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Rhetorical Devices in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: Whether or not Frederick Douglass was aware of Aristotle’s theories of rhetoric, he uses them to great effect in his speeches. According to Aristotle, the speaker or writer has three primary approaches when persuading the audience. The first is ethos, the appeal to the speaker’s own credibility and character. Douglass appeals to ethos by beginning the speech with a stance of humility and by praising the founding fathers before his audience. The second is pathos, the appeal the beliefs and emotions of the audience. Douglass creates pathos through his fire-and-brimstone language, which crackles with poetic turns of phrase, rhythmic constructions, vivid images and metaphors—all of which grip the audience at an emotional level. The third appeal is logos, the appeal to the logic of the argument. Douglass is a deft practitioner of logos, bringing to bear his broad understanding of the American political scene, the legislative situation—the laws proposed, passing, and passed—as well as the arguments of his opponents, which he forcefully dismantles.

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

Text of Douglass's Speech

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"What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a tract of land, in which no mention of land was made?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

To demonstrate his point, Douglass appeals to logos in a manner that likely resonated with Rochesterians. He hypothetically proposes that if lawmakers were to create a law that endowed the city of Rochester with a piece of land, but did not mention the actual piece of land, the law would be null. This concept is analogous to slavery—how can slavery be enforced if is never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution?

"execrable..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass denounces slavery in the most derogatory terms and calls the slave trade “execrable,” meaning appalling or atrocious. Throughout this paragraph, he uses several other words that use the same “ex-” prefix such as “extirpate,” which means to eradicate, and “execration,” which means to denounce. This combination of harsh-sounding words creates a cacophonous and biting rhetoric.

"For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This call to arms is replete with nature-based imagery. Douglass calls for fire and thunder, because less forceful tactics have so far been useless in improving conditions for black people. This powerful, natural imagery evokes a sense of chaos, of winds howling, and of the earth shaking and opening up for cataclysmic change.

"No! I will not...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here, Douglass employs a rhetorical question-and-answer strategy. He poses a series of rhetorical questions which he then answers with an emphatic exclamation. In doing so, he argues that he will not waste his time in arguing why black men are not, as many whites claim, beasts or brutes.

"make men brutes..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This phrase speaks to the longstanding stereotype during this period of the “black brute.” Blacks were often conveyed in cartoons and caricatures as bestial, barbaric, and subhuman creatures. Douglass argues that this image of the black man is a gross misconception.

"while we are ploughing, planting and reaping,..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

As a rhetorical device, long lists like this one serve to enforce a claim. Here, Douglass aims to humanize black people by highlighting their roles in society despite white people’s best efforts to eradicate or overlook them.

"beasts of the field..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass alludes to a common biblical image of the “beasts of the field,” or a herd of animals. This term metaphorically likens blacks to property or chattel, and emphasizes their status in society as inhuman creatures.

"But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

One of Douglass’s strengths as an orator and writer was his ability to weigh both sides of an argument. This practice bolstered his credibility because it demonstrated that he was able to think analytically. Here, he considers what his opponents might say in response to his speech. He muses that perhaps they will argue that abolitionists are actually getting in the way of their own efforts because they do not appeal to the masses. He easily dismantles this argument with a series of rhetorical questions that highlight the inanity of slavery. He follows these with an elaborate example that demonstrates the injustice of the crime laws in the state of Virginia.

"America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Earlier in the speech, Douglass spoke about the importance of the present over the past and future. The present, he said, was the time for Americans to improve themselves. However, as he connects back to his previous thought, his stance shifts radically and he takes a pessimistic turn. He loudly denounces slavery as the “great sin and shame of America” and claims that the American people will never be able to absolve themselves of its heinous past—not now, or likely ever.

"Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass begins this paragraph with an exclamation that contrasts the audience’s sense of jubilation against his sense of mourning. He achieves this with the use of an auditory image wherein he juxtaposes a patriotic, loud sound against a pitiful cry.

"This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this accusation, Douglass employs two turns of phrase and pits the audience—“you”—against him—“I.” These pithy sentences stand out against the more decorous language he generally uses to further compound his point.

"us..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Much of the power of Douglass’s rhetoric is in its subversiveness. Throughout his speech, Douglass rarely delineates between white and black—he only references the “black” man four times, and the “white” man once. He doesn’t need to spell out this distinction to his audience because his message is made implicit through the use of the pronouns “you” (the audience) and “us.” This technique subliminally severs the relationship between himself and his audience and, in turn, drives his larger points home.

"Mark them!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Against the often elaborate language of the speech, this pithy exclamation stands out. With this rhetorical strategy, Douglass indicates that the preceding few paragraphs will be important and demand the audience’s attention.

"I will unite with you to honor their memory...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

While Douglass clearly disagrees with the inclusion of slavery in the nation’s founding, he acknowledges that the founding fathers were great and brave men. In a powerful rhetorical move—one he rarely uses throughout the speech—he aligns himself with the audience in order to jointly commemorate the greatness of these men.

