Study Guide

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery Analysis

By Frederick Douglass

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  • Rhetoric


    Pathos uses emotional appeals to convince an audience. The speaker's tone, word choice, and imagery are all intended to provoke an emotional response.

    Douglass aims to provoke several emotions in his listeners, the chief of which is shame. He pretty much says, "Hey, look at all you hypocrites celebrating freedom while your country is built on slavery."

    Check it out:

    Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. (15-19)

    Douglass specifically states that he's in the shame game. He's not going to argue when the arguments are clear:

    At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. (75-76)

    He explicitly states that this is an emotional appeal to make Americans feel how wrong slavery is. He's not going to convince their brains; he's going to convince their hearts:

    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. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced. (77-79)

    Yikes. Even more than 150 years later, we still feel horrible about America's history of slavery…which is exactly the response Douglass is looking for.

  • Structure

    When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, one of the things he took with him was his copy of The Columbian Orator, a textbook that taught, among other things, those classical rhetorical skills that marked a well-educated speaker in early America. For the most part, "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery" follows the classical form that would have been familiar to Douglass' listeners.

    How It Breaks Down

    Exordium (Opening) (Sentences 1-11)

    Douglass addresses his listeners and wonders aloud why he, a former slave, has been asked to speak at a celebration of liberty. He can't figure it out.

    Narratio (Statement of the Case) (Sentences 12-27)

    Douglass concludes that he cannot properly celebrate the Fourth of July because it is meaningful only to those Americans who have always been free. To him, it seems like a mockery of those Americans held in chains to celebrate freedom while they are still suffering in bondage.

    Divisio/Partitio (Thesis) (Sentences 28-30)

    Douglass tells his audience he intends to speak on "American Slavery," not on liberty. He intends to show why, while slaveholding is always bad, celebrating a nation's freedom while slavery still exists in that nation is a super tone-deaf thing to do.

    Confirmatio (Presentation of Arguments) and Confutatio (Refutation of Opponent) (Sentences 31-74)

    In classical oratory, these two sections are sometimes split, but Douglass presents his points and then refutes opposing arguments one by one. He argues that slavery is un-American, that abolitionists could be doing more, that slaves are people, that slaves have a right to liberty, and that slavery is a moral wrong.

    (Interestingly, he argues all these points by saying they are such no-brainers that he's not going to argue them.)

    Conclusio/Peroratio (Conclusion) (Sentences 75-84)

    Douglass claims that the irony he's used in his speech is necessary because argument clearly doesn't work on Americans. He compares the celebration of liberty with the practice of slavery and concludes that any nation that can do that doesn't deserve to be called civilized. It ends on a real down note for a party…which is exactly what Douglass intends.

  • Tone

    Sarcastic, Angry

    Douglass is mad as a hornet. Why in the name of all the hoop skirts in America would these people ask him to talk about American liberty? Check out what he lays down early on:

    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 today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you, that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation (Babylon) whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin. (21-24)

    "Wow, you guys are either really big jerks or really big dummies to think that a former slave wants to help you celebrate your freedom while slavery still exists," says Douglass. "Not cool, guys. Not cool."

    So, Douglass lets them know he's pretty mad. But most of his speech is dedicated to sarcasm about these dumb arguments he has to make against slavery. Really? He has to argue that slavery is bad? Can Americans not see that by themselves?

    He concludes that argument doesn't work, so he's going to go ironic on y'all—in the literary sense:

    At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. (75-76)

    In short, Douglass is mad, and he's smart enough to use his words to shame the people and the situation that have made him that way.

  • Writing Style

    Classical, Formal

    As we noted in "Structure," this speech is an example of classical oratory, which means the language is formal and the sentences are long. There are a lot of rhetorical questions meant to get the audience thinking, and there are quite a few allusions to other texts listeners are expected to recognize.

    Check out the following for an example of all of these elements:

    Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation's sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation's jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the "lame man leap as an hart." (5-11)

    We chose that paragraph, but you could pull out almost any paragraph in the speech and see characteristics of classical oratory. We'll say this: Douglass is consistent throughout.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This isn't too much of a puzzle…even though this speech is known by a few different titles. Depending on where you read it, it's either "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery" or "On the Hypocrisy of American Slavery." And sometimes it's confused with another speech, given the next day, called "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" or "The Meaning of July 4th for the N****."

    But whatever title you know it by, Douglass' entire point in this speech is to contrast Fourth of July (Independence Day) celebrations with the reality of American slavery: it's super hypocritical to celebrate the nation's freedom while slaves are held in bondage.

    It's not a tough concept to understand, says Douglass, but it seems some folks are having trouble.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (1-4)

    In the first paragraph of the speech, Douglass wonders aloud why he, a former slave, has been asked to speak on a day that celebrates freedom. What does freedom have to do with him or with other slaves? Does America represent them? Is he supposed to talk about how grateful he is for this opportunity?

    The opening lines are meant to show Douglass' listeners that this speech will be unlike the celebratory speeches they've likely heard before. He's an unusual choice for a speaker…and this will be an unusual Fourth of July speech. If you're looking for patriotic pride and a delicious apple pie recipe, go elsewhere.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. (84)

    In the last sentence of the speech (which is also the final paragraph), Douglass strikes a knockout punch at Fourth of July celebrations. The Fourth of July is a celebration of American independence from Great Britain, sure, but it has also traditionally been a day to celebrate how much greater, how much more moral, and, ahem, how much better America is than other countries.

    Douglass says nope, sorry. Check out the rest of the world. They're getting their act together re: slavery. But not America.

    Also, he can't believe how they're cluelessly celebrating their freedom while America holds slaves. Hypocrites much?

    We're willing to bet the listeners felt thoroughly chastised, shamed, and awkward at the end.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The "Main Idea" section is the way into "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." Once you've got that key concept down, you can explore how Douglass supports his points. Now, Douglass was speaking in 1852, so there are some old-timey words and phrases that can throw you for a loop, but keep coming back to "Main Idea," and you won't go too far wrong.

    The other element that can trip readers up is Douglass' frequently sarcastic tone. As we know from text messages and email, sarcasm that comes across fine in person can be tough to read for meaning. And because Douglass often switches from sarcasm to sincerity, you've got a recipe for confusion. Read slowly, paying close attention to tone, and you should be fine.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Declaration of Independence (3)
    • U.S. Constitution (33)
    • Bible (33)

    Historical and Political References

    • "I will not equivocate—I will not excuse," William Lloyd Garrison in the first issue of The Liberator, January 1st, 1831 (34)
    • Abolitionists (36)
    • Digging gold in California (53)
    • Capturing the whale in the Pacific (53)
    • Republicans (58)

    Biblical References

    • "Lame man leap as an hart," Isaiah 35:6 (11)
    • Babylon, Jeremiah 51, Isaiah 13:17-22, Daniel 5 (24)
    • "May my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" Psalm 137:5-6 (26)

    References to This Text

    Pop Culture References

    • Time magazine, "Top Ten Greatest Speeches" list
  • Trivia

    February was chosen as Black History Month in part to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. (Source)

    Frederick Douglass was the most photographed 19th-century American. Let that sink in. (Source)

    Douglass has been portrayed onscreen by Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman, among many others. (Source)

    While some slaves used the Underground Railroad to escape, Douglass just boarded a regular train and went from Maryland to New York in less than 24 hours. We guess slaveholders were so busy looking out for that symbolic railroad they forgot to watch the real ones. (Source)

    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a bestseller, selling 30,000 copies in its first five years in print. It was also translated into French, German, and Dutch. Try to keep up, Charles Dickens. (Source)

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