist.

You have found your seat, and the fascinating woman takes her place at the podium—signaling that she is about to begin her speech. “She stands quietly beside her desk” (Still 779), and as you wait for her to speak, you notice she has no notes—she is prepared to speak from her brain and her heart—not from a piece of paper. As she calmly begins her speech, you notice that she is “marked by dignity and composure,” her “gestures few and fitting,” her performance “never theatrical” (Still 779). Like thousands of people in hundreds of audiences before and after the one you are in, just in hearing her first few words, you find yourself utterly captivated by this woman: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).

Frances Harper was, among other accomplishments, an orator during the nineteenth century who devoted her skills to speaking out against injustices of equality. Like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, her more famous counterparts in the abolitionist movement, Harper was a passionate and highly regarded lecturer on abolition. Further, she was one of the select prominent African-American women to undertake this work in such a highly public way. I believe it is important for us to recognize, celebrate and, as far as possible recapture the rhetorical abilities that made Harper and her work as influential as they were.

To that end, my first section is dedicated to defining some of the key abolitionist rhetorical tendencies as exemplified by Douglass and Garrison, most notably, allusion to America’s Declaration of Independence and Revolution, hyperbolic language, and reference to God. After exploring these rhetorical tendencies in Garrison and Douglass, I use my second section to introduce Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, providing biographical information that shows how she came onto the abolitionist circuit. In my third section, I show how Harper follows abolitionist orators like Garrison and Douglass. The fourth and final section, then, is dedicated to exploring the ways that Harper develops her own unique rhetorical tendencies. My aim is to reveal what afforded Harper the ability to capture her audiences, what made her such an interesting orator, and what legacies she has passed on to those who take the public platform in hopes of achieving social or political change today.

Part One: Trends in the Rhetoric of Abolition from 1830-1860
Through rhetoric, then, those who are oppressed can fight

the unjust conditions under which they must live”

Jacqueline Bacon (The Humblest May Stand Forth 3).
As mentioned in my introduction, this section focuses on outlining the rhetorical trends of William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglass, allowing us to assemble some key rhetorical devices used during this period. A rhetorical analysis of a couple of their representative abolitionist works will help us set up a basic understanding on how abolition was discussed on the public platform. With this in mind, I have chosen the following texts: “To the Public,” “The American Union,” “Address to the Slaves of the United States” (editorials by Garrison); and, “The Church and Prejudice,” “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” (speeches by Douglass).
William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison is acknowledged as one of the earliest activists in the abolitionist movement. He edited and published The Liberator for over thirty-five years, and was also a prominent member in the American Anti-Slavery Society (Selby 53). Garrison firmly believed the American government was inherently built to support the institution of slavery; as a result he called for radical changes both in the abolition of slavery and the system of government that supported it. Indeed, as Gary Selby reveals, one of the grounding arguments in Garrison’s movement held that “the Constitution was an inherently pro-slavery document” (52). Both Garrison and his supporters were looking for a drastic shift in the way American society functioned; they were arguing for an entirely new society, actually built on the kind of equality the Constitution nominally guarantees. In keeping with this ideology, Garrison and his followers believed drastic language was necessary to bring about this new society. This drastic language was wielded in his newspaper, The Liberator.

Garrison’s Liberator was first published New Years Day 1831. His paper brought about a more involved, serious, and energized discussion on the abolitionist movement (Arkin 76). It was a part of the “radical views, radical actions, and radical language” of 1831 that was “exposed by men and women committed to lifelong careers of social reform,” (Arkin 75).

In order to grasp how Garrison used this medium to talk about abolition, what his “strong language” actually sounded like, we will begin by analyzing his first editorial “To the Public.” A first editorial in a newspaper sets up the foundations for how the newspaper will function and what its goals are. This is the space where editors can declare their mission and the vision they hold for the newspaper—as we see through Garrison’s first editorial, his mission seems to be portrayed as quite individualized. His first editorial, marked throughout by an “I” (and not a “we”), sets himself up within this medium as the self-proclaimed prophet on abolition. Indeed, he promises:

I determined…I shall…I seize… I am in earnest— I will not equivocate— I will not excuse— I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. … posterity will bear testimony that I was right. (Garrison 1831) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

He is using the space of The Liberator to define his active role in the abolitionist movement—shaper of the “greater revolution” through his words. Although he is within the abolitionist movement, The Liberator is a place for him to battle abolition in an individualized way. This is not a space created for “we” to “determine…seize” or “not retreat a single inch,” rather it seems he is the one committed to those verbs. He will be the one taking action so that others can see where they should place themselves within the abolitionist movement. It is important to keep this distinction of the “I” in mind, because among other things, as we continue our analyses of this editorial we see him set himself up in opposition to specific persons.

