Analysis Pages

Metaphor in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Metaphors of Nature and Industry: Douglass’s foremost source for metaphors is the natural world. Because the subject matter of the speech is grim and the political climate dire, Douglass reaches for turbulent metaphors. The course of the United States is figured as a river, still manipulable due to its youth. The threats and challenges of slavery are figured as a storm gathering on the horizon. To meet the storm of slavery, Douglass calls for a matching storm of protest and political agitation. Douglass’s second favorite source of metaphors is the world of industry, from which he enlists cornerstones, ring-bolts, anchors, and, of course, a “ship of state” to be threatened by the metaphorical storm.

Metaphor Examples in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? :

Text of Douglass's Speech

🔒 11

"a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation's bosom;..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This metaphor likens slavery to a “horrible reptile” and the United States to a woman. The woman, who is described as pure and “tender,” nurtures this snake-like creature. Douglass imagines eradicating slavery by striking down the creature from the woman’s bosom.

"abyss-sweeping wind..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass finishes the extended metaphor of nations as rivers by employing auditory, visual, and tactile imagery with the words “howl,” “abyss,” and “wind.” Such language helped the audience hear, see, and feel this metaphor and sense his pessimism as he likens the decline of nations to the drying up of rivers.

"lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass describes the founding American principles of justice and freedom using the metaphor of a “corner-stone” upon which the superstructure—the part of a building or organization that rises above its foundation—of the American nation is built. In a twist of either irony or coincidence, the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens would deliver the famous “Cornerstone Speech” nine years later in 1861, just weeks before the start of the Civil War. Stephens uses the cornerstone as a metaphor but to an opposite end, claiming that slavery is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. These similar but opposing uses of the word reveal the clashing values of the Union and Confederacy.

"That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here Douglass builds on the nautical metaphors, ultimately weaving together four separate extended metaphors. In the description of the ship being tossed about, Douglass draws on and connects two additional metaphors: the ship’s anchor as the nation’s core principles and the Declaration of Independence as the ring-bolt to the chain of American history. Because anchors are connected to ships by chains, a storm-tossed ship relies on the strength of the anchor chain to remain connected to its anchor and, therefore, stable against the storm. The suggestion of this metaphor is that the United States must rely on the philosophy set forth in the Declaration of Independence if it is to remain anchored by its founding principles.

"From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

One of the notable techniques Douglass uses in this speech is extended metaphor, a device in which a single metaphor is drawn upon repeatedly throughout a piece of writing or rhetoric. In this passage, Douglass uses two separate, though related, metaphors he has already used thus far: the United States as a ship at sea and the arrival of threats and troubles as an oncoming storm.

"the very ring-bolt in the chain..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Drawing on a symbol he uses throughout the speech, Douglass describes American history as a chain of which the 4th of July is the “very ring-bolt.” In a chain, the ring-bolt is the very first ring, the one bolted to the anchor point of the entire chain.

"sheet anchor..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

A “sheet anchor” refers to the largest anchor on a ship, usually reserved for emergencies. Here Douglass crafts a compelling metaphor in which the founders of the United States are compared to a ship at sea that has cast down its sheet anchor due to a storm. The more intense the storm—itself a metaphor for the British assaults on the American colonies—the more deeply the anchor grips the seafloor. This image symbolizes the way the founders deepened their convictions as external pressures mounted.

"They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In an effort to illustrate how slaves are dehumanized, Douglass employs a metaphor here. He says that slaves are food for the fields and the mills, which reduces them to the role of fuel for industry, revealing the role that many ascribed to slave labor. Such a metaphor is accessible to the audience and powerfully conveys Douglass’s emotional reaction to the situation.

"From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Within this extended metaphor, Douglass adds power to his ideas by employing visual, auditory, and tactile imagery, which he achieves through the use of adjectives like “dark, flinty, and storm-tossed” and verbs like “drawn,” “broken,” “cling,” and “spar.”

"Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass employs an extended metaphor at the end of this paragraph to compare the future of the American nation to a “great stream.” He notes that great streams cannot change course easily, their paths having been worn deep over time. While they may “rise in wrath and fury,” eventually they will “dry up, and leave nothing behind.” For Douglass, the “great streams” represents the fates of older nations. Thus this metaphor serves as a statement of optimism regarding the future of the United States, a nation whose stream is young and shallow enough to alter its course.

"There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Despite the hope that the young country has, Douglass notes that problems still affect the nation, which he addresses thoroughly later in the speech. While slavery had been a contentious issue since the country’s founding, the visual imagery of “dark clouds which lower above the horizon” speaks to the growing political instability between the free and slave-owning states, which would culminate in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Analysis Pages