Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave By Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis Garrison's Preface

Summary

Certain editions of the Narrative begin with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter to Douglass from Wendell Phillips. Garrison, a well-known abolitionist, begins his preface by telling us he met Douglass at an abolitionist convention and that the former slave's speech so impressed the audience that Garrison felt he "never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment." He adds that Patrick Henry, the American patriot and revolutionary famous for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, "never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to [at that convention] from the lips of that hunted fugitive."

Garrison emphasizes that institutionalized oppression can adversely affect anyone — not just slaves. He explains that a white person can be reduced to the intellectual level of an animal — if oppressed to excess — and he offers an anecdote about a white American sailor who, after having been captured and kept as a slave for three years in Africa, "lost all reasoning power." Slavery surely cripples the intellect, he reasons, and thus, the abolitionist movement is indeed fortunate to include Douglass, someone who has lived through the brutality of slavery but still retains the ability for coherent advocacy.

Garrison testifies that Douglass himself wrote his Narrative: "I am confident that it is essentially true in all its statements; that nothmg has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination." Garrison vouches that any reader unaffected by Douglass' story must indeed have a heart of stone. He adds that Douglass' experiences as a slave are not unique and that there are certainly slaves in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana who are even more badly treated than slaves in Maryland.

There are those, Garrison warns, who "are stubbornly incredulous whenever they read or listen to any recital of the cruelties which are inflicted on [slaves]." These people will try "to discredit the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this truthful Narrative." Garrison, however, is confident that these skeptics will not be able to find falsehoods in the stories Douglass tells.

He ends his preface by mentioning two matters which Douglass later stresses in the Narrative: (1) slaves have no legal recourse; they cannot appeal to any legal authority for the cruelties inflicted upon them by their masters; (2) those people who favor slavery are not on the side of God and Christianity.

Analysis

The entire preface can be considered a classic example of a rhetorical essay, complete with an introduction to the subject (Douglass-as-slave), arguments against slavery (on moral, judicial, scientific, and religious grounds), and a call to arms. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was a journalist, social reformer, and a leading figure in the abolitionist movement, and his preface can be seen as an excellent rhetorical strategy for the entire work because it is an endorsement of Douglass' story, as well as for the veracity of the Narrative. There were many skeptics from both the North and South who did not believe that an escaped, uneducated slave could have written such a narrative, nor did they believe the detailed atrocities that were said to exist in the slave states.

Garrison's reference to Patrick Henry is an attempt to raise Douglass to the level of a great American patriot — that is, the freedoms that Douglass is fighting for are the same freedoms that the early American revolutionaries wanted for themselves. Garrison argues that slaves are human beings who must be given the same rights afforded to other Americans. Garrison brings up an example of an enslaved white American, arguing that slavery reduces the reasoning powers of all humans — regardless of race. He does this as a pre-emptive argument against those who would propose that Africans are intellectually inferior (and that, accordingly, slave-holders are actually "taking care" of them as they would their livestock). Garrison argues that slaves are just like other human beings and thus they must be given the same legal protection as whites have. The inequality of blacks under the law makes the entire slave system unjustifiable. Garrison proclaims that if America truly believes in democracy, justice, and equality, then slavery cannot exist within this system. On a final note, Garrison makes a powerful call to action for all Christians to resist the slave system; he concludes that those who are truly on the side of God must also be against slavery.

Glossary

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) an American revolutionary, famous for his "Give me liberty or give me death" stance.

Charles Renox Remond (1810-1873) another black orator who toured with Douglass, giving anti-slavery speeches.

Alexandrian Library the greatest library in the classical world, located in northern Egypt, on the Mediterranean Sea.

flagellation flogging.

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