Garrison is unabashed in his first editorial—he comes right out and claims specific people his paper is meant to make “tremble.” In his introductory remarks he targets “southern oppressors… their secret abettors … their northern apologists…the enemies of the persecuted blacks.” This list more or less blames specific persons/groups for the problem of slavery in America; conversely it allows others in America to not “tremble” about this fatal problem afflicting America. Those clearly enforcing slavery are the ones Garrison is after, the ones at fault for the continued prevalence of the slave system. For Garrison there are no shades of gray in the situation of America—one is either on the right side or the wrong side—and through his self-proclaimed ethos (which allows him to decipher these sides) he will let you know which side you are on. Specific people created slavery and are sustaining slavery; by exposing them in his paper he hopes to make them “tremble,” he hopes to defeat them. Observing Garrison’s treatment of where he places the blame for slavery will be important for our later discussion on how Harper deals rhetorically with blame placement.

In sync with his outright claims of whom should receive blame for the presence of slavery in America, in his first editorial we exerts a conspicuously “loud” voice. As a self-proclaimed abolitionist prophet, Garrison relies heavily upon vivid, strong, often hyperbolic language in order to get his audience excited about their own involvment in the abolitionist movement. We see him claim for an entire paragraph:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; —but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest— I will not equivocate— I will not excuse— I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead. (Garrison 1831) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

As a pacifist hoping to achieve the abolishment of slavery through his words, Garrison believed his radical language was necessary for making the movement effective. Although there were people in society who (like Garrison) did not wish to be moderated in their speech or writing, Garrison created The Liberator as an uncensored space to help propel the abolitionist movement—an intense topic not usually allowed that freedom. Indeed, this extreme rhetoric was different from the way people had talked about slavery (or other taboo topics) previously, yet Garrison believed that his position within the abolitionist movement demanded this language to move people to take action. As Truman Nelson comments, Garrison:

really could not understand why people complained about his harshness of language. Compared to some of the orthodox preachers, condemning everyone in the congregation for eternal damnation for some doctrinal fault, some variation of belief for which they would be burned in lakes of fire, pinched by red-hot tongs, and this for eternity, he was quite mild. The rub was that he was talking about a real sin, a clear and present sin, a sin as tangible as sweaty chains and bloody backs, a sin, moreover that could be redeemed quite easily. So his ministry and his prophecy was one of embarrassing reality in the world of pain and wrong. (Nelson, xvi-xvii)

Undeniably Garrison’s recognizable rhetorical strategy was to be as loud as possible, just like those who used radical language to talk about not so “real … clear and present” sins; for Garrison, both sins deserved to be talked about loudly.

Another important function of his opening editorial is the incorporation of the Declaration and references to the Revolution. In order to prove to his reader that the cause this paper has been created to represent is a valid and necessary one, he uses allusions to these historically important events. These serve as a way to harp on the notion that what they are fighting for is no different from what America was fighting for not long before. He strives to evoke the same sentiments held by the colonists against Great Britain in order to support abolitionists in their actions. He capitalizes on the emotions associated with revolutionary sites like “Bunker Hill” in order to expose slavery as a mockery of the liberty that was fought for on this revolutionary site. He exclaims, “I determined, at every hazard, to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and in the birth place of liberty” (Garrison 1831) [emphasis in original]. Here we see that he not only incorporates “Bunker Hill” to show that our fight for liberty is not over, but to also draw logical parallels between the emotions he feels and the actions he is committed to, to those of the Revolutionaries who procured our own nation’s freedom and gave us the right to these freedoms. While referencing the Declaration, he argues:

Assenting to the ‘self-evident truth’ maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. (Garrison 1831) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

Using the language already created in the Declaration, he is able to amplify the need to take action (as the Revolutionaries did), to procure the real security of all men being “created equal.” This is an important feature in his editorial (as well as a common trait of other abolitionist prose), which helps abolitionists achieve a stronger pathos and to a certain degree logos; we will see both Douglass and Harper also relying on this rhetorical abolitionist convention.

