Frederick Douglass’s Purpose In His Narrative

Frederick Douglass, who was an ex-slave, learned to read from the time he was told by his master. It seemed that he was discussing his own escape. However, it is possible that his reference was to the emancipation for all Southern blacks. Because his primary goal in writing was to get support for the movement to abolish slavery and change public opinion, After escaping to North America, he used his illegally-learned ability to write articles and speeches. Douglass was aware of the importance history has on our present actions and that the people who can shape history and current events the most can have the greatest influence on these actions. This was the reason he wrote these essays to try and influence public opinion about slavery. Douglass wrote in an unstable time in America’s past. He had to adapt his rhetorical style and arguments to be able to respond to changing interpretations. Douglass was writing his Narrative just before the Civil War. However, the articles he wrote in the war had more concrete calls for action. Douglass’ narrative relies heavily upon emotional appeals in order to manipulate sympathy and empathy. He also uses ethos to build his credibility. While his Civil War writings use more logical arguments to support specific claims and strengthen arguments.

It was not known if slavery would end before the South seceded, and the Civil War began. Southern slave owners wanted slavery as a benevolent system. Douglass tells the truth about slavery, using emotional appeals and a lot of emotion to influence his white audience. This book was written by Douglass to convince people to resist slavery. These appeals were used to make readers sympathize and empathize more with slaves than other humans. He gives many examples of the horrendous mistreatments that slaves have suffered, in the hope that his readers will feel the same and be inspired to stand against slavery. He hopes to see more people oppose slavery to help speed up the process of abolition. With a mild example, he begins the second sentence by saying “I don’t know my age”. (49). He then states that he’s never met a slave to know his birthday. Although this may seem trivial, he says that white children can tell their ages and that he cannot tell why he should be denied the same privilege (49). This shows that North Americans would take knowing one’s birthday and age as a given. This small, but important information would have shocked readers. His feelings of dehumanization by slavery began at a young age. He compares the races in an attempt to get white readers to feel the same. The slaves’ few possessions are described in the chapter that follows. Douglass claims that their annual clothing consisted in two coarse linen shirt, one-piece linen trousers, a jacket, and winter trousers. Each pair was made of coarse, negro, cotton, stockings, and shoes. It could have cost no more than seven bucks. Douglass mentions the estimated cost of their clothing in order to allow free white readers to compare it with what they spent on clothing. Douglass hopes they feel guilt as they have clearly spent more than that. Douglass hopes that the readers will feel less self-pity and, as a result, they will be more sympathetic to the slavery. He also mentioned that children aged 7-10 years of age, both male and female, could be seen naked in all seasons.

His emotional appeals are strongest when he addresses the physical abuse and exploitation of slaves. He doesn’t try to make the audience feel the physical pain. Instead, he details the scenes to make them feel what it was like to witness the suffering of others. He starts the chapter by telling us about his Aunt Hester’s experience when she rebelled against her master. The master took Aunt Hester into the kitchen, stripped her from neck down, and left her… completely naked. He then proceeded whipping her “and soon the warm and red blood (amid the heart-rending shrieks and horrid vows from Him) came dripping on the floor.” (54). Although he later gave several examples of whippings and beatings he had to endure, it was unreasonable to expect his audience to be able to relate to situations like these. Instead, he recounts his childhood memory of seeing his aunt abused. He then shows the audience the scene so they can see it in vivid detail. Douglass makes every appeal to sympathy for slaves, making them feel worse. Douglass uses humor to help him achieve his goal of turning people against slavery.

Douglass wrote The Narrative during times of deep prejudice in America. Former slaves and blacks weren’t expected to be as proficient at writing or speaking as Douglass was. Many people doubted his authenticity, making it difficult for him achieve his purpose. He had to frequently use his ethos to build his credibility and convince people to follow him. He tells the story of his learning to write and how it helped him to continue learning. His mistress, Mrs. Auld was his first teacher. She taught him the A and B and C. He then learned to spell words that contained three or four letters. His master found out and forbade his wife from teaching him more. Douglass knew why the whites didn’t want blacks literate. “I understood now what had been to be a most perplexing trouble – to wit the white man’s ability to enslave a black man… Although I was saddened to lose the help of my kind mistress but I was glad for the invaluable instruction that I had received from the master” (77). He emphasizes how important it is to be able to read and to write in order to reduce some of the doubts of his readers. His desire to learn will help them understand his ability to write well and not question his authenticity. Readers who aren’t preoccupied about doubting his texts will be more open-minded and more receptive for his emotional appeals. Douglass appeals to his authenticity and uses ethos to help him achieve his goals.

Douglass’ Civil War textual evidence is not about his slavery experience. These texts are not based on Douglass’s Narrative ethos, but instead rely on logic. These writings are clear and have specific calls for action, which is not the case with his Narrative. With the South having seceded from the Union and the North trying to bring them back, it seemed that there was an opportunity to abolish slavery. Douglass tells stories to make people sympathize with him, but he now sees no need to persuade others to abolish slavery. He makes more specific arguments about current events during war and believes that these arguments can lead directly to ending war, slavery, or better treatment for freed blacks. He uses logical rhetoric more extensively, but still uses pathos in order to defend his points. The pathos is now used with more force and appeals to different emotions. His main objective is to allow African Americans to fight in the Union army. He supports his claim by using logic and pathos, but he does not use logic to support his claims. He compares the country’s situation to a burning structure and claims that its owners would rather have it burnt than saved by any other means. He asks, “Why is the Government rejecting the Negro?” He is not a human being. He cannot [be a soldier] as any other ?…. We believe that such soldiers, if permitted to take up arms in defense of the Government and made to feel that their rights are hereafter to be recognized, would…in every way contribute to the national power.” Douglass makes the logical point that blacks fighting in the war would increase the North’s strength with a larger army. But he does it in an emotional way. Douglass does not simply state that blacks would be allowed to fight and will make the war less costly. Instead, he uses emotion to charge his language by calling the prejudice “stupid… folly” as a way to mock those who are opposed to blacks being soldiers. The urgency of this matter is captured by his analogy of the country to an incendiary building. While his narrative appeals were intended for sympathy to encourage people to oppose slavery and gain their support, his articles make it clear that his logic is sound. His articles make readers feel ashamed or anger and help them to accept his arguments. Although he does use guilt in the Narrative to gain sympathy, he also uses it to direct people into agreeing to him.

David Blight, historian and author of “For Something Beyond the Battlefield”. Frederick Douglass’s struggle for the memory of the Civil War. “Douglas seemed acutely conscious that the postwar period might be controlled by those with the best interpretations of the war.” (Blight 1159). Douglass tried to make the war a moral war for emancipation in the hope that it would benefit the newly-freed African American community. Douglass attempted to control the era through his attempts to influence the interpretations of past and current events. Douglass used his articles during the war to make the conflict a moral one. He tried to define the system of slave labor before the war. Somehow, he was able to convince people to abolish slavery. His purpose changed with historical changes, and his arguments styles changed accordingly.

Works cited

Blight, David W. “For Something Beyond the Battlefield”: Frederick Douglass’s Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War. The Journal of American History 75.4 (1989), 1156-1178. JSTOR. Web. January 14th, 2014.

Douglass, Frederick. “Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand.” Humanities Core course guide and reader: War 2013-2014. Burke (2013) wrote the book Boston which was published by Pearson Learning Solutions. 55-56. Print.

–. Narrative: Frederick Douglass, an American slave. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. A record on a Nook.

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