In talking about the institution of slavery and the movements that led to its abolition, it is important to take note of the artifacts that helped to give such movements the ethos that allowed them to gain ground. Few artifacts are as worth analyzing as that of the photo of “whipped Peter”. Peter, also named Gordon, was a slave who escaped from Tennessee, to a Union camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the camp, he was given a medical examination by a couple of the doctors there, and when he removed his rags, they saw the evidence of the brutality of slavery, right in front of them. The sight was described as,
Raised welts and strafe marks crisscrossed his back. The marks extended from his buttocks to his shoulders, calling to mind the viciousness and power with which he had been beaten. It was a hideous constellation of scars: visual proof of the brutality of slavery. (Blakemore 2019)
The doctors took the picture of Peter and it was turned into a carte de visite—a thin paper photograph, mounted on a thicker paper card, made popular in the 1850’s—and recommended to the General that it be spread across the nation, and it was. Many may remember seeing this image (pictured above) in elementary or middle school history books, and there is good reason for that: the image was one of the widest spread images of its time. The thinking was, the more it was spread, the more Northerners, who had not quite experienced the horrors of slavery—since all Northern states had voted to abolish slavery by 1804—would no longer be silent. This is important because this rhetorical artifact, of a man who had known slavery was, at least in part, a catalyst for bringing people to action, for only when people speak can that image have an impact that is wider than one mere person.
This idea of moving people to action was of course the entire goal of the anti-slavery movement, but it was also a focus of Lloyd Bitzer’s own rhetorical theory, which can offer some insight here. Bitzer believes rhetoric, in all its pragmatic qualities, should be used for the sake of something that transcends itself. He does not believe in rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake but rhetoric for the sake of bringing about change in the world. Rhetoric, or persuasion, for Bitzer does hold the weight of carrying a task, or an action, but not in and of itself because words that do not move an audience can’t be altogether rhetorical, as it implies effective persuasion; it must be able to alter reality. He says rhetoric is “mode of altering reality by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action… such speech that audience becomes mediator of change” (Bitzer 4). In order for change to happen— or for rhetoric to come into existence at all— Bitzer believed that there must first exist a set of conditions or a situation that invited utterance. This idea is what he gave the role of exigence in his theory; to the situation itself. To this point Burke states, “rhetorical situation is a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance…”— in other words, situation provides an urgency that leads the audience to action—“…this invited utterance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion of situational activity, and by means of its participation with situation obtains its meaning and its rhetorical character” (Burke 4). To Burke, the situation, in all its exigence, is what confers rhetorical significance to any persuasive speech. This is the importance the two journalists, who published the picture of “Whipped Peter”, understood. They recognized that the rhetorical power of the image of Peter’s scarred and welted back, would cause those in the North, who had been silent about slavery, to be empowered by the rhetorical situation created by such an artifact.
This artifact, was disseminated to combat the metanarrative that southern slavery sympathizers created that justified the institution, by making it seem safe and harmless for slaves. In fact, many supporters claimed outright that slaves were well-cared for. It can be a useful exercise—in understanding the effectiveness of this photographic artifact in combating the prevailing narrative of the day— to look at such narratives through Michael Foucault’s eyes. Foucault seemed to view master narratives, or metanarratives, sort of from an onlooker perspective. A perspective say, of the modern reader; from a place of reason. He does not appear to take a stance on whether or not he views such narratives as either positive, or negative, but rather as useful means toward the ends of allowing true rhetorical discourse to flourish. In addition, master narratives serve the purpose of providing a lens through which to view why socioeconomic, psychosocial, and ritualistic paradigms within society always lend themselves toward controlling events, chance, and perhaps by extension, individual existence. To this point he says, “since discourses themselves exercise their own control; procedures which function rather as principles of classification, of ordering, of distribution, as if this time another dimension of discourse had to be mastered: that of events and chance.” He continues with, “in what is broadly called commentary, the hierarchy between what is called primary and secondary text plays two roles which are in solidarity with each other… it allows the (endless) construction of new discourses: the dominance of the primary text, its permanence, its status as a discourse which can always be reactualized, the multiple or hidden meaning with which it is credited, the essential reticence and richness which is attributed to it, all this is the basis for an open possibility of speaking” (p. 1464). In other words, the master narratives, provide a space where commentary, which is always in flux, can analyze the narratives existing notions, as well as take them beyond the given texts, to give rise to discourses that will continue to move the narratives either further foundationally, or further into obscurity. Herein lies the effectiveness of Peter’s photograph. Peter’s whipped back, serves as a sort of primary text, that challenges the narratives of his time. Through his first-person experience, endless constructions of new discourses, as Foucault said, were allowed to be created, that allowed the metanarrative of slavery to be reactualized into a new narrative altogether.
There is something truly profound to be said for the visual effects of rhetoric, or for the artifacts that cause rhetorical situations to arise. The picture of “Whipped Peter” would have had the effect that people like Frederick Douglass understood when he was talking to Northerners who doubted his ever having been a slave. He too had to show his scars. I imagine the conviction the people in his crowd felt must have been multiplied exponentially throughout the states, as a result of Peter’s scars. There is an ethos that comes with such a vulnerability, made known. Or perhaps, deeper than a mere vulnerability, a genuineness that arises, when first-person artifacts like these are allowed to speak.