In order to gain a more robust understanding of the type of uncensored rhetoric that Garrison favors, the next piece I have chosen to analyze is “The American Union,” published in January of 1845. Aside from seeing an additional example of Garrison’s uncensored rhetoric, his second representative editorial will help us to see further his self-proclaimed ethos, the way he deals with talking about who is the cause of slavery, and his hyperbolic language. His introduction is emblematic of his entire speech, relying upon name calling and hyperbolic language:

Tyrants of the old world! contemners of the rights of man! disbelievers in human freedom and equality! enemies of mankind! console not yourselves with the delusion, that REPUBLICANISM and the AMERICAN UNION are synonymous terms—or that the downfall of the latter will be the extinction of the former, and, consequently, a proof of the incapacity of the people for self-government, and a confirmation of your own despotic claims! Your thrones must crumble to dust; your sceptre of dominion drop from your powerless hands; your rod of oppression be broken. (Garrison 1845) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

His introduction proves that once again he will target groups (even if they are in a general sense) and thus create a dichotomy in America between who is good and who should be considered “Tyrants,” “contemners,” “disbelievers,” and “enemies.” His editorial at large relies upon the repetition of “tyrants” to drill into his audience that there is a specific group of people who are responsible for letting slavery corrupt America. Although he is using the term “tyrant,” we can assume that he is referring to the slave owners of the South, and not the American Union at large. Indeed, his ending quote in all capital letters proclaiming loudly “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!,” implicitly makes the slave holders the “tyrants.” As discussed earlier, this makes his position conveniently ‘good’ within the American Union, while it makes the slave holders ‘bad.’ In conjunction with this formulation, he parallels the “tyrannical” slave holders to the tyrannical British. This association incorporates both allusions to the Revolution, and hyperbolic language to amplify the similarities.

Talking to the “tyrants”—the slave owners—he demands that their “thrones must crumble to dust.” Garrison affirms that the slave owners have effectively returned America to pre-Revolutionary relations. Further playing upon his audience’s emotions, he makes an appeal through the use of pathos, claiming that the slave owner’s “oppression” (still pervading American society like the British government’s oppression did) needs to be defeated. He makes this appeal, and then uses hyperbolic language to heighten his demands all the more. Garrison uses hyperbolic allusions to their past state of government. We see this clearly in the above demand, as the slave owners had no tangible throne; however, the allusion to the slave owners sitting on a throne like the British did before the Revolution helps to amplify the slave owners “despotic” nature. He is playing upon the strings of the audience’s emotions to evoke in them the same sentiments that the American revolutionaries had toward Great Britain and in addition parallel those sentiments with the actions the revolutionaries took.

Throughout his editorial, we once again get a great look at his outspoken language. As we discussed earlier, he believed America was flawed ultimately from slavery and that the Constitution fostered slavery; in this speech he offers his opinion that we should “let the American Union perish.” Indeed, he declares:

Tyrants! know that the rights of man are inherent and unalienable, and therefore, not to be forfeited by the failure of any form of government, however democratic. Let the American Union perish; let these allied States be torn with faction, or drenched in blood; let this republic realize the fate of Rome and Carthage, of Babylon and Tyre; still those rights would remain undiminished in strength, unsullied in purity, unaffected in value, and sacred as their Divine Author. If nations perish, it is not because of their devotion to liberty, but for their disregard of its requirements…. Know that its subversion is essential to the triumph of justice, the deliverance of the oppressed, the vindication of the BROTHERHOOD OF THE RACE. (Garrison 1845) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

A rather blunt and brutal description, Garrison is screaming for “liberty.” His preference to “let these allied States be torn with faction, or drenched in blood,” seems rather severe, yet for Garrison, “blood” is better than deceptive commitments to “liberty.” As Marc M. Arkin argues:

