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Analysis of Frederick Douglass’s Rhetorical Style

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Frederick Douglass was one of the most important figures in anti-slavery and civil rights movement which took place in the 19th century. The period of his social and political activity coincided with consolidation and creation of the nation and for this reason his liberal ideas had a great impact on formation of the nation. Unique rhetorical style helped Douglass to appeal to the audience and inspire it to fight against oppression and inequality. The rhetoric of Frederick Douglass is marked by unique vision of reality and slavery. In his works, Frederick Douglass creates vivid images and underlines the importance of rebellion and fight in striving for better days free from: “whipping, cutting my back” (Douglass, Chapter X, 1997).

Historical Background

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818, and raised by his grandparents. Historians suppose that “Douglass’ grandmother, Betsy Bailey, was the central figure in his early years. … She was a recognized leader in the black community and a tower of strength in holding together her family” (Lampe, 1998, p.3). At the beginning of the 19th century, it was prohibited to teach and educate black people, but his grandmother and played a crucial role in his “plantation” education. During some years in Baltimore, Sophia Auld, a relative of his master, taught Douglass to read letters. Then, Douglass took lessons from white boys and purchased a copy of “The Columbian Orator” which became his “textbook” for many years. At twenty, Douglass escaped from his master and went to New Bedford, Massachusetts. “No longer in the clutches of slavery, he was ready to take the next steps in his career as an orator, a preacher, and an abolitionist” (Lampe, 1998, p. 26). It was a watershed in his life.

After the escape, Douglass started as active political activity taking part in anti-slavery and abolitionist meetings. He became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He started publishing activity and published several newspapers including “New National Era”, “Frederick Douglass Weekly”, “The North Star”, “Frederick Douglass’ Paper”, etc. He made friends with Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison. During the Civil War, he was an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.

Douglass supported equal rights movement and fight for emancipation in England where he earned the nickname “The Black O’Connell”. After the Civil war, Douglass was selected the President of the Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Saving’s Bank; Minister-General to the Republic of Haiti and marshal of the district of Columbia. ‘In 1862 Frederick Douglass described him as a “miserable tool of traitors and rebels” and “quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred.” (Shenk, 2002, p. 36).     During all his life, Frederick Douglass paid a special attention to oratory skills and rhythorics, and “his oratory was soon so accomplished that audiences began to doubt his claimed slave origin and fugitive status” (Schaub, 2000 p. 86). He appealed to emotions of slaves talking about ideas of independence, freedom and equal rights. In 1872, Frederick Douglass became the Vice President of the United States and was the first African-American who had occupied this high position.

The meeting of the National Council of Women was the last one in his life. Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895 because of a heart stroke in his house in Washington D.C.

Frederick Douglass and Women’s Suffrage Movement

Ideas and personal charisma of Frederick Douglass, his speeches and articles inspired many women to think over and reconsider their low social position and oppression. In general, the 19th century was the awakening of the American women. Frederick Douglass had a great impact on women’s suffrage movement taking an active part in fight against inequality and exploitation of women. The remarkable feature of this movement was that Frederick Douglass expressed ideology held by most women around the world.

Women’s suffrage movement is characterized as a political, social and economic reform aimed to extend women’s rights, including the right to vote. Following Cullen-Dupont and Frost “The delay in America was not due to the retarded growth of the general woman movement, for the rate of progress of that movement had been more rapid in the United States than in any other country” (Cullen-Dupont, Frost, 1992, p.5)

The first attempts of women to obtain equal rights with men goes back to 1776, when women were granted equal rights with men for the same property qualifications. Further, a general declaration of women’s suffrage was connected with the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. During this period of time, the main driven forces of women’s suffrage included new perception of the world and self, new interpretation of freedom and humans rights, new science and industrial innovations in comparison with the previous age.

The historical evens changed political viewpoints on the notions of freedom and diversity of women. The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association played an important role in suffrage movement. They were formed in 1869 and led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. In 1890 both organizations were united and renamed as the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  Douglass collaborated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and signed movement’s manifesto, the Declaration of Sentiments. “After the convention, Douglass published a positive editorial on “The Rights of Women,” which appeared in the July 28, 1848 edition of the “North Star” (Frederick Douglass, 2000).

