What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

by Frederick Douglass
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Rhetorical Devices

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Last Updated on October 22, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143


Douglass’s speech brims with appeals to ethos, especially in the introductory paragraphs. In order to convey a sense of humility, Douglass comments on how nerve-wracking it is to speak in front of an assembly of such notable figures. He promises to speak without “high sounding exordium,” instead demuring and claiming a lack of preparedness. This stance serves to make him seem more relatable to his audience, who would expect a speaker to be nervous when addressing the President of the United States and many other notable figures. 

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Douglass also appeals to ethos when he defers to his audience’s knowledge of the American Revolution, claiming that they likely have a better grasp on the events than he does. This rhetorical move both strokes the egos of the audience and reinforces Douglass’s humility and trustworthiness. Furthermore, it allows him to relate to his audience in that he professes to sharing their admiration of the “great men” who founded the United States. For most of the speech, Douglass maintains a careful distance between himself and his audience, but his glorification of the nation’s founders offers his audience a means of relating to him.  

In the latter half of the speech, Douglass dispenses with his more humble rhetoric and instead establishes his authority as an advocate against slavery by invoking his status as a former slave. While describing the brutality of the internal slave trade, he stresses that for him, such scenes were a reality. He specifically recalls the “grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street,” setting his experiences in a specific time and place and thereby reinforcing his authority on the topic. 


Douglass’s speech appeals to pathos in order to establish the injustice of slavery for his audience. He begins by fanning the audience’s sense of national pride, highlighting the achievements of the Founding Fathers and speaking to the “unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive” actions of the British government. With his audience’s sense of injustice sufficiently stirred, Douglass compares the righteousness of the American Revolution to the righteousness of abolition. Since his predominately white audience had never directly experienced slavery, the comparison of the plight of slaves to the plight of American revolutionaries makes the sense of injustice more accessible.  

In order to evoke an even greater emotional reaction from his audience, Douglass uses vivid sensory imagery to depict the brutality of the internal slave trade. He calls on listeners to “hear” the screams of a “young mother” as she is whipped for walking too slowly. He asks them to “never forget the deep, sad sobs” of the slaves, and depicts the internal slave trade as “fiendish” and “shocking.” These vivid images are meant to evoke disgust, anger, and shame in the audience, whose previously built-up pride in their country is now tarnished by the knowledge that such “horrors” persist. 

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In addition to turning his audience’s emotions against slavery, Douglass also appeals to pathos in order to condemn the religious institutions that attempt to justify slavery. He characterizes the pro-slavery doctrines of Southern churches as “horrible blasphemy” and says that he would “welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything!” in place of such “repulsive” teachings. Douglass posits that the Southern church has become “an engine of tyranny.” He draws on the language of James 3:17 and Isaiah 1:13-17 in order to further highlight how Southern churches act in defiance of biblical teachings. 

Douglass does not spare the Northern churches either. Their sin is in their calls for pacifism, which Douglass refers to as a different type of “blasphemy,” one which places “man’s law before the law of God.” By accusing the church of blasphemy, and by welcoming scandalous alternatives, Douglass would have elicited a strong emotional reaction from his predominantly Christian audience. For “atheism” and “infidelity” to be preferable to Christianity speaks to the true depravity of the church in defending slavery as an institution. 

The speech ends by inspiring hope in the audience and returning to the patriotic rhetoric it began with. For all the horror of slavery, Douglass contends that it will soon be at an end. In Douglass’s eyes, the US Constitution is a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” His assertion that change is a force for good and his emphasis on the progressive “tendencies of the age” help reinvigorate his audience after the “dark picture” he presented. Douglass ends by expressing a fervent hope that emancipation will arrive soon and reminding his audience that for all the “horrors” that persist, they have the power to help create change. 


Douglass was known as an incisive orator, famed for his logical and analytical anti-slavery arguments. In this speech, Douglass appeals to logos—to the strength of his argument—using two primary vehicles: religion and law. As he argues for the abolition of slavery, Douglass logically dismantles common pro-slavery arguments and discredits the entities that espouse them, giving himself the moral and intellectual advantage. 

Douglass appeals to logos by factually supporting his assertions using legal precedent and the founding documents of the United States. Douglass anticipates criticisms of his speech by posing a series of rhetorical questions. He asks “what point in the anti-slavery creed” is unclear to slavery supporters. In doing so, he addresses and dismisses most of the common pro-slavery arguments. 

In proving that “the slave is a man,” he cites the fact that Virginia has laws specifically restricting the activities of slaves, but none restricting “the beasts of the field.” Douglass suggests that these laws implicitly acknowledge the personhood of the slave, discrediting the argument that slaves are more like animals than humans. Furthermore, Douglass posits that since the law acknowledges slaves as men, they are entitled to the “liberty” and bodily autonomy granted to all men by the Declaration of Independence. 

Though other abolitionists disagreed, Douglass believed that the Constitution was inherently anti-slavery in its language. He defends this stance by pointing out the inconsistencies between the beliefs of the United States, as professed in the Constitution, and the actions the nation undertakes. He quotes the US Constitution’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” only to then highlight the fact that three million humans are currently held in “bondage,” thereby highlighting the “national inconsistencies” that plague the country. He also points out that the Constitution never mentions slavery, noting the logical inconsistency of ascribing pro-slavery intentions to the document. 

Douglass also supports his anti-slavery arguments by alluding to biblical precedents. Many pro-slavery arguments centered around a supposed biblical precedent for slavery, such as Abraham’s ownership of slaves. However, by comparing the plight of American slaves to that of the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians and those imprisoned by the Babylonians, Douglass turns the argument around. Far from condoning slavery, the Bible in fact glorifies liberation. 

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Literary Devices