Frederick Douglass was a former slave “turned abolitionist orator, newspaper editor, social reformer, race leader, and Republican party advocate” (Martin, Preface). He had to overcome a limited education, opposition from friend and foe, and take the time, where he could, to study rhetoricians of the past to become one of the greatest orators and rhetoricians of the 19th century. Douglass addressed large mixed audiences as he traveled throughout the world speaking against slavery addressing over 100 meetings a year. During these engagements he sometimes faced violent opposition and sometimes he even contended with internal quarrels within the abolition movement itself (Bizzell and Herzberg 1062).
In looking at Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos, outlined in On Rhetoric, it is evident that Douglass masterfully used pathos to evoke strong emotions from his audiences. These emotions ran the gamut from sympathy and fear for the young slave boy, hatred for the slave owners who mistreated and abused him, and the feeling of hope for a better tomorrow. He also used logos to his advantage to persuade his audiences to take action and join the cause to abolish slavery and later to treat black people as equals with thoughts, feelings, and goals just like white people.
Where Douglass struggled, through no fault of his own, is ethos. “Before you can convince and audience to accept anything you say, they have to accept you as credible” (Dlugan). He became increasingly frustrated with the white friends who encouraged him to keep his plantation accent in his speech or a trace of slave’s servility in his manner. Instead “he worked hard to improve his diction and his command of Standard English” (1063). He also paid careful attention to his clothing and styled his hair to emphasize its African texture. “His successes as a speaker lead audiences to doubt that he had ever been a slave…” (1063). Doubters who attended his public speeches accused Douglass of having a white ghost writer. To counter the criticism he published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American slave Written by Himself in 1845 (Bizzell and Herzberg 1063). It is hard to say if his audiences respected him given the attitudes of white people during the time, even if they supported his causes. Without respect how can there be trust let alone be considered an authority on the topic? The latter being especially true since some did not believe his story. “Keep in mind that it isn’t enough for you to know that you are a credible source. Your audience must know this. Ethos is your level of credibility as perceived by your audience” (Dlugan).
Douglass had no training in rhetoric but he studied famous speeches such as Cicero and George Washington (Bizzell and Herzberg1068). “John W. Blessingame, a modern editor of Douglass, points out that naturalness of gesture and expression, flexible use of the voice for emphasis, in imitation of different manners of speech for humorous or otherwise illustrative effect, all emphasized by Bingham, were all noted by contemporary observers as key features in the success of Douglass's oratory” (1068). Newspaper reporters took note of his oratory skills and began to praise it in news articles. In describing an encounter one reporter said it was “better to have run upon a lion. It was fearful, but magnificent, to see how magnanimously and lion-like the royal fellow tore him to pieces, and left his fragments scattered around him” (Martin 24). Another reported he “spoke with great power. Flinty hearts were pierced, and colored ones melted by his eloquence” (23-24). “Learning to read, write, and orate almost simultaneously, as Douglass did,” prepared him well for his future as an abolitionist activist (Bizzell and Herzberg 1068). Although oratory played a major role in the movement, “the line between written and spoken rhetoric was indistinct - speeches were often carefully composed before being delivered, and they were edited again before being published…” (1068). “While employing Standard English and European cultural references, for the most part, he expressed an African American point of view and gave a uniquely African-American twist to European American cultural elements” known as black jeremiad (1068).
Although Frederick Douglass had no formal training in rhetoric and had a limited overall education he was able to overcome these obstacles to become one of the greatest orators and rhetoricians of the 19th century. He was innately able to use Aristotle’s ethos, logos, and pathos to his advantage, as much as he could and was allowed to in consideration of the discrimination he faced.
Bizzell, Patricia, and Herzberg, Bruce, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical
Times to the Present. Bedford/St. Martins: Boston, 2001. Print.
Dlugan, Andrew. “Ethos, Pathos, Logos: 3 Pillars of Public Speaking.” Six Minutes Speaking
and Presentation Skills. Six Minutes. 24 October 2010. Web. 23 October 2011.
Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass Volume 2. The University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Google Books. Web. 23 October 2011.