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Rhetorical Devices in Reconstruction

Credible, Logical, Sympathetic Appeals: As an orator and essayist, Douglass was experienced with crafting his messages for a range of audiences. His proficiency is evident in how he constructs his argument to appeal to a wide variety of readers. He makes frequent references to historical and recent events to support his claims, adding credibility to his points by demonstrating his breadth of knowledge. Furthermore, he appeals to common sympathies by using accessible language and emphasizing that his argument supports the rights of the nation as a whole rather than a targeted group.

Metaphors as Rhetorical Appeals: Throughout “Reconstruction,” he includes metaphors to emphasize the danger that inconsistent policies present to the American public, for instance comparing debating and voting to daggers and revolvers. He also uses more colloquial metaphors about the power of the federal government to illustrate that while its power is vast, it cannot be everywhere for everyone at all times. Another of Douglass’s more compelling metaphors compares unacknowledged societal problems to damaged ship parts—problems we only face when a storm hits.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in Reconstruction:

Text of Douglass's Essay

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"so that a legal voter in any State shall be a legal voter in all the States...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

In the final sentence of his essay, Frederick Douglass reiterates his two primary political desires: to encourage the primacy of the federal government over disparate state governments and to enfranchise all American citizens, African-American or white, Northern or Southern. Douglass’s method of crafting a conclusion which seamlessly combines and highlights his two main points serves as an example of effective rhetoric.

"The policy that emancipated and armed the negro..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The policy that Frederick Douglass refers to here is the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’s point is that just as the Emancipation Proclamation was met first with resistance and later with acceptance, so will the controversial cause of African American suffrage eventually be viewed as a clear and necessary advancement.

"has determined the interests of the country as identical with and inseparable from those of the negro. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass suggests here that what is best for the country is what is best for African Americans, and vice versa. His point is that African Americans represent neither a nuisance nor a specialized group in discussions of Reconstruction. Rather, all Americans are genuinely seeking the same goals and the process of Reconstruction ought to be approached from such an angle.

"No Chinese wall can now be tolerated...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

In this metaphor, Douglass reveals his broader vision for the United States in the wake of the Civil War. The Great Wall of China stretches along the western Chinese border and was built and maintained over millennia to keep Mongolian tribes out. Douglass views a similar, though metaphorical, wall dividing the North and South of the United States, with the South—in the mode of medieval China—resisting the North’s laws and values. Thus, along with Reconstruction, Douglass is calling for “the light of law and liberty” to flow into the South. Ultimately, Douglass is calling for national unity.

"In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass recommends a fate for the new state governments of the South: “begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it.” As President Johnson instated of a new set of Southern governors and legislative bodies, Congress watched in bafflement and fury. Douglass’s suggestion to Congress is to wipe the slate clean of Johnson’s questionable choices, and start over in the reinstitution of the Southern state governments.

"agreeably to the formula, Once in grace always in grace..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The phrase “Once in grace, always in grace” refers to the Christian notion of eternal security, which originated in the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th century. Eternal security suggests that those who are faithful to God will always remain so, despite any sinful acts along the way. Frederick Douglass offers this Augustinian formula as context for the status of the Southern states, who have sinned in their rebellion. Douglass nods to the ongoing debates over whether the South may redeem itself, though he does not throw his own voice in.

"If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Here Douglass appeals to Congress to push for responsible Reconstruction at a faster rate. Douglass takes a no-excuses approach, stating that Congress has had enough time to enact the proper changes. Douglass’s idea of enough time is one year, for this essay was published one year after the end of the war. Ultimately, it would take five years for Congress to pass the entire body of civil rights legislation Douglass calls for.

"the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious States,—where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are perpetrated..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Diction choices such as “anarchical,” “frightful murders,” and “wholesale massacres” serve as a pathos appeal, or an appeal to the emotions of his audience. Douglass uses this language to bring home the dangers present in the “late rebellious States” to his readers and emphasize the need for consistent federal policies to protect the people from such violence.

"The members go to Washington fresh from the inspiring presence of the people...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass employs a rhetorical strategy in this passage to make an appeal to his audience. By claiming that people from all walks of life have expressed favor for a radical policy, Douglass not only illustrates that his argument has broad support but also connects with the public, showing that their concerns are his concerns.

"The deadly upas, root and branch, leaf and fibre, body and sap, must be utterly destroyed...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The upas, Antiaris toxicaria, is a tree known for the deadly poisons it produces. Douglass uses the upas as a metaphor for the systemic problems at the heart of the United States, namely slavery and inequality. Just as one must uproot and destroy the upas in its entirety, so must the United States eradicate the remaining sources of inequality.

"bondman..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The word “bond” literally refers to a restraint, or something which binds. So, a “bondman” refers to someone kept in bondage, such as a serf or a slave, but it also has historically referred to peasants or those in service to a superior. Douglass contrasts the bondman with the tyrant to appeal to a broad audience by claiming that regardless of status, rebellion can happen when reason fails.

"The yawning seam and corroded bolt conceal their defects from the mariner until the storm calls all hands to the pumps...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Here Douglass discusses how social and political problems build up below the level of public awareness. Such a trend is particularly true in a time of prosperity and bustling busyness, as was the case in the United States—particularly the North—during the mid-19th century. The problem Douglass targets is that of class inequality, a deep disease of which Southern rebellion was a mere symptom. Only a clear crisis can alert the public to structural ills. Douglass illustrates this phenomenon with the metaphor of the broken bilge pump that goes unnoticed until a storm strikes and its disrepair becomes lamentably clear.

"The arm of the Federal government is long..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass’s use of an accessible metaphor allows him to appeal to a wider audience. Here, the “arm of the Federal government” refers to the influence it has in enforcing laws. On a connotative level, “arm” calls to mind “arms,” which also suggests that Douglass includes the military power of the Federal government in this claim. This brings up a practical perspective: enforcing the laws through Federal troops is costly, expensive, and cannot reach the rights of all individuals.

"The last session really did nothing which can be considered final as to these questions...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass constructed the preceding part of this paragraph in a set of conditional “whether” clauses. This allows him to ask rhetorical questions without actually asking them, allowing his audience to understand them as issues needing resolution. This serves as an appeal to his audience by allowing them to interpret his conditions and sympathize with his point. With this line, he claims that despite the actions of Congress in 1865 and the majority of 1866, the central, lasting answers to how to approach Reconstruction need to be addressed.

"The occasion demands statesmanship...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass claims that “statesmanship” is needed; that is, he believes that the work of Reconstruction requires a skillful, diplomatic approach. Since he makes this claim, he suggests that thus far Reconstruction has not been handled appropriately by those in authority. This claim sets the foundation for his argument by providing the necessary context, identifying the main problem, and offering a proposal for action.

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