The extract ispart of a speech delivered by prominent abolitionist figure, FrederickDouglass, at Western Reserve College July 12th. Douglass’ “claims ofthe negro ethnologically considered” speech forms one of the many political andmotivational rhetorical pieces he carried out in attempt sway American publicopinion on what he perceived the institution of slavery to be: a morallycorrupt system which unjustifiably mistreats African-Americans as raciallyinferior.
Throughout the extract, and more broadly the entire speech, Douglassdoes not restrain from using bold and concise language as he believes hisaudience should not take a lukewarm stance on the matter in attempting to pleaseboth sides of the argument, or to avoid the matter completely and not take aside altogether. This may be a subtle reference to the well-known ambiguousrhetoric of Thomas Jefferson who frequently changed his opinion in order toplease society. In the speech, Douglass addresses the importance of scholarswhom he deems essential in understanding his side of the argument as they holdsubstantial responsibility for dispersing philosophical principles amongst theAmerican masses. Structurally, Douglassaimed to examine 3 key points during his speech to actively deny the claim thata “negro is not a man”. They consisted of denial based on pure ridicule,denunciation and an opposing argument; the extract provided forms part of thedenunciation section.
Douglass is openly criticising the growing scientificexplanations on the ideas of race and black inferiority. The speech wasdelivered around the same time Josiah C. Nott published his work on the Typesof mankind. However, Douglass discourteously refers to connections of “men withmonkeys” as “scientific moonshine” using moonshine to figuratively depict nonsense.
He is discrediting the theories from the leading figures of the school ofanthropology by further including the notion of the great chain of being in hisreference to a “sliding scale” to suggest scientific individuals simplyexaggerate their ideas. This is evident in Douglass’ reference to the”ourang-ou-tang , and the other to angels, and all the rest intermediates”. Heimplies that the concept of polygenism associates the Europeans as the “angels”and the best form of human being linked to leadership and hegemony, and theAfricans as the “ourang-ou-tangs” linked to animal-like characteristics. Douglasattempts to ridicule the two extremes of the spectrum, as the enlightenmentthinkers massively neglect the rest of the world as “intermediates”. Douglasssuggests their ideas on natural law and order, and the supposed belief thateach race may only ever fulfil a particular status within society based on whatthe nature’s hierarchy permits them to, is merely a way for Americans towarrant Africans to the necessary evil of slavery.
Contextually, the speech wasdelivered after the Kansas Nebraska act, and is therefore a form of retaliationand way for Douglass to stand his ground amid the abolitionist movement. Duringa time of significant political and social reform, the extract embeds itself amongstnew and challenging theories and Douglass’ concluding proclamation that the Negrois a MAN displays his immense passion, influenced by his own person experiencesas a slave, for opposing the peculiar institution.