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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Persuasive Language

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two things are compared to suggest a similarity and thereby provide insight into the object of study. For example, someone explaining life to a child might say that life is a bowl of cherries, a box of chocolates, a journey, or a game of baseball. By providing an imaginative way to think about an object, event, or idea, a metaphor can be not only an aid to understanding but also a persuasive tool.  Another tool of persuasion is reference to authoritative sources, especially those sources that are held in high esteem by many people (such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution).

Among the items in Frederick Douglass’ collection of speeches, articles, and books was a speech delivered in January 1864 by Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general between 1861 and 1864. The speech before the Maryland legislature supported Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction.  In the speech, Blair discussed a charge against King George III that was deleted from the Declaration of Independence:

…Slavery, as a great element of society, makes slaves of all associated with it, by the passions it inflames: the masters, by the ambition it inspires—the masses, with which it mingles, by the deadline contagion it spreads in a thousand forms. It is marked in the Declaration of Independence as the most virulent poison instilled by the king, to enfeeble for subjugation, the people on whom he made war, and it has proved the most potent ingredient that could be employed for the dissolution of the fabric of free government, which withstood the king’s attempt. If the virus he [George III] infused, which was strong enough amid the enthusiasm for new-born freedom, to stifle the voice of the Declaration of Independence, denouncing slavery, and has kept the free Government—the hard-earned prize of the revolutionary war—in tremor ever since, is it now, when it has been poured out with the nation’s blood in the fratricidal war, it forced on the country, again to be admitted into the system?

From “Speech by the Hon. Montgomery Blair, on the Causes of the Rebellion”  (page 17)

  • What case was Blair making about slavery? Why do you think he was making this speech to the Maryland legislature? Do you think this speech would be persuasive with the audience Blair was addressing?
  • What metaphor for slavery did Blair use? Do you think this was an apt comparison? Did it make Blair’s argument more persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Blair included this reference to the Declaration of Independence? Is it effective in making his point?

In a farewell speech to the British in 1847, Frederick Douglass also talked about slavery and the Declaration of Independence. He said, in part,

Seventy years ago they went to war in defense of liberty, as they said. Sixty years ago they formed a constitution, over the very gateway of which they inscribed the words: To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. In their Declaration of Independence, they made the loudest and clearest assertion of the rights of man ever promulgated by any nation on this globe: At the very same time, the very men who drew up that Declaration; the very men who famed the Constitution; the very men who adopted that Constitution, were holding their fellow man in bondage and were trafficking in their bodies and souls.

From the adoption of the Constitution of the United States onwards, everything good and great in the heart of the American people, everything patriotic, has been summoned to cover up this great national falsehood. They have done it by wrapping slavery up in horrid and deceptive words. When speaking of slavery, they call it “Peculiar institution,” “Social system,” “Domestic institution,” “Patriarchical institution.” They seem to be ashamed to call it by its right name.

From “Farewell Speech to the British People, London"

  • What case was Douglass making about slavery? Do you think this speech would be persuasive to the British audience to which it was given?
  • What metaphor did Douglass use?  Do you think this was an apt comparison? Did it make Douglass’ argument more persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Douglass included the references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence? Were they effective in making his point?
  • Which speech do you find more persuasive—Douglass’ or Blair’s? Explain your answer.

Think about a current issue that is important to you. Write a persuasive essay in which you use one or more metaphors to provide insight into the problem and refer to one of the founding documents to support your point.