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A Speech Given By Frederick Douglass Essay

, Research Paper


After his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass chose to promote the abolition of slavery by speaking about the actions and effects that result from that institution. In an excerpt from a July 5, 1852 speech at Rochester, New York, Douglass asks the question: What to the slave is the Fourth of July? This question is a bold one, and it demands attention. The effectiveness of his oration is derived from the personal appeals in which he engages the listener.

At once in this speech, Douglass appeals to his listeners religious tendencies. He asks his audience, am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar (441). Religious appeal is so important because the majority of his audience is Christian, and he implies that Christianity, in its ostensible purity, allows the mishandling of human life to the degree of slavery. By relating Christianity directly to slavery, his listeners must question the validity of their Christian doctrines in relation to the institution of slavery. In doing so, they must eliminate their acceptance of one of these traditions; the odds are that Christianity holds a much more loyal following than slavery, in which case slavery will be given up as a practice. Douglass also quotes from Psalms 137:1-6, and the ludicrous concept that slaveholders expect their slaves to be joyous in their state of bondage is the essential meaning of the passage he chooses as it relates to the comparable situation of the Babylonians captives (442). His persuasive appeal in this case is the notion that any pious Christian would have sympathy for the lamenting captives and contempt for the captors in the Psalms passage. If this assumption is correct, then the same pious Christians surely should realize the situation of the slaves on this day and every other.

Additionally, in asking this question, he asserts immediately that the meaning of the Fourth of July is entirely different from that of the free, white American. Douglass concedes that the whites of America had reason to rejoice: the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence (441). However, he also illustrates that there are just as many reasons for slaves to scorn the traditional meaning of the Fourth of July. Furthermore, these reasons are as significant as they are plentiful. Douglass asserts that the very reasons why Independence Day is important to the whites are the same rights that are denied of the slaves, making the slaves lack of those privileges the major contributing factor to their abhorrence of the holiday. Therefore, not only are slaves justified in denouncing the Fourth of July as a celebration of freedom, those that are free to enjoy the rights associated with Independence Day should also feel shameful that liberty is honored because the same personal freedom that the colonists fought for in the Revolutionary War are cruelly not permitted in the case of the slave. In this sense, the appeal is to those who are indifferent or opposed to slavery; it is directed toward their sense of national pride and intended to expose the Fourth of July as a sham.

The way in which Douglass engages his audience is also effective in favor of his argument. He directly and indirectly involves them in his rhetoric. But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say is a direct approach to the listeners; he personalizes the speech in this way (443). In this passage, he recognizes that many skeptics of abolition wish for more positive argument than negative. In realizing this, Douglass goes on to show the skeptics how that notion is wrong because there is no positive argument that could effect change in the slavery system. Additionally, he appeals to the audience by asking questions meant to illustrate the fact that he does not want to insult their intelligence. He employs the old who would do a thing like that? approach, which is intended to make the audience shift in their seats and question their own integrity, disallowing them to place blame on everyone else. They are essentially forced to recognize their shortcomings in this way, but are spared the embarrassment of public humiliation: There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him (444). The assumptions he makes in this way are effective in producing the uncomfortable, thought-provoking results he is trying to generate.

Moreover, Douglass calls attention to the issue of equality in manhood. He presents images of life as it is for whites living in freedom that are also reflections of life for the enslaved. He illustrates that the difference is the necessity for the black slave to prove his manhood. He asks how, with all of the activity and thinking life requires, the slave s manhood can be questioned (443). For the white man listening to this argument, it is required that he empathizes with the situation of the slave, because in actuality there is much in common between the free and the enslaved. This is precisely Douglass s point; bondage is the only hindrance of slaves abilities to lead a fulfilling life.

Douglass s appeals to his audience are specifically directed toward white, Christian males. He is fully aware at all times he must show that he can relate with them. As Christians, how should they have felt had they been denied their right to practice religion and believe in their god? What would they do if the country they so loved chained them to a life of servitude? Finally, what would all the work to support a family and desire for self-improvement have accomplished if it only benefited a master, but not a wife and children? Douglass deliberately addresses those aspects of life that mean the most to his audience because in doing so he is sure to gain the listeners full attention and consideration of the immorality of slavery.