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William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, describes his first encounter with Frederick Douglass at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1841. This encounter led to a long partnership between Douglass and the Anti-Slavery Society. At the convention, Douglass spoke to the audience about his life under slavery, and the audience responded powerfully to Douglass’s impressive physical presence and intellectual demeanor. Garrison recalls rising after Douglass’s speech and declaring it a better piece of oration, even, than the speech of the Patrick Henry during the time of the American Revolution. Garrison describes the audience’s resounding positive response after Garrison asked them for a commitment to protect Douglass from slave owners.
Garrison recalls immediately recruiting Douglass as an anti-slavery promoter to aid the abolitionist cause and to make American audiences question their prejudice against blacks. Since Garrison recruited him, Douglass has been a successful and persuasive speaker. Douglass’s prestige is due to his perfect union of head and heart, which helps him capture the hearts and convince the minds of others. Douglass’s career proves wrong those who insist that the Negro race is naturally inferior. Garrison argues that any race would have become as degraded as the Negro race, had they been subjected to slavery. He relates the case of a shipwrecked white man who was kept in slavery in Africa for three years. When the man was found, he was unable to remember his native language and his powers of reason. Thus mental deterioration is a result of slavery, not a preexisting quality of the slave population.
Garrison attests that the Narrative is entirely Douglass’s own work and is entirely truthful. Garrison compliments the Narrative’s literary merit, specifically its power to emotionally affect readers. He points specifically to the passage of Douglass’s soliloquy on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay as evidence of Douglass’s sublime mind. Garrison points out that as bad as Douglass’s experiences have been, many slaves suffer even more. Garrison asks rhetorically how the practice of slavery, revealed to be evil, can be allowed to continue. He deplores the skeptics who refuse to believe in the brutality of the institution of slavery even when faced with evidence of its deprivation, physical cruelty, and sexual abuse. He anticipates that such skeptics will attempt to discredit Douglass, but will inevitably fail in the face of the candid truthfulness of the Narrative.
Garrison discusses the troubling issue of white men killing slaves and suffering no consequences. Douglass cites two cases of this in his Narrative, and Garrison points to another recent case in Maryland. Garrison reminds readers that this kind of murder happens frequently and goes unpunished, as black men and women are not allowed to testify against whites. Finally, he addresses and supports Douglass’s particular rejection of the false Christianity of slaveholders. Garrison exhorts readers to repudiate slaveholders and join in support of the victims of slavery, as this is the side of God and faith.
Wendell Phillips, abolitionist and president of the American Anti‑Slavery Society, writes to Douglass as a friend. Phillips is relieved that factual accounts of the experiences of slaves are now being published so that the history of slavery can be fully revealed. Previously the histories of slavery consisted only of the selective information released by slaveholders. Phillips values Douglass’s Narrative as an example of a slave awakening to his rights and as a description of slavery’s particular campaign against the souls of slaves. Phillips considers it remarkable that Douglass’s account originates in an area of the United States where slavery is said to be less harsh, thus attesting to unthinkable cruelty that must be experienced by those slaves in the Deep South.
Phillips attests that Douglass’s Narrative is neither exaggerated nor unjust. The particular instances of cruelty that Douglass experienced and witnessed are not anomalies, but fundamental parts of the institution of slavery. Phillips fears for Douglass, who has written the true names of himself and his masters and has thus put himself in danger of recapture. Phillips draws a parallel between Douglass and the fathers of the Declaration of Independence who jeopardized their lives by signing their names. Phillips knows that Douglass will be shielded by those abolitionists in the North who deliberately scorn the Fugitive Slave Laws, but this gesture is not enough. Massachusetts must soon explicitly declare itself an asylum for fugitive slaves.
Slave narratives often begin with prefaces, written by white editors, that attempt to prepare white audiences for the narrative itself. Such prefaces usually testify to the authenticity of the narrative—the truth of its facts and the credibility of its black authorship. Because the editors position themselves as authorities on the narratives, the prefaces implicitly place black narratives under the control of white editors. Garrison’s preface in particular displays the urge to control and contain Douglass’s career and narrative. Garrison places himself at the center of the text. Douglass’s success story is replaced somewhat by the story of Garrison’s judgment and fostering of Douglass’s talent. Thus when Garrison recalls Douglass’s first speech at the Nantucket antislavery meeting, he does not reproduce any of Douglass’s words. Instead, he expounds on his own small speech after Douglass’s. Garrison’s speech champions Douglass’s abilities, but it also assumes the right to pass judgment on the quality of Douglass’s speech. Garrison controls and contains Douglass’s speech by placing it in comparison to historical references familiar to white audiences—the context of the American revolutionaries.
Read more about the historical context of Douglass’s memoir.
Garrison’s and Phillips’s prefaces also present Douglass’s Narrative as a contribution to the political and philosophical argument against slavery. Both prefaces contain political arguments in favor of abolition and refutations of pro-slavery arguments. For instance, both men specifically address critics who insist that the violence of slavery is exaggerated and that stories like Douglass’s are uncommon. Phillips and Garrison each point out that Douglass had a relatively mild experience of slavery in Maryland, one of the less isolated and harsh slave states. Similarly, Garrison addresses those who argue that it is natural that Negroes be kept as slaves because they are naturally inferior. To refute this, Garrison cites the case of the white man who experienced significant mental deterioration when kept as a slave in Africa for three years. Garrison also points to Douglass as a specimen of superior manhood, offering up Douglass’s refinement of feeling, complexity of thought, oratorical genius, and even his commanding physical presence as evidence to contradict the claim that Negro race is inferior.
Read more about purpose and importance of Garrison’s preface and Phillips’s letter.
Garrison suggests that Douglass’s Narrative is powerful because it offers such a drastic double picture—the articulate, familiar, enlightened Douglass presents and interprets his unenlightened, oppressed self under slavery. This duality of the protagonist is common to the genre of autobiography. In autobiography, a necessary disparity exists between the author as teller and the author’s younger self. The disparity between these two selves in Douglass’s case is particularly extreme because his story is not simply about a young man maturing but a young man escaping the oppression of slavery and becoming educated. Garrison presents the huge disparity between Douglass the author and Douglass the slave as evidence of the unnaturalness of slavery.
Read more about Frederick Douglass’s double role as both narrator and protagonist.
Garrison hints at another doubleness in Douglass’s Narrative—the fact that the Narrative is a story about Douglass’s specific and personal life and experiences, but is also meant to stand politically as the experience of most slaves. Though Garrison acknowledges Douglass’s unique abilities, Garrison also recognizes the necessity of reading the Narrative as a representative depiction of any soul under slavery. In his preface, Garrison implies this substitution of Douglass for all slaves. Garrison’s appeal to the Nantucket crowd to protect Douglass is, then, an implicit appeal to protect all fugitive slaves and to work against the institution of slavery in general.
Both Garrison’s and Phillips’s prefaces suggest that the literary merit of Douglass’s Narrative lies in its ability to move readers, sometimes to tears. Nineteenth-century readers commonly admired deep feeling and pathos, and sentimentalism was a popular literary and rhetorical genre. Sentimental fiction and oration sought to motivate readers and listeners to political action through sympathy with those suffering under oppression. Readers and writers valued emotional displays of weeping as evidence of earnest and intricate emotional awareness. Many believed that this emotional awareness was a necessary component of intellectual reason. Though sections of Garrison’s and Douglass’s prose may seem trite or teary to us today, they would have originally been evidence of genuine and moral feeling at the time in which the Narrative was written.
Read more about the function of Garrison’s preface and Phillip’s letter.