"He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

At the outset, Douglass establishes his ethos to the audience. He claims that he is “limited” and inexperienced with regard to the subject at hand. The use of the adjective “quailing” and the adverb “shrinkingly” demonstrate his supposed hesitancy and meekness. Although Douglass was a powerful and passionate writer and orator—by this time, he had written a memoir as well as myriad articles and speeches—he understood the importance of establishing a relatable rapport with his audience. He begins the speech by demonstrating his credibility in a humble and level-headed appeal to ethos.

"For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In an appeal to pathos, Douglass takes up a scandalous perspective on the Christian church and on religion in general. His aim here is not to denounce the Christian faith; his aim is to play devil’s advocate against the supporters of slavery who use Christianity as an argumentative tool. The pathos arises from the extremity of his position, inviting in “infidelity” and “atheism” in the name of abolition. At a time when the American population was overwhelmingly Christian, these words would have evoked a powerful emotional reaction.

"To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity;..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this critical section of the speech, Douglass explores the tension at the heart of the occasion and answers the question, “What, to the American slave, is the 4th of July?” His reply arrives in a stormy list of descriptors: a “sham,” a “vanity,” a “hollow mockery,” and “mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.” His use of anaphora, with the repetition of the pronoun “your,” offers forth a rhythmic condemnation of his audience. Douglass makes clear that the higher the feelings of positive patriotism shared among white Americans, the deeper the feelings of hurt, exclusion, and cynicism among African Americans. Academics Robert L. Heath and Damion Waymer have coined this situation the “paradox of the positive”: when one interest group celebrates, certain others are likely to experience an opposite, negative reaction.

"Is that a question for Republicans?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

At the time of Douglass’s speech, and throughout the 19th century, the Republican party was the progressive force in United States politics. On the most basic level, Republicans valued strong centralized governance and consistent rights and regulations for all Americans. The more progressive Republicans, known as the “Radical Republicans” from the 1850s through the 1870s, valued social change. Many members of Douglass’s audience were such progressives, pushing for abolition and equal rights for women and African Americans at a time when those causes were largely ignored in Washington. Douglass, speaking of the evils of slavery, asks, “Is that a question for Republicans?” The question is rhetorical—Republicans know the answer.

"Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass questions the central purpose of his speech. As a known abolitionist addressing an audience of fellow abolitionists, Douglass wonders whether he must even “argue the wrongfulness of slavery” to the crowd. This is a rhetorical question, for the answer is clear—the abolitionists need no convincing. Despite Douglass’s outspoken inquiries, his question offers him the opportunity to underscore the absolute evils of slavery.

"To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass reaches a new height of provocation. The “man in fetters”—or chains—he describes is himself, for here Douglass points to the central tension of the day: on the holiday which most celebrates American liberty, African Americans most keenly feel the weight of oppression and hypocrisy. Douglass makes this tension personal by blaming the gathering of abolitionists, most of them white, for inviting him to join in the festivities. Douglass accuses his audience and hosts—the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester—of “mockery.” Because readers encounter this speech as a written document, it is difficult to know whether Douglass intended these words to be facetious, but in any event their tone is surely sharp.

"I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here Douglass reiterates how he stands apart from his audience and to the American people. He expresses this distance with a clever play on words, stating that he is not “within the pale of this glorious anniversary.” The noun “pale” refers to a bounded area of land. It derives from the Latin palus, meaning “stake”; stake relates to the fence or pal-isade that marks the boundary of a pale. Douglass also uses “pale” in the adjectival sense, ultimately pointing to the pale of white—or pale—Americans from which he, as an African American, is excluded.

"Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this passage, Douglass poses a series of rhetorical question, essentially asking whether or not he is expected to “express devout gratitude” despite the current political climate. He asks what national independence has to do with him if the Declaration of Independence does not afford him the same rights as it does to the members of his audience. This long string of questions forcefully implies that he cannot take part in a celebration that so blatantly excludes him.

"It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this section of the speech, Douglass’s rhetorical tact is twofold. On the one hand, Douglass aims to please his audience, citing the greatness of their founding fathers and deferring to their knowledge of history and politics. On the other hand, Douglass plays the provocateur, preparing his audience for his scathing critique of American slavery. In this passage, Douglass pokes fun at the egotism he sees in Americans and their readiness to boost their own reputation, making this observation without identifying as an American himself. Much of the tension of the speech derives from the way Douglass alternately draws his audience in and holds them at a distance.

"You could instruct me in regard to them...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this passage Douglass makes an appeal to both ethos and pathos. By displaying his own lack of understanding and deferring to his audience on the topic of the American Revolution, he succeeds in both garnering the trust of his audience and fanning their sense of pride.

"It is the birthday of your National Independence..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass establishes an important rhetorical pattern, which he employs throughout the speech. Douglass assigns the possession of the United States to his audience alone, not to himself. Thus, Douglass describes “your national life” and “your nation” but never “our.” This is a highly purposeful rhetorical move. Such diction asserts that Douglass, as an African American and a former slave, does not participate in the history or culture of the United States. By excluding himself from ownership of the nation, Douglass positions himself as an outsider and makes his remarks from a critical distance.

