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Fredrick Douglass VS John C. Calhoun: The Usage Of Rhetorical Devices

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In the 18th century, the debate of slavery was a popular subject but was mainly only discussed by the white men who had never known the other side of the story and had never experienced firsthand the squalor that the slaves truly had to go through day in and day out. John C. Calhoun, author of “Slavery A Positive Good,” is one of those men and claims that slavery is, in fact, helping African-Americans and that it ensures they do not suffer the same poverty that their people suffer in free states such as New York. On the other hand, Frederick Douglass, author of “The Meaning of the Fourth of July,” is an African-American man who escaped from Slavery and offers a new perspective as a free man who taught himself how to read. The following paragraphs I will discuss the different forms of rhetoric that both Calhoun and Douglass use in their respective works and why Douglass’ essay is more effective due to his usage of diction, biblical allusions, and imagery.

Douglass’ usage of diction helped strengthen his argument immensely through allowing more powerful words to his audience as well as establish that he holds his readers and himself on equal grounds “…Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day?” (line 8). This quote serves to put them all on the same level instead of him being superior, which would make him seem arrogant, or inferior, which would invalidate his argument completely. This shows that he truly wished to help remove the usual narrative that was associated with this topic and have his audience allow him to be heard. Douglass states, “… Above your tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more tolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” (lines 40-43). Here, Douglass uses the terms “mournful wail” and “ heavy and grievous” to hit the hearts of his audience with the words of sad and generally negative connotations. In this quote, Douglass describes the way that on a day celebrating freedom, those in captivity mourn their brethren, dead or enslaved, that have suffered in heavy chains and even heavier hearts.

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Moreover , Douglass uses a fair amount of biblical allusion to speak to the Christians and his audience which, due to the time, happens to be a large majority of America. Mentioning the fact that their own God would disagree with slavery helps fortify his argument that it truly is wrong. His logic of “if you do not sympathize with man, then you must fear God” pushes a sense of not only fear but guilt for the Christians of America. In the text, he states, “And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, would throw down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in Ever After a revocable ruin! I can today make up the plaintiff lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!” (Genesis 11:1-9). In this excerpt, he reminds his audience of a Nation who went against God’s word and decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens. Because of this, God changed their languages and scattered them throughout the world, leaving their nation in shambles. Douglass uses this as an example as to why they should not go against God’s word and continue the sin that is slavery. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Psalm 137:5-6). In this excerpt, Douglass quotes the Bible directly. The quote translates, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest Joy.”(Bible Hub 2004©)Here, Douglas reminds his Christian audience of the devotion they have to their lord and that he must not forget Jerusalem and the Jews that were held captive and forced to live just as the African American slaves. Meanwhile, Calhoun States “A large portion of the Northern States believed slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance, and that this doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless –and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain political control, when he and others holding the highest stations in society, would, however reluctant, be compelled to yield to their doctrines, or be driven into obscurity.” This excerpt serves to undermine their beliefs and attempts to paint them as chauvinistic people who could only convince the naiive and then attempt to work their way up to a political movement that would attempt to abolish slavery.

In addition, Douglass uses imagery to allow his reader to see what he’s speaking of it allows them to actually visualize his words to connect with on a different level. That is the case when he states, “…if I do not remember those bleeding children of sorrow this Day, ‘may by right hand forget her cunning and made my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’” this quote highlights the image of “bleeding children” which offers a more gruesome but realistic standpoint of what happens on the inside for the slaves and serves to remember the children’s blood that now stains the nation due to slavery. Not only that, but it includes parallelism. He repeats the quote from Psalm 137 that he included only a few lines before as a way to create balance in his writing and also show that both of these instances, that is being the Jews being captured and enslaved as well as the African Americans, are truly not different in the slightest. Douglass later says, “For it is not light that is needed, but fire: it is not a gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” This quote is to say that we must act fast and be loud to get any kind of change in the United States. He uses nature as a symbol for the sense of justice he demands society needed at the time. Thunder claps and rumbles of earthquakes represent the awakening of the nation and the rise of the abolition movement. This allows the reader to picture the events as they are mentioned and inspire them to join the movement. Meanwhile, Calhoun shows no examples of imagery in his text.

In essence, Douglass has uses diction to allow stronger and more hard-hitting words to resonate with his audience, biblical allusion to speak with his Christian audience, and imagery to use their other senses to see a potentially even his words so that they truly resonate with the reader. Calhoun speaks more on theory while Douglas is the complete opposite where he speaks on his experience. All in all, though both Fredrick Douglass and John C Calhoun used rhetorical devices and used them well, Frederick Douglass made a better argument than John C. Calhoun as it pertains to these rhetorical devices and, as a result, did better to persuade his audience.

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Fredrick Douglass VS John C. Calhoun: The Usage Of Rhetorical Devices. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from
“Fredrick Douglass VS John C. Calhoun: The Usage Of Rhetorical Devices.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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