One of the most compelling stories in American history — and in the Library’s collections — is that of Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland (the Eastern Shore), around 1818, he escaped at the age of 20, wrote a timeless autobiography and became a towering figure — orator, activist, newspaper publisher, consultant to presidents — who worked for the freedom of millions of enslaved African Americans and campaigned for equal rights for women. At his death in 1895, he was one of the most influential Americans of the 19th century.
Today, we only know Douglass through his writings — there are no known recordings of him — but during his lifetime his primary fame was as a speaker. In the last generation before electronic mass entertainment, he was a star of the speaking circuit, holding audiences spellbound.
But what if we could hear him speak?
What if we could get a gist of how the man sounded, of how his speeches rolled? How would he have delivered this blistering but eloquent line from “Lessons of the Hour” in 1895: “Not a breeze comes to us now from the late rebellious States that is not tainted and freighted with negro blood”?
We can – in a way — by close reading of one of his speeches and by taking a few clues into consideration.
First, we know that he sounded so polished and sophisticated that many listeners were skeptical that he’d grown up in slavery. Yet one of his owners had taught him to read and provided him with books, including one of classic speeches. Douglass read these speeches over and over, he wrote in his autobiography, and sought to emulate them. So his talks would have had a classic structure.
Second, we know that he was deeply moved by black spirituals as a youth and that he was licensed as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church shortly after his escape. He spent years soaking up the black gospel tradition of flowing cadences and an emotional, propulsive narrative that sought to save a listener’s soul.
Last, we know that his voice was pleasing to the ear. From the Anti-Slavery Bugle in 1850: “His voice is full and rich, and his enunciation remarkably distinct and musical. He speaks in a low conversational tone most of the time, but occasionally his tones roll out full and deep as those of an organ. The effect is electrical.”
So let’s look at the highlights of a typewritten copy of a passionate speech he often gave about his close friend John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who led the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, to see the man’s magic at work.
Right away, Douglass states his theme: that Brown’s raid was one of the great moments of the American narrative. “Aside from the late tremendous war, I know of no event in all the thirty years of conflict with slavery which will be remembered longer, or make a more thrilling chapter in American History than the Harper’s Ferry raid,” he said. “… reason teaches us to contemplate the John Brown raid in the light of eternity and eternal justice.”
From this lofty height, he drops into the narrative. The 59-year-old Brown led a party of fewer than two dozen men to attack the federal garrison in Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, in an attempt to steal weapons with which to spur slave revolts. But nearly half of his force was killed (including two of his sons) and Brown, badly wounded, was captured. He and five others were given a short trial and hanged. Many people, Douglass included, regarded the raid as the first shot of the Civil War, which began less than two years later.
Douglass then draws his subject close to the heart. You can almost hear the tone drop from the lofty to the intimate. He allows that the people of Harper’s Ferry had every right to be outraged, as the raid was “cold-blooded and dastardly” on the surface. Innocent men, including the town’s mayor, were killed.
But, he says, this reading is incomplete. The raid carried a high moral purpose. He knows this, he says, drawing them in with personal detail, because he knew Brown for more than a decade. The pair spent weeks in each other’s company, often staying in one another’s homes. In fact, Brown had invited him to a secret meeting along a Pennsylvania riverbank a few weeks before the raid, imploring him to join. Douglass declined, seeing the raid as a “steel trap” of failure.
He was such a close confidante of Brown, he tells the crowd, that prosecutors had sought to arrest him as an accomplice after the raid.
Now that listeners know that Douglass is an authority on the raid — he narrowly avoided hanging himself! — he turns his attention back to its place in history. Listen for the rolling waves of imagery, of how his voice must have risen and fallen, coming to a furious conclusion:
“It was planted with the first cargo of slaves, landed at Jamestown Va., and ripened by the heat and moisture of more than two hundred years of cruel slavery. … It was but the echo of alarm and terror of peaceful villages in Africa, startled from their slumbers at midnight a hundred years before by rapacious traders, to supply the markets of this Christian country, with slaves. If three perished at Harper’s Ferry for liberty, millions have been murdered on land and sea by this accursed traffic in human souls.”
You can hear the irony — if not contempt — in the phrase, “this Christian country.” (Also, for the record: A total of 16 men were killed in the raid, including 10 of Brown’s raiders.)
Every speech needs a sense of urgency. Douglass builds it here. The nation was dying, caught in the cancerous web of slavery: “Every hour saw the evil spreading and deepening. Church, State, politics, and religion, were like defiled, and dying as by this moral pestilence. The nation was sinking into a sleep of moral death, and needed some such thunder clap as John Brown’s raid upon Harper’s Ferry, to startle it into a sense of danger.”
Enter our hero. Douglass describes Brown’s modest living circumstances, his devotion to his wife, children and the destruction of slavery. He compares him favorably to Patrick Henry, he of the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. “Henry loved liberty for the rich and the great. Brown loved liberty for the poor and the weak.”
Now, after more than an hour – the speech runs 35 typewritten pages – he builds to his dazzling finale. Brown becomes a majestic, terrible figure astride the American landscape. The last lines:
“But when John Brown stretched forth his arm, the sky was cleared. There was and (sic) end to the argument. The time for compromises was gone, and to the armed hosts of freedom, standing above the chasm of a broken Union, was committed the decision of the sword. The South at once staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing in that, she drew the sword of rebellion, and thus made her own, and not John Brown’s, the lost cause.”
Like the journalist he was, Douglass knew the value of a good kicker. The last words unveil a brilliant twist. He skewers the South’s “lost cause” — the myth that the antebellum South was a wondrous land of charm and principle — and turns Brown’s failure into a great victory. He lost the battle but won the war.
It’s difficult to imagine those lines not bringing a crowd who had lived through the Civil War to its feet. And that’s what made Douglass brilliant. He married the eloquence of his rhetoric to the tragic, terrible cause of his day, and defined it for the ages.
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