"high sounding exordium..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The Latin noun exordium refers to the beginning of a speech. The word—which combines the roots ex (“out of”) and ordio (“I begin”)—literally means “where I begin from.” Douglass assures his audience that he will not open his speech with a “high sounding” prelude. To the contrary, Douglass’s initial rhetorical tactic is one of humility; in an appeal to ethos, he describes his own nervousness, ill-preparedness, and lack of skill in order to appear more human and thus win the favor of his audience.

"but we fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass makes another critical remark about the current United States government in this line. Similar to his claim about the infallibility of government being “the fashionable idea of this day,” here he claims that American political leaders have failed to learn from England’s example. Douglass is using this as an example of England’s learning from the past. Rather than recognize faults in the system, current officials are blindly supporting the government and ignoring the plights of its people.

"your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass uses auditory and kinesthetic imagery in this passage to convey the emotion of the scene. Words like “snap,” “clank,” and “rattles,” evoke a sensory response with their rich sounds. The auditory imagery continues with “your ears are saluted with a scream,” a sound which has “torn its way into the centre of your soul!”—an example of kinesthetic imagery, in which an internal response is evoked. Since Douglass’s aim in this paragraph is to have his audience live through the slaves’ experience, imagery serves a valuable purpose in conveying how others feel.

"Mark the sad procession..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

From this line through the end of the paragraph, Douglass employs a series of imperatives: mark, hear, cast, see, follow, attend, and tell. Imperatives serve as commands, and so Douglass uses them to add power to his observations. This serves as an appeal to pathos, as Douglass’s narrative construction forces the audience to live through the experience he describes.

"O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass understates his own capacity for rhetorical effect at the beginning of this passage only to demonstrate through effective diction and imagery that he does possess the necessary oratory skills to inspire an audience to action. The list that follows from “fiery stream” includes examples of auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile imagery. The cadence of the list adds cumulative rhetorical power.

"At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This line conveys Douglass’s frustration with the current political system. Proponents of slavery are so set in their beliefs that they will not listen to logical arguments. Douglass suggests that the only tool left is to use “scorching irony” to illustrate the hypocrisy of their beliefs and actions. Doing so will raise the nation’s ire and desire to change the system for the better.

"My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Rather than beginning the speech with a clear statement of purpose, Douglass celebrates the accomplishments of the founding fathers by generally keeping himself separate from his audience. This allows him to acknowledge the significance of the holiday, apply appropriate criticisms, and build the foundation for the main point of his speech.

"Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This rhetorical question suggests that the passion of “the righteous” has been memorialized among the dead in the form of tombs and sepulchres—a structure made for interring the deceased. Douglass continues his comparison of contemporary Americans to the Jews who have “long lost Abraham's faith and spirit.” Rather than live up to the examples of the nation’s founders, Douglass criticizes his contemporaries for their lack of virtue.

"Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In his 1866 essay “Reconstruction,” Douglass condemns the political skirmishing taking place in Washington and declares that “the occasion demands statesmanship.” Here, Douglass praises the founders’ statesmanship because they were able to look beyond their own concerns and envision best course for the country in the long term. In Douglass’s view, effective politicians and policies are long-term, consistent, and serve the interests of the entire citizenry.

"He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Note that Douglass includes the adverb “intelligently” in stating that it is admirable to die for one’s country. This qualifies the claim, and while it remains subjective, Douglass suggests that having well-reasoned rationales for actions confers virtue and respect on those who act, whereas those who blindly sacrifice themselves ought to be less revered. For Douglass, intelligence meant questioning the status quo and criticizing those who refused to find fault with their government.

"The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass makes a calculated pathos appeal to the audience in this passage. The adjectives “simple, dignified, and sublime” all have positive connotations, and by using them, Douglass appeals to the pride and patriotism of his crowd.

"The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Regarding the Declaration of Independence, Douglass calls on his audience to support its principles in any and all situations. This is a calculated rhetorical move. In invoking the declaration, Douglass subtly reminds his audience of its key phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In so doing, he makes a logos appeal to provide a logical foundation for the his criticism of the hypocrisy facing the nation.

"we..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Notably, this is the first time that Douglass has used the inclusive pronoun “we.” By leveling his criticism at the current government, Douglass positions himself favorably in the eyes of his audience, who likely approved of such comments. This allows a moment for Douglass and the audience to engage in a moment of shared feeling, marking an ethos appeal that makes Douglass more trustworthy.

"who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass states that the fashionable idea of “this day” (the 1850s) is that governments are infallible. Since he then goes on to say that the founders “presumed to differ” in their view of governance, this line ought to be read as contrarian: Douglass is criticizing the current attitude that the government is infallible. Just as the founders did, he believes that no governments are beyond criticism and that citizens must always be prepared to “differ” from the actions of the state.

"the fatherland..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

While Douglass has referred to the United States as a “she,” he chooses to employ the masculine “fatherland” in reference to Great Britain. While “motherland” and “fatherland” are typically interchangeable, Douglass crafts a father-son relationship between Britain and the American colonies—likely for coherence with the “founding fathers” who declared independence from Great Britain. This relationship persists as a theme throughout his speech, with the United States’ founders taking the role of parent in the nation’s new father-child relationship.

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