Whether or not William Lloyd Garrison and the Liberator actually precipitated this ‘new antislavery era,’ historians agree that Garrison crystallized a new antislavery rhetoric: vivid, sentimental, aggressive, graphic, and, at times, overwhelmingly physical. Following Garrison’s lead, after 1830 abolitionist literature demonstrated a major thematic shift. The dangers presented by power, luxury, and unchecked will to dominate, always a staple of antislavery writing, became increasingly intertwined with images of sexual exploitation and actual physical suffering on the part of the slave. (Arkin, 76) [Italics placed for emphasis]

As we see, this radically loud way Garrison wrote about the taboo topic of abolition came to powerfully influence the ways that nineteenth-century orators talked about the subject.

Before we move on to our analysis of Frederick Douglass’s work, I would like to look briefly at one last editorial by Garrison, his “Address to the Slaves of the United States.” Through this editorial, we can observe his use of a rhetorical tactic we have not seen in the other two pieces we have looked at (but never the less is important to acknowledge for this discussion).

Garrison’s “Address” was written a little over ten years after his “First Editorial,” in June of 1843. In it, Garrison evokes the sense that he is talking to slaves; however, upon closer observation he is clearly directing his editorial to another audience. Although the title of his editorial suggests he will be focusing on addressing an enslaved audience, we must acknowledge first, that most slaves could not read; second, even if a slave was literate, risking reading The Liberator would get them severely beaten or worse, killed. At this time, slaves were still forbidden to read— thus his “Address to the Slaves” was more likely to be read by the readers of The Liberator (most of whom were abolitionists.)

He begins his editorial as a fearless leader would, demanding: “Take courage! Be filled with hope and comfort! Your redemption draws nigh, for the Lord is mightily at work in your behalf. Is it not frequently the darkest before day-break? The word has gone forth that you shall be delivered from your chains, and it has not been spoken in vain.” These orders are covertly addressed to the abolitionists with two intentions: (1) to beg them not to lose their faith in fighting for the end of slavery (2) to guilt any abolitionist who gives up their faith. He wants his audience (the readers of The Liberator) to know that the active battle they are fighting is an important one that cannot diminish. Indeed, watching how he answers his posed question, it becomes apparent that although his “Address” is literally written for the slaves, as we continue on in the editorial we cannot miss the continual concealed ways in which Garrison actually uses this address to talk to his abolitionist audience.

In the next paragraph, where he seems to be going on to describe the “darkest before day break,” he does not go into the “darkest” events that are occurring in slavery; instead, he cites the “darkest” effects that the abolitionists have faced trying to defeat the institution. It is interesting to see how Garrison draws upon words that would be used to describe the horrible effects one endures in slavery, and pairs them to the horrible effects the abolitionist’s endure:

Although you have many enemies, yet you have also many friends—warm, faithful, sympathizing, devoted friends—who will never abandon your cause; who are pledged to do all in their power to break your chains; who are laboring to effect your emancipation without delay, in a peaceable manner, without the shedding of blood; who regard you as brethren and countrymen, and fear not the frowns or threats of your masters. They call themselves abolitionists. They have already suffered much, in various parts of the country, for rebuking those who keep you in slavery—for demanding your immediate liberation—for revealing to the people the horrors of your situation—for boldly opposing a corrupt public sentiment, by which you are kept in the great southern prison-house of bondage. Some of them have been beaten with stripes; others have been stripped, and covered with tar and feathers; others have had their property taken from them, and burnt in the streets; others have had large rewards offered by your masters for their seizure; others have been cast into jails and penitentiaries; others have been mobbed and lynched with great violence; others have lost their reputation, and been ruined in their business; others have lost their lives. All these, and many other outrages of an equally grievous kind, they have suffered for your sakes, and because they are your friends. They cannot go to the South, to see and converse with you, face to face; for, so ferocious and bloody-minded are your taskmasters, they would be put to an ignominious death as soon as discovered. Besides, it is not yet necessary that they should incur this peril; for it is solely by the aid of the people of the North, that you are held in bondage, and, therefore, they find enough to do at home, to make the people here your friends, and to break up all connexion with the slave system. They have proved themselves to be truly courageous, insensible to danger, superior to adversity, strong in principle, invincible in argument, animated by the spirit of impartial benevolence, unwearied in devising ways and means for your deliverance, the best friends of the whole country, the noblest champions of the human race. (Garrison 1843) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

