Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery

Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery

Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery

Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery


Frederick Douglass, once a slave, was one of the great 19th century American orators and the most important African American voice of his era. This book traces the development of his rhetorical skills, discusses the effect of his oratory on his contemporaries, and analyzes the specific oratorical techniques he employed.

The first part is a biographical sketch of Douglass's life, dealing with his years of slavery (1818-1837), his prewar years of freedom (1837-1861), the Civil War (1861-1865), and postwar years (1865-1895). Chesebrough emphasizes the centrality of oratory to Douglass's life, even during the years in slavery. The second part looks at his oratorical techniques and concludes with three speeches from different periods. Students and scholars of communications, U. S. history, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and African American studies will be interested in this book.


Those who profess freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops
without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.
They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

Frederick Douglass, 1857 speech

Nineteenth-century America pulsated with great oratory. The American pulpit, as a whole, was never better than those years when preachers of the stature of Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks, William Ellery Channing, and Theodore Parker dominated the ecclesiastical scene. It was a time when national politics thundered with the voices of those who had mastered rhetorical eloquence—Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln, to name only a few. The antislavery movement brought to the forefront its own specialized orators, with Wendell Phillips as one of the best among several very talented public speakers who denounced slavery in fierce and uncompromising language. The women's movement provided a platform for the rhetorical skills of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edward Everett must of course be added to this pantheon of nineteenth-century rhetoricians. There were so many, many others in that era who had something to say and said it extremely well.

Standing at least the equal to any nineteenth-century orator was one who at first glance seemed most unlikely—Frederick Douglass. Douglass was unlikely, first of all, because he was a black man. In the mid-nineteenth century, even the most benevolent whites, such as Abraham Lincoln, considered blacks, at best, to be culturally inferior. Writing of that era, Robert T. Oliver has noted:

A Negro orator was as much an anomaly as a high school student urging his opinions
about current issues to a general community audience. The adults might (and often do)
admire the youngster's skill and praise his accomplishments, but this is far from taking
seriously the advice he has to offer. What is being judged is a performance rather than
an assertion of leadership. Negroes (and, parenthetically women) who sought to influence
public opinion and policies in that time, through the influence of public speaking, were . . .

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