Mapping the Oratory of Frederick Douglass

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In 1843, we witness some of the struggles and successes of Frederick Douglass as he begins his speaking career with the Garrisonians. Early in 1843, Douglass spoke at fairs and conventions around Boston and neighboring towns even venturing into Rhode Island for a few speaking engagements. He remained around this area of the Northeast United States under the guidance of his fellow Garrisonians and Garrison himself. Throughout this time Douglass spoke at long engagements for multiple days in a row. He was not speaking on a circuit or tour, but was instead joining with other Abolitionist at large events. A large Anti-Slavery Convention in Buffalo was Douglass’s first extended trip outside of the Boston area and was accompanied by stops in Rochester and Syracuse along the way. As the year progressed, Douglass was given more freedom and took longer trips further away from the Garrisonian hub of Boston, often accompanied by other speakers. The most notable of these trips was Douglass’s tour in Indiana where he stopped at towns like Richmond, Pendleton, and Jonesboro. At Pendleton, Douglass and others were confronted by a large group of rioters that drove the speakers off the stage. In Jonesboro, Douglass came into conflict with one of his fellow speakers, George Bradburn. Following the tour in the Midwest, Douglass took a brief hiatus before returning for events in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Douglass’s first year as a speaker featured successes as well as struggles while he adjusted to his new role.

By the 1870s, Douglass has been as recognized as one of the most renowned as an abolitionist, writer, and orator. This analysis of his geographic speaking pattern not only promoted his effective public speaking skills, but also provided a holistic context in better understanding the messages behind Douglass’ speeches. Several of Frederick Douglass’ profound speeches were delivered to large, captivating groups and organizations on the east coast of the United States.  Whether Douglass was traveling to Manchester, New Hampshire or Washington D.C., he spoke to people who were brown and white, young and old, and even poor and wealthy. These individuals filled many city halls anxiously awaiting the first word spoken from his mouth.  Douglass spoke at many rallies including Republican Rallies.

 Later in 1883, Douglass was living in Washington DC at Cedar Hill, where he had lived since 1877 and where he would live for the rest of his life. The year began, on New Year’s Day, with a banquet honoring Douglass, at which he spoke of the progress made since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the hope that started the year was not present at its close. Most of the orations Douglass gave during the year were in Washington DC with three in Maryland, one in Virginia, and one in Louisville, Kentucky during the National Convention of Colored Men. The convention was originally proposed by Douglass and other African American leaders in the DC area to take place in September in Washington DC. However, before two weeks had passed, the site of the proposed convention changed to Louisville. Douglass was publicly accused of changing the venue at the president’s order, which Douglass disputed outright. It is now believed that the change was made due to the belief that hosting the convention in the nation’s capital might be disadvantageous as the Supreme Court was planning to reconsider the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which acted to give all citizens equal rights and access to accommodations and public spaces. Because of the controversy surrounding the change in venue, many blacks boycotted the convention, which finally took place on September 24 through the 26. Only weeks later, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and, on October 22, Douglass delivered a speech to a group of more than 2,000 people, white and black. He said, “The cause which has brought us here to-night is neither common nor trivial. Few events in our national history have surpassed it in magnitude, importance and significance. It has swept over the land like a moral cyclone, leaving moral desolation in its track.”