Throughout this section his use of repetition with “they,” enforces the numbers and actions that the abolitionists have taken; the “they” does not address the slaves. He spends his entire second paragraph of his editorial not actually doing what he set out to do—perform an “address to the slaves”—because he is instead addressing the “they” who have been fighting hard for abolition. In conjunction with the repetition of “they,” when he used emotionally stimulating words and phrases like “suffered,” “burnt,” “beaten,” “mobbed,” “lynched,” “lost their lives,” he paired them with abolitionist work. Words that might appear like a description of what the slave goes through are actually linked to the abolitionists. Like we saw in his opening command, he not only uses these charged and uncensored words to show the extreme battle that the abolitionists are fighting, but also to(once again) praise those who continue on in that battle and to make those who are not striving in this same manner to feel guilty. Using these intense words, he is able to draw similar parallels between the slave and the abolitionist; he is able to prove that both parties endure innumerable challenges through slavery. Laying out this ground work he is able to put forth the argument that abolishing slavery liberates both the slaves and those who are struggling to procure the freedom of the slaves.

Continuing his editorial, he claims:

Ten years ago, they were so few and feeble as only to excite universal contempt; now they number in their ranks, hundreds of thousands of the people. —Then, they had scarcely a single anti-slavery society in operation; now they have thousands. Then, they had only one or two presses to plead your cause; now they have multitudes. They are scattering all over the land their newspapers, books, pamphlets, tracts, and other publications, to hold up to infamy the conduct of your oppressors, and to awaken sympathy in your behalf. They are continually holding anti-slavery meetings in all parts of the free States, to tell the people the story of your wrongs. (Garrison 1843) (Italics Placed for Emphasis) [For full version of editorial, see appendix A]

The use of “then” and “now” in the passage quoted above helps the audience see the great feats that have been achieved since the publication of The Liberator, and since the opening of the discussion on slavery. Through his “address to the slaves” about the great accomplishments the abolitionists have made (pretending the abolitionists who subscribe to his paper will only accidentally see the address), he covertly uses this editorial to recharge the tired abolitionists who have been fighting with him for the last ten years.

Through our quick and by no means complete rhetorical analysis of Garrison, along with his basic argument for abolition, we are able to begin forming our view of how one of the most prominent abolitionists talked about abolishing slavery in America. Through his publications in The Liberator, Garrison sets up a distinct tone for how one should discuss his or her views on abolishing the institution of slavery in America. His paper stands as a reassurance to his abolitionist readers that by following his advice, each reader can make an effective contribution to the abolitionist movement.

Frederick Douglass

Former slave Frederick Douglass is often considered to be another exemplary abolitionist orator. Douglass had an unquestionable authority in his right to speak on this topic, combined with a widely recognized ability to appeal to his audience through strategic rhetorical moves. Douglass believed in equality for all, and after obtaining his own freedom, devoted his life toward establishing equality in America through his speeches and actions. Within the abolitionist movement, Douglass was further along the spectrum of “active” abolitionists than Garrison was; he both spoke and acted against slavery in forceful ways. Douglass believed that everyone committed to abolishing the institution had an obligation, in any way possible, to resist the institution; this included himself.

We will begin looking at Douglass as we did at Garrison: create an understanding of his ethos, then outline his signature rhetorical moves.

As the many biographies of Douglass agree, the speech that brought him onto the anti-slave lecture circuit was given in 1841 at a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, held on Nantucket Island (Selby 54). Douglass captivated his abolitionist audience with his powerful speech, “The Church and Prejudice,” thereby establishing connections that would allow him to begin traveling and delivering speeches on abolition. Using his opening to the speech we can gain a brief understanding of the way he talked, as well as his persona.