Suffrage movement revert to a primarily domestic role as wives and mothers and return to the home is totally at odds with the social pattern of rising divorce and the steady long-term trend for more married women to go out to work. Because of women’s suffrage movement, women have, moreover, been active in one of the more positive developments in the economy, the formation of political organizations, a number of which were run entirely by women. For instance, after the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Douglass fought for “an amendment giving women the right to vote, and wrote an editorial supporting women’s suffrage entitled “Women and The Ballot,” published in October 1870” (Frederick Douglass, 2000).  One of his ideas which supported the women’s movement and its liberal aspirations was that “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color” (The Revolutionary Era, n.d.).

Because of the great support of Frederick Douglass, more women were attaining positions of power in public life. Frederick Douglass and his colleagues: “advocated the emancipation of women from all the artificial disabilities, imposed by false customs, creeds, and codes” (Frederick Douglass, 2000). Although progress was gradual and appeared to be a fairly consistent trend, supported by continuing campaigning efforts by women’s groups and the expectations of a younger generation of women. “In 1853, Douglass signed “The Just and Equal Rights of Women,” a call and resolutions for the Woman’s Rights State Convention held in Rochester on November 30 and December 1, 1853” (Frederick Douglass, 2000).

During 1870s and 1880s Douglass took an active part in meetings and political activity of women. He visited meetings of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the International Council of Women, and Susan B. Anthony characterized Frederick Douglass as “women’s rights pioneer” (Frederick Douglass, 2000).

            Taking into account the facts mentioned above, it is possible to say that women’s suffrage movement can be considered a core of feminism. During the first wave, women did not have a key to any further advancement towards their ultimate goal of freedom to enjoy personal liberties. Nevertheless, the first wave gave them a chance to compete with men on the political arena. Women’s organizations were an excellent example of a unity and became a basis for the second wave. Women shared a sole claim to vote. If women have not got very far in achieving equal rights, they have not gained much greater attention for their concerns, which have established women’s advisory committees or equal opportunities committees to monitor women’s rights at work.

Analysis of the Rhetoric Style of Frederick Douglass:  “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “My Bondage and My Freedom”

The remarkable feature of Douglass’s rhetorical style is emotional appeal and dramatic descriptions. Whatever intensity is achieved must be an intensity of the illusion that genuine life has been presented. To give dramatic descriptions with intensity, to make the imagined picture of reality glow with more than a dim light, requires the author’s finest compositional powers. Control of powerful feeling intensifies emotional appeal and adds dramatic effects.

Two books under analysis, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “My Bondage and My Freedom” are vivid examples of rhetoric used by Frederick Douglass and his peculiarities of style. The most impressive is the author’s technical choices: he used specific “manner” and “treatment of the subject” to attract readers attention to universal virtues and values.

Image is central in his rhetorical style. In both books, vivid and bright images support and sustain development of ideas (images of his mother and grandmother, masters and comrades). At its fullest, the images are used to intensify, to clarify, to enrich the message and meaning. For instance, Chapter X of “The Narrative” depicts that Frederick Douglas is in the position to see things in a personal way, which helps him create a credible interpretation of those days. He explains his life hopes and dreams using the theme of “ships”, which represents freedom and equal rights, but at the same time futility of his life.  “You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!” (Douglas, Chapter X, 1997).

In “My Bondage and My Freedom” Douglass creates a vivid image of slavery as “a burden” with deprives many people a chance to be free from oppression and humiliation. There is intensity of illusion because the author is pres­ent, constantly reminding readers of his unnatural wisdom. The moral quality of both works depends not on the validity of doctrines, but on the moral sense and arguments presented in the work. In both books, a certain amount of plot is based on emotional response.  The distinctive feature of “My Bondage and My Freedom” is that the reader of such work is himself purged of emotional involvement. For instance, Douglass addresses the audience: “The reader will see that the good old rule–“a man is to be held innocent until proved to be guilty”–does not hold good on the slave plantation” (Douglass, Chapter XIX, 1998).

