Rhetorical Analysis of Frederick Douglass’s Speech




The paper is a rhetorical analysis of Frederick Douglass’s speech,which presents the issue of slavery in historic America.

No Independence Day Celebration for Blacks

“I Hear the Mournful Wail of Millions” is a speech on slavery inAmerica during the 1800s, written by Fredrick Douglass. Douglass isfamous due to his contributions in ending slavery in US. In historicAmerica, it was illegal for slaves to get education, but Douglassmanaged to gain knowledge on how to write and read. He later became afree man, after escaping slavery, and used his ability to read andwrite to present speeches as a means to end slavery. Among thespeeches is the famous “I Hear the Mournful Wail of Millions”presented during the celebration of Independence Day in 1852. He usesthe speech to show that it is not possible to celebrate America’sIndependence Day, when the country progresses to practice slavery.The white American celebrates the day of freedom while the blackpeople continue to suffer due to the slavery system. Douglass usesrhetorical techniques to question the audience’s celebration offreedom and self-governance, yet the country still practices slavery.

The author appeals to the emotions of the audience by describing howblack slaves are subjected to harsh treatment, despite living in anindependent country. The ability to evoke sympathy from the audienceand convince them to end slavery refers to pathos. Pathos is anaspect of speech appealing to the sensibilities of the audience. Itbrings out the emotions in the audience. Douglass makes it clear thatit is not possible to celebrate freedom when the same peoplecelebrating freedom are responsible for continuing to supportslavery. He describes how white Americans treat black slaves harshlyby “rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keepthem ignorant of their relations to fellow men” (Douglass, 1852).From the statement, Douglass makes it clear that slaves have nofreedom and are denied their rights, yet they are human beings. Inaddition, slave owners “beat them with sticks, flay their fleshwith the lash, load their limbs with irons, hunt them with dogs, sellthem at auction and starve them” (Douglass, 1852). This descriptionof the harsh treatment to slaves makes the audience feel remorseful,and question their celebration of Independence Day. Douglass aspiresto appeal to America to end slavery, resulting in the freedom of bothwhites and blacks.

The speech comprises the rhetorical appeal to logos to inform theaudience that there is no disparity between white and black men. Whenusing logos, the author uses factual and observable evidence to proveto the audience that what the speaker is saying is correct. Bydemonstrating that there is no disparity between white and black men,Douglass aims at telling the audience that they are being unfair infailing to free slaves, who are equally human. To demonstrate theresemblance between blacks and whites, Douglass says, black men are“living in families as husbands, wives and children, confessing andworshipping the Christian’s God” (Douglass, 1852). Similarly,white men have families, where they are husbands, wives or childrenthat worship the same God. In addition, Douglass notes, blacks are“clerks, merchants and secretaries, lawyers, doctors, ministers,poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers” (Douglass, 1852).White men also work in the similar professions, but are treated asfree men, unlike blacks. The author employs logos to make theaudience reflect on the similarity between blacks and whites, andwork towards ending the insensitive treatment of blacks.

Douglass uses kairos to persuade the audience that it is not possibleto celebrate America’s freedom when there are slaves, who havenever enjoyed any form of freedom. Kairos is an element of speech,which derives support from the setting, place or period when a speechis presented. For instance, the speaker questions, “What to theAmerican slaves is your Fourth of July? (Douglass, 1852)” As ablack American, and former slave, Douglass disassociates himself fromthe celebration of freedom. He uses the perfect timing to inform theaudience that the celebration of freedom does not apply to slaves,who have known no freedom in America. It becomes clear that slavesdesire their freedom in order to be able to join other Americans inthe celebration of sovereignty. Provided the country continues totreat slaves unfairly, then independence only applies to whites. Theuse of kairos persuasively communicates that slaves as well have aconstitutional right to enjoy national independence, which can onlyhappen following the abolishment of slavery.

The speaker uses rhetorical questions in the speech to insist thatthe celebration of Independence Day only applies to whites, as blackscannot celebrate independence when they continue to live in Americaas slaves. A rhetorical question is a literary device used in makingan assertion on a contentious issue. An illustration on the use of arhetorical question is Douglass questioning, “Are the greatprinciples of political freedom and natural justice…..extended tous? (Douglass, 1852)” Douglass is a former slave and uses the word“us” to refer to blacks still living in America as slaves. Byusing the question, he intends to make the audience reflect on whoenjoys freedom and justice in America. He also uses the question toassert that not all civilians enjoy freedom, and it is a celebrationfor white alone, since slaves continue to experience harsh treatment.He further notes, “Your high independence only reveals theimmeasurable distance between us” (Douglass, 1852). Douglass makesa disparity between the audience and himself. As a black living inAmerica, he makes it clear that blacks do not enjoy the similarfreedom as whites. Hence, the celebration does not include blacks.The speaker’s use of rhetorical questions brings out the unequaltreatment between blacks and whites, and calls for the inclusion ofall civilians in the celebration of Independence Day, by endingslavery.

Douglass utilizes allegory to demonstrate that not all Americans canjoin in the celebration of Independence Day. This is because whilewhites enjoy freedom, blacks continue to suffer in slavery, yet theyare all living in America. Hence, blacks and whites have a dissimilarview of Independence Day. Allegory is a statement that comprises morethan one meaning. For instance, Douglass notes, “The sunlight thatbrought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me”(Douglass, 1852). In the statement, Douglass tells the audience thatthey enjoy healing, to mean freedom, while he progresses to sufferbecause of slavery. He uses “to me” to refer to slaves and otherblacks like himself who cannot declare Independence Day as a day tocelebrate their freedom, because unlike whites, they progress to betreated unfairly. Hence, Douglass portrays the unfairness widespreadin America, and calls for the freedom of all civilians.

Generally, Douglass’s speech demonstrates the effectiveness in theuse of rhetorical devices in passing a message to the audience. Heemploys different rhetorical devices to convince the audience that itis not possible to celebrate Independence Day, when America continuesto practice slavery. Douglass further convinces on the need to freeslaves and treat both white and black men fairly, as an Independentcountry. Hence, it is apparent that using rhetoric devices is aneffective part of speech writing and presentation. It ensures thatthe author and speaker gains the trust of their audience, and callsfor action.


Douglass, F. (July 4, 1852). The hypocrisy of American slavery. TheHistory Place. Retrieved fromhttp://www.historyplace.com/speeches/douglass.htm