Rhetorical Analysis of the Fourth of July Speech of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was a great man and truly brilliant public speaker, who spent his life working to abolish slavery and guarantee equal citizenship rights for blacks. He did not make a moral argument for nonviolence although he strongly denounced the United States for betraying its own principles of liberty and democracy for all. In his rhetorical situation, he was addressing white audiences that he hoped would be sympathetic to their cause, and had strong criticism for white Christians who had often been indifferent to the situation of blacks and failed to live up to the highest principles of their faith. Douglass expected nothing from the white people of the South, although he was hoping to inspire Northern whites to take stronger action against slavery and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.
As far as ethos is concerned, Frederick Douglass had immense moral authority in addressing Northern white audiences, since he was an escaped slave who became the leading black abolitionist in the North. In his 1852 Fourth of July speech, he also used a great deal of pathos, graphically describing the terrible conditions of Southern slavery that he had experienced himself. His logos or rational rhetorical purpose was to arouse the moral indignation and conscience of the country to finally take action against slavery and grant blacks equal citizenship rights.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave speaking before a sympathetic white audience in Rochester, New York. Like King, he was attempting to reach out to white moderates or fence-sitters, or at least those willing to give him a hearing. Outright racists, slave owners and their supporters would not have listened to him, of course, while blacks were already all too well aware of their situation. He did not want to completely alienate all whites by simply denouncing America on the Fourth of July, but subtly compared the Founders of the country to abolitionists in that they were also “accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators, and rebels, dangerous men”, as were King and Douglass in their time. Douglass made it clear that he fully agreed with their cause and the principles of the American Revolution, for with the Founders “justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final’, not slavery and oppression”, and even George Washington had freed his slaves in his will.
Ethos and Ethical Arguments against Slavery
Douglass made a rational appeal to his listeners based on the same ideas of justice, freedom and morality when it came to the situation of blacks in the United States, although he argued that violence would probably be necessary to end slavery, just as it had been to win independence from Great Britain. Blacks were hardly full and equal citizens of the Republic in 1776, 1852 or even 1963, but Douglass demanded such inclusion, stating that “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us”. For blacks, all the promises of liberty and democracy were false since most of them were still slaves, and even those who escaped to the North were no longer secure because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. American democracy was a fraud when Northerners were acting as “mere tools and bodyguards to the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina”.
Pathos and Emotional Revulsion against Slavery
Douglass also had great moral authority because he had been born a slave but had escaped and gone on to become one of the leading black abolitionists in the North by 1852. He used pathos far more than King, and mentioned how at an early age had watched as slaves were shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans and Mobile, to the even harsher bondage of the Deep South cotton and sugar plantations. Slavery was therefore a “terrible reality” to him, and he knew from personal experience that it gave whites the power to treat blacks like animals and “to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth”. That the United States had permitted this evil institution to exist for so long made the Fourth of July a “sham”, a “hollow mockery” and nothing more than “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy”. Nor did he believe that this massive injustice and oppression would be uprooted peacefully or though reasonable arguments, but only with “the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake”.
Nothing could be clearer that the absolute repugnance that Douglass felt toward the institution of slavery and how he hoped to inspire Northern whites to take action against it—by any means necessary. He hoped to inspire abhorrence for the Peculiar Institution and all the racist violence associated with it in his white audience. For the most part he realized that he could hope for almost no support from Southern whites, but he insisted that those in the North take a stand. Evil always prosper due to the silence of good people and to this extent they were also complicit with slavery. Douglass never took a strongly principled stand for nonviolence and warned whites that if slavery continued, not only would democracy be a meaningless idea but that the U.S, could expect a racial conflagration.
Douglass, F. (1852). “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” TeachingAmericanHistory.org.