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.
In making his rhetorical appeals in the famous 1852 Fourth of July speech, 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, 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. He made it clear to his audience that he fully supported the American Revolution and the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and thought they should be applied universally, including to the four million black slaves in the United States.
Ethos and the Moral Argument against Slavery
Seventy-six years after independence, it was easy for anyone to be a patriot and denounce the tyranny of Great Britain and George III, but at the time it was extremely difficult and dangerous. Those who did so in 1776 were risking their lives and “were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.” So it was with abolitionists like Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison in the 1850s, and they were regularly attacked and condemned for disrupting the harmony of the Union and risking civil war. 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”. 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.
Pathos and Emotional Revulsion against Slavery
Douglass noted that white Americans regularly denounced the tyrannical monarchs of Austria and Russia for oppressing their own people, but this was absolute hypocrisy given the fact that they also tolerated slavery at home. In this respect they were even worse than all the kings, emperors and dictators in the world, for they had never claimed to stand for liberty, democracy and equality and made no pretense of doing so. For Douglass, the very heart of his argument was that “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.” He even asked his audience “do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?” Every white person who was even remotely aware of slavery and current events realized this immediately, although naturally the slave owners asserted that this was the ‘natural’ condition of blacks. Douglass emphatically rejected such ideas and demanded that his white audience take a stand against oppression. Slavery was a “terrible reality” 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”. He could hear the “the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them”, and demanded that his audience hear them as well. 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”. Douglass could speak on this subject with great credibility 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 frequently 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. He wanted to leave no doubt in the minds of his white audience about the extreme violence and brutality of this evil system.
Logos and the Rhetorical Situation
At the start of his address, Douglass described himself as a plain-speaking man with no formal education. Indeed, it was against the law for a slave to learn even how to read and write, so he claimed somewhat disingenuously that “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.” Douglass did not want to completely alienate all whites by simply denouncing America on the Fourth of July. He thought that “the signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age”, and the principles they fought for were universal. They won a victory against the greatest military power in the world even though it seemed impossible at the time, given all their disadvantages in money, munitions and resources. Like the slave and abolitionists of the present they also they “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.” He made it clear that he fully supported 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. Nor did he agree with Southerners that the Constitution really supported slavery and instead asked why if it “were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it." He was an escaped slave speaking before a sympathetic white audience in Rochester, New York, and 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. If America was going to live up to its promise of freedom and democracy for all, which had been the real purpose of the Revolution, then slavery had to be abolished.
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. If white Americans truly believed in the founding principles of their own nation, then they would be compelled by reason, sentiment and morality to agree that slavery had to be abolished and millions of blacks should be granted the same rights that they enjoyed.
Douglass, F. (1852). “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” TeachingAmericanHistory.org.