The first distinction we must make on Douglass’s persona, is that he seems to build his argument grounded in actual (non-exaggerated) circumstances. Although he uses the metaphor “the kingdom of heaven is like a net,” and follows that like fish they are segregated within the church, his speech seems to be grounded within the real—thus without the need to heighten the situation using hyperbolic language. Differing from how we saw Garrison talk about abolition in his editorials, Douglass is concerned with showing the consequence of slavery—the facts of the matter at hand—in order to promote his abolitionist cause. Indeed, he provides his firsthand account with segregation in churches both in the North and in the South, and then includes two additional stories of prejudice in the church to support his evidence (logos):

At the South I was a member of the Methodist Church. When I came north, I thought one Sunday I would attend communion, at one of the churches of my denomination, in the town I was staying… the good minister had served out the bread and wine to one portion of those near him…till all the white members had been served. Then he took a long breath, and looking out towards the door, exclaimed, "Come up, colored friends, come up! for you know God is no respecter of persons!" I haven't been there to see the sacraments taken since.

But among those who experienced religion at this time was a colored girl; she was baptized in the same water as the rest…The deacon handed round the cup, and when he came to the black girl, he could not pass her, for there was the minister looking right at him, and as he was a kind of abolitionist, the deacon was rather afraid of giving him offense; so he handed the girl the cup, and she tasted… next to her sat a young lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Saviour; yet when the cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church.
Another young lady fell into a trance. When she awoke, she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others--and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, "Oh! I didn't go into the kitchen!" (Douglass 1841) (Italics in Original) [For full version of speech, see appendix B]

A more in-depth look at Douglass’s works shows that, as Logan argues, “as Douglass matures as a speaker, he began to want to do more than describe his experience; he wanted to present reasoned arguments against the institution of slavery, to move away from the specific to its compelling implications” (Logan 73). This desire to stay away from relying solely on “his experience” connects to his persona—one that seems more in tune with the “real life circumstances” and the “we” involved in the abolitionist movement, than Garrison’s was.

In order to persuade his audience to adopt his argument, Douglass creates an ethos not rigidly confined to an “I,” but one that draws upon an “us.” Recounting the three different stories helps to not limit his speech by telling only his experience; it helps to not limit his ethos (as Garrison tended to do) to an all knowing prophet whose own experience was enough to justify why abolition was just. Douglass seems to see that a more opened persona, not firmly distinguished in one specific way, allows you more access to your audience. Indeed, he was not concerned with building an ethos that concentrated on him being a former slave; he did not want to rely heavily on his past experience, but instead to incorporate his past as a slave in subtle ways to prove his validity in speaking, while also showing that he was much more than just a former slave.

From this speech, we must also take note of his stance on who is at fault for slavery and its prevalence; unlike Garrison who was concerned with making the “tyrants” “tremble” (because they were clearly the ones who enslave African Americans), Douglass demands that anyone anywhere not embracing fully their fellow citizens must be changed by the abolitionist movement. Contending that both the South and the North separate blacks from partaking in the same religious traditions, he shows that it is not as simple as blaming the people who clearly sustain slavery. Although he “thought” that he “would attend communion, at one of the churches of my denomination” when he “came north,” after his experience in the Northern church, he declares “I haven't been there to see the sacraments taken since.” While Garrison held the belief that he could help show everyone what was right and what was wrong, Douglass has a more opened understanding that this institution pervades American society not just through the slave holders or openly racist persons, but also in more subtle ways. Douglass was determined to show that making the division between good and bad is not clean cut and further, cannot be decided by one person’s experiences. As we will eventually discuss with Harper, where and on whom one placed the blame is an important consideration in speeches that are meant to enact wide-spread social change.

After this speech, Douglass was hired by Garrison as an anti-slave lecturer, thus becoming a leading figure in the New England anti-slavery movement. Although he gave many important speeches during this time that helped advance the abolitionist movement, one of the most beneficial for rhetorical analysis and representative of his work is “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”

In July of 1852, the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society sponsored Douglass to give a speech for their Fourth of July celebration. As the title of their society suggests, the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society was concerned with abolition and equal rights. With this said, we must understand that Douglass was not there with the primary goal of persuading the audience in attendance; rather he is delivering this speech to the larger metaphysical audience of all Americans who celebrate the Fourth of July without thinking about the holiday’s blatant hypocrisy. In asking him to give this speech, the society is hoping he will use this platform to address those who may not be aware that celebrating the Fourth of July when millions in your nation are enslaved is wrong.

