Your Reactions to Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

[Forgive, readers, the embarrassing out-of-dateness of this blog]

English 349ers:

In advance of Priscilla Wald’s visit to our class on Thursday (3/25), I would like you to write your reactions to Douglass and Lincoln in the comment window below. Write as little or as much as you would like; write directly in the window or cut and paste from a word processor. Be sure to sign your entry, though, so that you can get credit.

If you can do this by Tuesday night, Professor Wald will have a chance to read your thoughts in advance. That would be fantastic. But as long as you can submit them before class on Thursday (12:30), you’ll be fine.

Here are some thought questions Professor Wald has just sent that might frame your response and will frame our discussion in class Thursday:

What do you notice about the language of each of these speeches? What jumps out at you in each case?  Think about specific words, phrases, images, even grammatical constructions.  Why, for example, does Lincoln use variations of the word “dedicate” so frequently?  To whom do you think each one is directing his speech?  What does each one hope to inspire in his audience? What do you imagine are the circumstances for each of the speeches?

Did anything surprise you reading either or both of these speeches? You have all probably read The Gettysburg Address many times before.  Do you notice anything different reading it after reading Douglass’s speech?

How does each speech use the past (American history)?  What aspects of American history does each speaker choose and why?  Why does Douglass go back to the founding fathers, and how does he use them?  Why does Lincoln go back to the Declaration of Independence?

How does each speaker use religion in these speeches?

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9 Responses to Your Reactions to Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

  1. I think the audience for Douglass is specifically to the leaders of the US government and the Christians, however I also think he is speaking to everyone who is attempting to justify slavery through various means. I think it is very effective with how he uses the Bible and the Constitution directly quoted to prove his point. This speaks to the political and biblical leaders of the country and forces them to take a step back and re-evaluate what it is they have been supporting and how it does not necessarily follow with the documents they claim to support and represent.

    I have read the Gettysburg Address before, and it was interesting to re-read it following reading Douglass’s speech. Both the speeches take us back to the founding fathers and I thought it was interesting how Lincoln is advocating that his hearers hold on to what they designed and wanted for the nation in its equality. Douglass also wants the nation to re-evaluate what the founding fathers wrote into the constitution and I think it is key that he mentioned that nothing about slavery is mentioned in the constitution and therefore to support what it stands for would be to not support slavery.

    Lincoln uses religion to put emphasis on the idea that the US is operating under a God and he asks for freedom. Douglass is using religion as a means to denote what the religious people of the nation are promoting. He argues that the religion that the people are using to defend slavery is not what the religion actually declares. The religious people use what the Bible says out of context and omit all of what it truly stands for.

  2. Ashley Loranth says:

    Douglass uses American history throughout his speech to note the young age of America and the struggles and triumphs along the way to freedom. This demonstrates the hope for the country, as it is not too late to change and reform. He goes back to the founding fathers to show that though England was their “paternal” government, colonists still disagreed with the government and rallied to change and to eliminate oppression. I think this parallels to the difference of opinion about slavery- that the abolitionists rallied for reform, as they did not support slavery- thus they fervently disagreed with their own government (like the founding fathers). Douglass states that the fathers advocated for reform due to the unjust, oppressive laws of England. In a sense, they may be compared to the abolitionists and even slaves, whom all desired reform against an oppressive government. I think he uses this analogy to express how people have a strong faith in their country and sacrifice their lives (heroes, soldiers, etc.) for reform; for their beliefs. He uses the founding fathers as paragons whom citizens should honor, respect and emulate. He also makes people aware of the slavery issue, that they have no reason to celebrate and promotes awareness in his speech for the appeal of this institution.

    Similarly, Lincoln addresses the Declaration of Independence to emphasize that the document embodied liberty and equality. Yet he acknowledges that the Civil War is a battle between states- as soldiers die fighting for their own beliefs and for their side. Overall, he makes it apparent that the country shall remain in freedom and honor those who died and that the government should represent the people and benefit them, not limit them. Therefore he emphasizes equality, as did Douglass.

  3. Diana says:

    Fredrick Douglass’ attempts to gain credibility from the very beginning of his speech in order to prepare his audience for a necessary yet incredibly abrasive and bold chastisement of America’s character. In the beginning of the speech Douglass repeatedly questions his own worth and ability to stand before the President and citizens of America. While the numerous references to his “limited powers of speech” and his “little experience” seem overwhelming and bothersome to today’s readers, it invariably allowed Douglass to fulfill the expected role of the humble and subservient African American. Additionally, Douglass immediately creates and maintains a certain separation between himself and his audience through his choice of language. He constantly makes statements such as “your National Independence”, “it carries your minds back to the day”, and “your national life” in order to establish a boundary between his white audience and himself. This separation, while it may have been appreciated by his audience, may have also intrigued them. The concept that slaves ultimately profited from their status as slaves (who were “cared for” and fed by their masters) may have resulted in Douglass’ audience to question why he did not join in the celebration of their (and his) country’s anniversary. However, Douglass used these techniques to subtly prepare his audience for the “sever[e] language” which comes later in the speech. Although he takes a while to get to the argument of his speech (the evil of slavery), Douglass takes his audience back to the ideals and morals of the founding fathers. He describes their rebellion against the “Father country” as honorable as it resulted from the rejection of oppression and the misdeeds of England’s leaders. He claims that “To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.” Douglass uses carefully selected language such as “oppressed, “oppressor”, “weak”, “strong” and “liberty” in order to subtly create parallels between the founding fathers of America fighting against England and slaves suffering under slave-owners. Although it seems that Douglass takes much time to get to his argument, he saw the necessity in prolonging the argument in order to gain the respect and unconscious agreement of his white audience.

