By: Eric Merriweather, Marisa Kipping, Joe Connaughton, Sophie Normil, and Kennedy Smith



Frederick Douglass set himself apart from many of the other rhetoricians of his day. The more obvious reasons notwithstanding, this orator set himself apart due both to his manner of speaking and how he honestly came about his vast vocabulary. Though he was not particularly philosophic in the classical sense, and had no prescribed theories of the nature of rhetorical speech, he did have a rhetorical theory that can be gleaned from his writings and speeches. That being said, he thought fairly philosophically: focusing heavily on education and on building a desire among the people to stand; leading him to speaking rhetorically. His methodology was also a bit different, as he saw the world through a lens that was altogether different than much of his audience. Douglass mainly approached the world through the lens of a slave who had become free. One other notable aspect of Douglass’ rhetorical approach, was in the bluntness and forcefulness of his speech. He did not hide behind overly ostentatious words— though he had more than an adequate vocabulary— but rather he used his history (his ethos) and logos to empower people to think more critically.

One example for Frederick Douglass was in his speech on the 4th of July. In the speech, he continually evokes nationalistic imagery as well as repetition of “your nation” to get the point across that while men, at this time, are still slaves in this country— the same country that fought the English “oppressors” for freedom— that it was not yet the country of black men and women, until they were just as free. Douglass draws a separation between American ideals and what the American reality was, at the time. He makes appeals to honor, pride, and country, in an effort to show that all people in the nation want to have a part in representing America.

Though Douglass did not particularly seem to have a refined view of rhetoric that was expressed in self-analytical terms, he did have views that allow us to piece together a sort of quasi-rhetorical philosophy for him. Being that Douglass grew up in the prison of slavery, he put the utmost focus on education. He did educate himself after all. He figured out something, at an early age, that thousands of other slaves never figured out: learning to read and write was the key to forging his path out of slavery and abject poverty. This led him to, what I believe, is the first aspect of his rhetorical philosophy. This of course is listening. Frederick Douglass expressed on more than one occasion, the importance of listening. Listening is an art form. It allowed Douglass to hear, to receive, and to truly absorb all he was hearing from other orators, at the time. Something within him recognized that listening was a key element to his success, in learning how to give voice to the thoughts in his head. To this point he said:

I was eager to hear anyone speak of slavery. I was a ready listener… I listened to his mighty words; mighty in truth—mighty in their simple earnestness (p. 1075).

Douglass had to listen in order to hear how effective speech sounded so that he too could speak effectively. In addition, he seemed to recognize in his friend Mr. William C. Coffin, the idea we might describe as Burke’s view of identification. When watching Mr. Coffin speak Douglass noted,

for a moment, he possessed that almost fabulous inspiration, often referred to, but seldom attained, in which a public meeting is transformed, as it were, into a single individuality— the orator wielding a thousand heads and hearts at once, and by the simple majesty of his controlling thought, converting his hearers into the express image of his own soul (p. 1076).

It seems evident that Douglass was witnessing the true persuasiveness of rhetoric firsthand, but I believe this goes a bit further into the real of identification. Douglass is expressing a phenomenon where the audience, himself included, are so taken in and enthralled by this man’s speech, that they all seem to be of one mind and soul. The third aspect of rhetoric I believe Douglass saw was the value of his own choices in speech or rather, his own decisions in being rhetorical. When speaking to the crowds that doubted his ever having been a slave, Douglass reasons, “still, I must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me” (p. 1078). He realized that the ethos he was presumed to have, at the beginning of his new journey, was lost if he withheld the truest version of himself from the audience. So again, his rhetorical philosophy seems to sum up as the continual search for knowledge, by an orator who listens, observes, and absorbs said knowledge in order to be more properly equipped to reason and express one’s words clearly, powerfully, and truthfully to an audience. This is how he intended to use his rhetorical ability to see chains broken and people free.


For a great series from PBS, on American Abolitionists, click here.

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