Using a mediated ethos that positions him as a former slave and a member of American society, he lays out the hypocrisies inherent to this celebration which makes him simultaneously a “fellow-citizen” and an “I” that is not a part of the “you” who forms the nation. Although by the end of the speech his combined ethos becomes rather strong, he begins with a timid introduction:

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability… my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance.

The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration.
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. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say. I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you. (Douglass 1852)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

Douglass begins his lengthy speech with the disclaimer that he may not articulate properly what he is being called to speak on because the occasion is intimidating. He uses the rhetorical device apologia, to defend himself in case he does not suffice as a speaker on this occasion. Indeed, his claim that he does “not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker…with greater distrust of my ability,” shows the use of apologia to excuse him for any faults that might occur in this speech. Unlike Garrison’s self-proclaimed ethos, which would be able to speak in any situation about abolition because he was such a solid speaker, Douglass introduces himself to the audience with the claim that his subject matter is extremely difficult, and combined with the occasion in which he is to discuss it, he is going to have an extremely difficult time. With his assertion that “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 reminds his audience that as a former slave now trying to include himself within the celebration of America’s independence, he finds this task a complex one. Note, however, that he does not go in to how far that “distance” is, as per our earlier assertion that Douglass did not want to too heavily rely on his own past slave experience.

He continues his speech with an in-depth, descriptive reminder of how this celebration came to be, relying upon the rhetorical device of repetition. Most noticeably, his use of repeating the phrases “you/r,” “I” and “fellow-citizens,” helps to show that he is both within the nation and without our nation. He strategically uses “fellow-citizens” to bridge the gap between “you” and “I”—to show that although there is a recognizable difference between “you” and “I,” the common denominator of “fellow-citizens” that links “you” and “I” together, proves the two terms cannot be separated from one another:

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July… the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. 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, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. 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. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. (Douglass 1852) (Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

His moves between “you,” “I,” and “fellow-citizen,” allow him throughout the speech to highlight his alienation from being a complete fellow citizen. As Jacqueline Bacon says, this move “positions him as the representative of America’s failure. Douglass offers no direct argument for equal rights, instead drawing on the indirect power of language to highlight the exclusion of African Americans from America’s promise of freedom and equality” (Bacon 89). Indeed, the rhetorical effect of Douglass’s repetition allows him to invoke his argument for “equal rights” without having to literally claim this argument.

Douglass also repeats the word “fathers” throughout the speech to help show the audience the way of life necessary for bringing about the type of ideals America was built on. Intertwining the story of “your fathers” throughout the speech, Douglass strongly implies that the audience should similarly follow in their footsteps. In this sense (just as Garrison invokes the slaves to talk to his abolitionist audience) Douglass invokes the “fathers” who built America to talk to his audience, and then lingers upon the struggle that the “fathers” went through with the hopes of similarly fostering those ideals in his audience:

But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government…presumed to differ from the home government… 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. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathersThey who did so were… dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.
Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable…They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back. (Douglass 1852)(Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

Like the rhetorical effect of his repetition “you/r,” “I” and “fellow-citizens,” which evoked an argument on equal rights, the rhetorical effect of relying upon the ideals of “your fathers” allows Douglass again to indirectly evoke the actual argument on the actions needed at present. Further, what makes the rhetorical effect of this evocation all the more worthwhile is his strategic exclusion of the fact that “your fathers” were not actually concerned with African American equality. Indeed, he engrains in his audience the way that “your fathers” were able to see wrong and correct it at any cost—that they were willing to take action and go against a stronger force when others were not as strong—while excluding information on how these “fathers” felt about slavery. Bacon puts it this way:

Avoiding the implications of Founding Fathers’ views of African Americans, Douglass recreates them by emphasizing their revolutionary struggle. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyeca indicate that this strategy depends upon the ‘construction’ if a particular perception of a person that distinguished between aspects of his or her identity that are ‘important’ and those that are ‘transitory.’ Douglass’s construction of the Founding Fathers implies that their resistance to oppression is their enduring legacy, not their prejudicial views of their tolerance of slavery. (Bacon 90)

Although the situation Douglass retells to his audience is real, by “emphasizing their revolutionary struggle” he is able to heighten the real experience; in this sense his use of the “fathers” relied upon the rhetorical device of hyperbole. Although we noted earlier in our analysis of “The Church and Prejudice” that Douglass does not seem to be as hyperbolic in his language as Garrison is, and further that Douglass does not seem to be using abstract circumstances, here we see that Douglass combined both hyperbole and the real to create his argument. Indeed, Douglass does use hyperbolic language; however, unlike Garrison, Douglass uses hyperbolic language to heighten the effect of a real situation—thus heightening his argument on the need for freedom. He does not use hyperbole for abstract notions.

