Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What's the theme of "Address to the Slaves of the United States of America" by Henry Highland Garnet?

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Henry Highland Garnet wrote that his “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” was rejected by the National Convention for two reasons, first because “the document was war-like, and encouraged insurrection” and secondly, because of its incendiary nature, “if the Convention should adopt it, that those delegates...

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Henry Highland Garnet wrote that his “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” was rejected by the National Convention for two reasons, first because “the document was war-like, and encouraged insurrection” and secondly, because of its incendiary nature, “if the Convention should adopt it, that those delegates who lived near the borders of the slave states, would not dare to return to their homes.”

These fears clarify the theme of the address: liberty at all costs. Though insurrection was not Garnet’s primary strategy, he certainly did not rule it out. Indeed, he reiterates that it is not only the right but the “solemn and imperative duty” of the slaves to use every means within their power to secure their liberty.

Garnet suggests that the slaves should put their case to the slave-masters in rational terms, pointing out that they have no more right to enslave anyone than others would have to enslave them. Having done this, they should stop working:

Do this, and for ever after cease to toil for the heartless tyrants, who give you no other reward but stripes and abuse. If they then commence the work of death, they, and not you, will be responsible for the consequences.

Garnet’s message is that of Patrick Henry: Liberty or Death, a phrase he repeats throughout the address. His theme is the idea that even death is preferable to slavery and that a free life is the only one worth having. The slaves must resist tyranny and secure their freedom whatever the cost.

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The main theme of “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” by Henry Highland Garnet is that the slaves must rebel in some way to secure their freedom. He states that the slaves had hoped that a day would come when they would be freed. However, that day hasn’t come and won’t come unless the slaves take some actions to help themselves become free. He states that there had always been reasons for continuing the institution of slavery, and thus it has to be actively stopped.

Garnet outlines attempts led by people such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner to lead slaves to freedom. He wanted the slaves to make the lives of the slave owners so miserable that they would want to let them become free. While some of these actions might be violent actions and might lead to death, he argues it is better to die fighting for freedom than not to be free at all. He believed that the only way for the slaves to become free was through some kind of resistance that would make the slave owners want to give the slaves their freedom.

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I agree with the previous educator's assertion that resistance is Garnet's main theme. 

He uses America's history of slave-holding -- buttressed by "the influence of some false religion" and a sense of irresponsibility -- to argue that black people cannot rely on white Americans to realize the wrongs of this institution and make a change. He argues that slaves have "a moral obligation to God" to lift themselves from ignorance. He directly addresses, not only the abject state in which black people have been kept (e.g., the "prostitution" of black women), but how wrong it is to become complacent with this state of being. He writes that it is not possible to obey God's commandments while living in slavery.

Garnet appears to be using the piousness of slaves -- previously an instrument used to keep them docile -- to encourage their resistance.

He does not specify how that resistance should manifest, but insists that "[slaves] must decide by the circumstances that surround [them], and according to the suggestions of expediency." Interestingly, he uses the examples of slave rebels -- some who successfully committed violence (e.g., Nat Turner, Madison Washington, Joseph Cinque) and those whose plans were revealed prematurely (e.g., Denmark Vesey).

The language he uses to introduce each rebel is important. Turner is "patriotic." Joseph Cinque is an immortal hero. Finally, Madison Washington is described as "that bright star of freedom" who "took his station in the constellation of true heroism." These descriptions counter historical records, which persist, in which these men are described as troublemakers or murderers.

Reminders of their immortality and commitments to the improvement, not only of their stations but, in the case of Turner, the amelioration of his society, are intended to help slaves realize the cost of permanent subservience. Though the fear of retributive violence was always near, only resistance could bring it to a permanent end.

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In my opinion, the major theme of this speech is that slaves need to rebel against the system of slavery.  Garnet did not necessarily mean that slaves should actually rebel violently, but he did advocate that they should resist their oppressors.

The point here is that Garnet is not telling slaves to make the best of their situation.  He is also not telling them to wait until someone else comes to rescue them from slavery.  In other words, he is not telling them to hope for abolitionists to get them freed.  He is telling them to take it upon themselves to gain their freedom.

So I think what is distinctive about this speech, its main theme, is the idea that slaves themselves must get up and do something to free themselves.

Here is a quote to support this:

Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance.

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