FREDERICK DOUGLASS’S POWERS OF APPEAL
After his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass chose to promote the abolition of slavery by speaking about the actions and effects that result from that institution. In an excerpt from a July 5, 1852 speech at Rochester, New York, Douglass asks the question: What to the slave is the Fourth of July? This question is a bold one, and it demands attention. The effectiveness of his oration is derived from the personal appeals in which he engages the listener.
At once in this speech, Douglass appeals to his listeners’ religious tendencies. He asks his audience, “am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar…'; (441). Religious appeal is so important because the majority of his audience is Christian, and he implies that Christianity, in its ostensible purity, allows the mishandling of human life to the degree of slavery. By relating Christianity directly to slavery, his listeners must question the validity of their Christian doctrines in relation to the institution of slavery. In doing so, they must eliminate their acceptance of one of these traditions; the odds are that Christianity holds a much more loyal following than slavery, in which case slavery will be given up as a practice. Douglass also quotes from Psalms 137:1-6, and the ludicrous concept that slaveholders expect their slaves to be joyous in their state of bondage is the essential meaning of the passage he chooses as it relates to the comparable situation of the Babylonians’ captives (442). His persuasive appeal in this case is the notion that any pious Christian would have sympathy for the lamenting captives and contempt for the captors in the Psalms passage. If this assumption is correct, then the same pious Christians surely should realize the situation of the slaves on this day and every other.
Additionally, in asking this question, he asserts immediately that the meaning of the Fourth of July is entirely different from that of the free, white American. Douglass concedes that the whites of America had reason to rejoice: “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence'; (441). However, he also illustrates that there are just as many reasons for slaves to scorn the traditional meaning of the Fourth of July. Furthermore, these reasons are as significant as they are plentiful. Douglass asserts that the very reasons why Independence Day is important to the whites are the same rights that are denied of the slaves, making the slaves’ lack of those privileges the major contributing factor to their abhorrence of the holiday. Therefore, not only are slaves justified in denouncing the Fourth of July as a celebration of freedom, those that are free to enjoy the rights associated with Independence Day should also feel shameful that liberty is honored because the same personal freedom that the colonists fought for in the...