With almost one-third of his speech already completed, we find the first detailed incorporation of God. In his incorporation of religion he compares “your fathers” to “Abraham” and his audience to “the Children of Jacob.” He contends:

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future… 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…. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham to our father," when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout - "We have Washington to our father." Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is. (Douglass 1852)(Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

His invocation of religion is used to compare stories and place his audience within the same circumstances as stories they are familiar with; he is elevating their project of abolishing slavery to the status of an epic religious one. To argue why this generation of men must follow the path that their fathers laid out, he frames their present day situation in biblical terms—thus heightening the significance of their present situation. Just as the Jews had “Abraham’s great name,” he argues that "We have Washington to our father," and thus in the same manner we must pursue our struggle to abolish slavery. Similar to our discussion above on his use of hyperbolic language to heighten the story of “your fathers,” he uses religion to heighten the story of abolition.

Tracing Douglass’s incorporation of God throughout the speech, we see although God is readily incorporated, he relies less on the uses of God and religion than on the Constitution and the sentiments related to the Revolution. This speech relies heavily upon the laws set up by the Declaration and the Revolution, yet we must understand that he is performing his speech is on the Fourth of July, and thus it seems natural that he would emphasis our Constitution. Indeed, if we look at the places where he invokes both God and the Constitution, it appears that that for Douglass, both are declarations we must maintain as ‘laws’ in America. One example of this comes as Douglass writes:

Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! [Italics Placed for Emphasis]

Due respect is given to both the ideals of God and this Nation; the placement of “the constitution” right next to “the bible” helps us see that.

Another common rhetorical tendency that Douglass exhibits is parallelism between America and other Empires. He lists other countries to create balanced constructions between America’s supposed sentimental values for freedoms, and their response to judging other nations values for freedom. Using the construction of “you” do this, “but”/ “yet” then turn around to do something contradictory, helps parallel America’s false commitment to liberty and freedom:

You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation - a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. (Douglass 1852) (Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

Through his parallelisms, he exposes the shallow representations of freedom that we champion as being true markers of freedom. For Douglass, we are unaware of the critical and fatal flaws that control our “superior civilization,” while we are willing to help other nations that seem to be failing to support freedom and liberty. He uses this ironic tone throughout his speech to help prove that America’s inherent contradictions are what make the present situation of our country dismal.

In a later section of his speech, Douglass develops his use of irony as he explains to his “fellow-citizens” why the abolitionist movement is in motion. As Jacqueline Bacon shows, he ironically criticizes his ‘fellow-citizens’ for not understanding the natural rights of man:

Where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? … Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it …when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave…What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded…

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? … You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? … How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? (Douglass 1852) (Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

Bacon concludes from this portion of his speech, “Presenting antislavery beliefs as self-evident conclusions—so obvious that even the opposition endorses them—Douglass again established claims through his ironic exploitation of a pervasive stereotype (Logan 65). Indeed, throughout the speech, Douglass uses irony in order to expose to his audience the failure in America’s commitment to freedom.

As mentioned earlier in this section, when Douglass gets to the conclusion of his speech he does not describes a situation where America is irreparable; he has hope in our nation:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. (Douglass 1852) (Italics Placed for Emphasis)[For full version of speech, see appendix B]

Douglass does not end his speech on a somber note; rather, after recognizing the legacy that the forefathers left behind, and that the abolitionists (and hopefully soon those who hear his speech), are actively trying to bring about once more—he is “with hope.” Former slave Douglass has “hope” in America, and “hope” in the world. Interconnectedness between our nation and “the surrounding world” will help to bring about a brighter day; this brighter day was something that Harper similarly looked forward to.

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