  4. Paul Branch says:

    Both speeches have a commemorative angle, and both are intended to inspire some awe for revolutionary America. The difference is that Lincoln is fishing for reverence and a sense of honored legacy, while Douglass is out to fill his audience with deep and scorching shame.

    For my part, I’m a first-time Gettysburg reader–it’s a nice speech, with a pleasant ironic bite after ten times its length in abolitionist oratory. Certainly it gives some context to Douglass’s complaints about America’s social blindness to the slave question.

    As for the past and how they use it, I’d argue that it lines up evenly under their respective agendas. Lincoln is attempting to invoke the idea of an active inheritance–a state of wondrous liberty which was called into being by the declaration of independence, and is now threatened by civil war. He’s trafficking in the idea of the nation as something solid and immutable as the parchment that announced its birth, possibly vulnerable to military action but in no threat of deterioration. Douglass, by contrast, evokes the conduct of the founding fathers as exemplifying principles to live by, which can be easily forgotten and abandoned (as he accuses his audience of doing).

  5. Kyle DeGolyer says:

    The first thing I noticed about Douglass’ speech was how humbling it must have been to hear him describe how far he had come since escaping slavery to delivering such an oration. His comments in the second paragraph really helped me to see his perspective at the time. Although he was delivering an important speech and was notably rattled, the nerve could never touch what he had already been through in his life.

    By using the word “your” instead of “our”, I feel Douglass distances himself from the founding fathers and the nation itself — highlighting the barrier created by slavery that halted our nation from truly being united.

    I fell that Lincoln uses the term “dedicate” to shed light on the men who have died fighting for what their side believed in. The founding fathers were dedicated to idea that all men are equal and now (at the time of the speech) men are dedicating their lives for the belief that all men are not. Lincoln’s words, not unlike Douglass, are humbled in that he has witnessed the death all around his nation and has vowed not to let it go in vain.

  6. Andrew Siegrist says:

    Initially what stood out to me was the contrast between Lincoln’s use of ‘we’ as opposed to Douglass’ ‘your’ in the beginning of his speech. This contradiction is indicative of each speaker’s relationship with their intended audience. Lincoln is speaking to an audience that he sees, or wishes one day to see, as being united. Douglass, on the other hand, is representing the mast gap that existed in this country.
    Though Douglass’ speech was powerful and intelligent i felt the beginning went on a bit too long. Having an idea of what his subject matter would be made it hard for me to stay with him as he went on for numerous pages praising the forefathers and explaining his humility. It is evident what he was trying to do but seems a bit disingenuous. However, once this prologue is finished and Douglass gets into his subject matter the speech is very strong. Douglass’ emotion is strikingly clear. Douglass seems to be trying to appeal to his listeners morality or shame, whereas Lincoln appeals to their sense of pride and national identity.

  7. Sarah Lambert says:

    I agree with Kristin in the reasons as to why both of these men look back on the founding fathers to make their points. In the beginning of the country, our government was founded on certain values that need to be upheld. Frederick Douglass speaks to the moral compass in a person. By allowing slavery to continue to not only exist, but to oppress another human is not only immoral, but illogical. Lincoln uses the Declaration to remind Americans that according to those that bought us our freedom did so for every man. During the Civil Rights movement, the key phrase, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal..” is repeated to remind our country of the original ideals we were founded on.

  8. Alex Percival says:

    It was impossible to read the piece by Frederick Douglass without drawing comparisons with his slave narrative. In particular, the section in which he asserts the humanity of slaves speaks to some of the same themes of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass draws attention to the fact that if slaves were not human there would be no need to create laws preventing them from learning to read and write. He writes, “When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.” The assertion of manhood highlights the fact that slaves, though unquestionably human, are treated like beasts. Recognizing the importance of learning to read is one of the crucial moments in Douglass’ Narrative. One of the slave masters says, “Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave”(409). It is at this moment that Douglass understands “the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (410). He concludes that the acquirement of knowledge is essential to liberation. In The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln says that the nation “shall have a new birth of freedom.” Douglass experiences this rebirth by discovering the means by which his race has been suppressed, and America would similarly need to experience an enlightenment in order to advance as a nation. America was essentially enslaved by it’s racial prejudices and prohibited from forward progress while the institution of slavery remained acceptable.

    Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Ed. Henry Gates Jr. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2004. 387-452. Print.

  9. Joelle says:

    I agree with several previous statements but would like to add on the significant contrast of length. I felt that Douglass’ introduction, and a few of his ideas, were too long. However, once he allowed his true emotions to be expressed, his strong language strengthen his arguement.
    Lincoln’s speech is much shorter than one would expect at burial grounds. Instead of having his audience sit out in the rain and listen to him directly discussing those lost in the war, he gets straight to the point which strenghtens his arguement. He maintains that we must not forget those who died and what they were fighting for. Like Dougalss he refers to the nation’s forefathers to provide his audience with significant symbols and intreprtations of what they should be striving for.

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