Tue 28 Nov 2006
In his Preface to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison relates the details of his first encounter with Frederick Douglass, the Narrative’s author and subject, at an anti-slavery convention where Douglass had been invited to speak. Of his opinion of Douglass’ speech, Garrison writes:
As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive. (Preface, p. 997)
As much as this sentence is intended to praise Douglass’ eloquence, it also provides us with not a few insights about the Preface’s author—Garrison himself.
First, from the sentence’s structure, it is clear that, as much as this sentence is about Douglass’ speech, it also is about on Garrison and his crusade against slavery—indeed, that its primary focus is Garrison and his anti-slavery agenda. The sentence opens with a dependent clause with Douglass as its subject (“As soon as he had taken his seat”). The statement’s main clause, which constitutes the sentence’s heart, on the other hand, has not Douglass, but Garrison as its subject (“I rose and declared…”). This indicates Garrison is the sentence’s main focus since it is Garrison who performs all of the actual actions the sentence describes. It is Garrison who fills with “hope and admiration,” Garrison who rises, and Garrison who compares favorably Douglass to Patrick Henry. For Garrison, Douglass’ speech really is significant only insofar as it prompts Garrison to act.
This analysis is strengthened further by the fact Garrison fails to quote even a couple of words of Douglass’ eloquence. Certainly if Douglass’ speech was superior to any one of Patrick Henry’s speech with all of their memorable declarations, it would be reasonable for Garrison to quote from some small part of it. However, to our knowledge, nothing of the actual words of this particular speech by Douglass can be found in either Garrison’s Preface or another source. The nearest thing to the speech’s actual text, which we have, is Garrison’s statement that Douglass uttered “many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections” in the preceding sentence (Preface, p. 997).
Second, the comparison between Patrick Henry and Douglass reveals something of Garrison’s vision for Douglass’ role in the war against slavery. In comparing Douglass’ speech with Patrick Henry’s numerous speeches in defense of liberty, Garrison is drawing a connection between Douglass’ speech and such iconic calls-to-arms as “Give me liberty or give me death,” or “If this be treason, gentlemen, then make the most of it.” For Garrison, like Patrick Henry did during the American War of Independence, Douglass was to inspire the common people of the North to take action against slavery either by forcing Federal or State governments to abolish slavery or by forcing the Southern States to secede from the Union. Indeed, as a survivor of slavery (“that fugitive slave”) who continued to identify himself as such, Douglass is perfectly placed to enlighten the Northern populace about the degrading nature of slavery and direct their sense of moral outrage against it.