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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.

For Monday, we considered Simón Bolívar’s response to a letter by Harry Cullen interested in the affairs of South America. Cullen’s letter provides much of the structure for Bolívar’s response as Bolívar, who quotes from several passages of the original letter, answers each of Cullen’s questions concerning South America. For instance, Bolívar quotes from the original letter as early as the fifth paragraph of the letter (“‘Three centuries ago,’ you write, ‘marked the beginning…’).

However, as much as Bolívar is indebted to Cullen’s words for the structure of his response, Bolívar appears to have conflicted feelings about Cullen, Cullen’s opinions, and Cullen’s questions. On the one hand, Bolívar is delighted with this opportunity for defending the cause of South American independence. His letter opens: “I hasten to reply to the letter of 29 August, which you honored me by writing and which I received with the greatest satisfaction” (p. 12). Given Bolívar’s language (“hasten to reply”, “honored me”, and “the greatest satisfaction”), it is apparent that Cullen’s letter was welcomed.

On the other hand, though, Bolívar is frustrated with Cullen’s thoughts and inquiries. For instance, in paragraphs 20 and 21 on pages 16 and 17, Bolívar replies to Cullen’s comparison between Napoleon Bonaparte’s “felonious seizure of Carlos IV and Fernando VII, kings of [Spain]” and the seizure of Montezuma and Atahualpa by the Conquistadores:

I believe you are alluding to Montezuma, the monarch of Mexico, captured and killed by Cortez according to Herrera, though Solís says the Mexican people killed him, and Atahualpa, the Inca of Peru, destroyed by Francisco Pizzaro and Diego de Almagro. However, there is such a difference between the fortunes of the Spanish kings and the American kings that no comparison is valid… (emphasis mine) (p. 17)

Given the allusion made by Cullen to the unhappy fates of Montezuma and Atahualpa, it is clear that he possessed a measure of familiarity with Spain’s conquest of Central and South America. Yet, in his response, Bolívar references the accounts made of the Conquest by two different historians (“Herrera” and “Solís”). In doing this, Bolívar is attempting to denigrate Cullen’s knowledge of South American history—as though to say, “This is my country, and I understand it. Please do speak of that which you do not understand.” His frustration is further explicated in Bolívar’s declaration that “between the fortunes of the Spanish kings and the American kings…no comparison is valid,” which is succeeded by a lengthy description of how the fortunes of Montezuma and Atahualpa differed with those of Fernando VII and Carlos IV (p. 17).

In closing, Simón Bolívar is indebted to Harry Cullen both because Cullen’s letter provides the structural backbone to Bolívar’s own letter and because of the opportunity it provides Bolívar to articulate his vision for South America. Yet, while he appreciates Cullen’s letter for these reasons, Bolívar is disgusted by what he perceives as Cullen’s lack of knowledge concerning the affairs of South America.

As the author of the Declaration of Independence, America’s first Secretary of State, and President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most imposing personages in American History. Few of us can ever forget the opening pair of paragraphs to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in which he articulates America’s faith in the desirability and efficacy of republican self-government. Yet, as much as he was a firm believer in life, liberty, and property (the original meaning for the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”), Jefferson was a man of profound contradictions.

On the one hand, Jefferson believed in racial equality, in fact praising the Amerindians (usually the object of British scorn and condescension) for “eloquence in council, bravery and address in war.” (Anthology, p. 530) These traits are consistent with many of the qualities extolled in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, which heavily influenced the thinking of most men (including Jefferson himself) through much of the 18th Century. On a larger scale, while refuting claims made by naturalist Count de Buffon concerning human, animal, and plant life in the New World, Jefferson alludes to his belief in racial equality:

I do not mean to deny, that there are varieties in the race of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and mind…I only mean to suggest a doubt, whether the bulk and faculties of animals depend on the side of the Atlantic on which their food happens to grow, or which furnishes the elements of which they are compounded? (Anthology, p. 531)

On the other hand, Jefferson pulls no punches when it comes to criticizing Blacks, or declaring their inferiority compared to both Whites and Amerindians. For instance, at one point, after noting how Blacks seemed to require less sleep than Whites or Indians, Jefferson nonetheless declares that their seeming lack of vigor or initiative can be “ascribed [to] their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor.” (Anthology, p. 533)

This contradiction extends to Jefferson’s magnum opus—the Declaration of Independence. In a passage, which eventually deleted from the final Declaration, Jefferson castigates the British Crown’s support for the slave trade as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him.” (Anthology, p. 528) The vehemence of his disagreement with the British Crown’s policies becomes more apparent in some of his diction, which is peppered with phrases like “piratical warfare,” “the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers,” and “prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit…this execrable commerce.” (Anthology, p. 528)

However, in the same portion of the Declaration, Jefferson also goes on to castigate the British Crown for “exciting [the slaves] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded then.” (Anthology, p. 528) As much as this portion eventually was deleted because of the possibility it might offend significant pro-slavery forces within the Colonies, it also was deleted because of this irreconcilable contradiction: Britain supposedly enslaved the people of Africa, but simultaneously was encouraging them to fight against their colonial masters in order to secure their liberty.

The negative impacts of these contradictions within Jefferson’s thought on the Declaration of Independence are significant. To most unbiased observers, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, far from being a profound declaration of human liberty and our right to self-government, is one of the silliest documents imaginable because, even as it preaches the universal applicability of freedom, it recognizes and indeed accepts institutions and attitudes that are opposed fundamentally to freedom.

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