Frederick Douglass’ Speech: Oratorical Analysis Report
Freedom and equality are commonly considered foundation principles of contemporary society. However, from the historical perspective, this idea is relatively novel. The following essay presents an oratorical analysis of Frederic Douglass’ speech on the abolition of slavery by providing a description, analyzing the audience, and evaluating the success of the presentation.
The event analyzed in the report is a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass, one of the most widely recognized representatives of the abolitionist movement in the United States. At the time, the slave-related debate has reached its peak in the country, resulting in numerous activist movements. The period is also associated with some of the most prominent works dealing with the subject, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Streitmatter 19). At the same time, some of the most controversial legal documents originate from this era, such as The Fugitive Slave Act passed two years before the event. Simply put, the speech was delivered at the peak of interest in the topic of slavery.
Frederick Douglass gave the speech on July 5th, 1852, the next day after the national celebration. At the time, the author had been living in Rochester, New York, and had been working as an editor in an abolitionist publication (Streitmatter 20). A number of significant abolition-related events were hosted in Rochester at the time, making it one of the centers of the movement. The speech was originally presented to the local Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Thus, the primary audience consists of the members of the anti-slavery society who were known to attend the event. The secondary audience includes potential readers of the printed version of the speech and historians dealing with the issue of slavery from a historical perspective.
The first part of the speech uses chronological structure. Douglass starts by recounting the events behind the celebration of the fourth of July and highlighting some of the key historical events associated with it. However, he then uses this information as a starting point to put the issue of slavery into perspective. The remainder of the speech is built around a specific topic and covers its ethical and moral aspects. Thus, the overall structure of the speech is topical.
The audience at the event was formed predominantly of active participants of the emancipation movement. In addition, the individuals in question were likely passionate about the issue of slavery, abolition, and human rights in general. Next, it would be reasonable to assume that the majority of the listeners were educated and highly knowledgeable on the subject. Finally, it is necessary to acknowledge the timing of the delivery. The event was organized one day after the celebration of the national holiday, capitalizing on feelings of pride and enlightenment. Thus, it can be stated with a reasonable degree of certainty that pathos and logos were required to be used in order to meet the needs of the audience whereas ethos was assigned the secondary role.
Douglass opens the speech with the opening phrase “Mr. President, friends and fellow citizens” (Douglass). The latter part of the greeting is arguably the most important one as it suggests an equal ground between the speaker and the audience. Douglass then apologizes for his nervous behavior in front of an audience. Both elements are examples of ethos as they allow to position the speaker in terms of his trustworthiness on the subject. By considering himself a citizen equal in rights to the listeners, the speaker demonstrates adherence to the principles voiced by him.
In the second part of the speech, the presenter refers to the historical events that constitute the foundation of the United States and acknowledges his respect and admiration for the ideas put forward by the Founding Fathers. However, he explicitly states that praising the deeds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is not among his goals and that his intention is to focus on the misuse of the values put forward by them. This move allows the speaker to establish a strong emotional contact with the audience. After this, the speech enters the argumentative phase. The speaker asks “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” (Douglass). This rhetorical question strengthens the position of the presenter by appealing to the rational aspect of the equality concept. This part of the speech relies heavily on metaphors by referring to foundation principles as “grand illuminated temple of liberty” (Douglass). Finally, the author utilizes contrasting epithets to underline the gap between the joy of free individuals and the bitterness of slaves felt during the celebration to strengthen his point.
Douglass acknowledges the achievements made by his fellow citizens throughout the speech. In addition, it demonstrates sufficient diversity of perspective and is based on mutual understanding and respect. As such, it adheres to the NCA Credo Guidelines and can be considered ethical (National Communication Association). The speech combines critical reasoning with the emotional engagement of the audience. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the speaker’s purpose was achieved.
The speech by Douglass is an example of an effective combination of pathos and logos used to frame slavery as a distortion of values laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Despite the significant progress in the domain of civil rights, the points raised in the speech remain relevant. Thus, the approach used by the author can be considered valid for tackling similar issues in the future.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” TeachingAmericanHistory.org, n.d., Web.
National Communication Association. “1999 NCA Credo for Ethical Communication.” NCA, 1999, Web.
Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media have Shaped American History. 4th ed., Routledge, 2016.
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