The similarity of both books is that Douglass uses irony and humor as the main elements of his rhetorical style. His irony is complex and achieved through emotional intensity. The morality is based on a simple antithetical contrast; natural instinct versus social hypocrisy, goodness of heart versus cunning of head. Douglass comments in “My Bondage and My Freedom”: “Disappearing from the kind reader, in a flying cloud or balloon (pardon the figure), driven by the wind … “(Douglass, Chapter XXII, 1998).

As the main elements of the rhetorical style, humor and irony heighten the tragic emotions and make the illusion more intense. “It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath” (Douglas, Chapter II, 1997). Douglas did not believe in arguments against slavery, supposing that common sense and moral values were higher than any religion. Always loyal to this broad notion of what is real, Douglass tends to seek a mode of radicalizing viewing.

More obvious rhetoric effects are achieved by explicitly controlling the reader’s expectations, insuring that he will travel burdened with the hopes and fears held by the slave. The key terms can all be related to this double task. Time is foreshortened to achieve intensity, but in foreshortening he uses dissimulation successfully in order to preserve the reality. What he requires is intelligence, discrimination, and ana­lytical interest, and although, as we have seen, he is willing to accept responsibility in raising the reader to this level, he still pre­supposes a reader ready for the proper analytical response.

Argumentation and persuasion are crucial elements of Douglass’s rhetoric. In both books, Douglass made his point and pursued readers to agree with him that all people have a right to be free. Douglass expects that his speech helps many people to “awake” from long sleeping and start fighting, because the established Declaration of Independence grants the rights to the populace, and no doubt that in his society the main role is featured to democracy and liberty. For instance, in “My Bondage and My freedom” he writes: “Children have their sorrows as well as men and women; and it would be well to remember this in our dealings with them.  SLAVE- children _are_ children, and prove no exceptions to the general rule” (Douglass, Chapter I, 1998). Every argument forestalls the next one. Vivid arguments and personal examples help the reader to grasp the idea of the books.

Colorful and vivid language is another feature of his style found in both works. Douglass uses a lot of metaphors and comparisons to make his works impressive and bright. Douglass writes about his life expectations saying: “I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren–with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide” (Douglass, Chapter XI, 1997). This technique reminds readers of his/her personal experience, family, friends or neighbors and transforms liberation of Douglass into a universal one. He appeals to such universal virtues as tolerance and morals. Idiom and metaphors create sense of unreality and alienation. Douglass deals with his personal sufferings and expresses the effects of the slavery on his fellow friends on a scale of universal significance: “The colored people themselves were of the best metal, and would fight for liberty to the death” (Douglass, Chapter XXI, 1998).

His language is logic and accurate, concise and creative. Douglass’s rhetoric has strength, depth and delicacy of feeling. The similarity of both books is that Douglass uses historical information which attracts readers attention. Exclamation marks, rhetorical question and parallel structure of sentences add emotional coloring.

Personal tone is also an important element of his rhetoric, because it creates a certain vision of slavery from the author’s point of view. Readers feel that it is not a voice of the author, but a voice of the slave who really bears enormous burden of slavery. “Now all the property of my old master, slaves included, was in the hands of strangers–strangers who had nothing to do in accumulating it.  Not a slave was left free” (Douglass, Chapter X, 1998).

It is possible to conclude that his autobiographical books “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “My Bondage and My Freedom” vividly reflect authentic rhetorical style of Frederick Douglass full of dramatic effects and emotional appeal, personal tone and colorful language means which create a specific atmosphere in his works. These techniques help readers to grasp the message at once through physical and emotional state of speakers, their language, way of thinking and values. Douglass possesses intelligence and ana­lytical interest raising the audience to high emotional level.


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  2. Camp, K. The Legacy of Women’s Suffrage. (1996). The Washington Times, November 3, p. 5.
  3. Catt, C. C., Shuler, N.G. (1923). Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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  8. Lampe, G.P. (1998). Frederick Douglass: Freedom’s Voice, 1818-1845. Michigan State University Press.
  9. The Revolutionary Era. (d.) [On line version]. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart2b.html
  10. Schaub, D. (2000) The Spirit of a Free Man. Public Interest, Summer p. 86
  11. Shenk, Joshua Wolf. (2001). The Myth of Lincoln, Reconstructed. The American Prospect. Vol. 12, February 26, p. 36.
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