The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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The Columbian Orator Symbol Analysis

The Columbian Orator Symbol Icon
After teaching himself to read, Douglass studies books that deal with oppression. He reads The Columbian Orator, in which a slave presents compelling arguments for emancipation. The book also includes speeches from the Catholic Relief movement in England, in which activists successfully campaigned for the removal of restrictions on Roman Catholics. These literary experiences persuade Douglass that the truth is powerful enough to overcome even the most bigoted slaveholder’s views.

The Columbian Orator Quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

The The Narrative of Frederick Douglass quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Columbian Orator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass published in 1995.
Chapter 7 Quotes

On reading The Columbian Orator: “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass managed to learn to read, through piecing together lessons in the street from various white children ("hungry little urchins") whom he gave bread, he becomes fascinated with the book The Columbian Orator. This text includes a variety of "interesting matter," especially a dialogue between a slaveowner and slave which displays the slave's intelligence and eloquence (through "smart" and "impressive" remarks) and results in the slave's emancipation. For Douglass, this conversation gives voice to sentiments inside himself; it articulates his feeling that he craves and deserves freedom and liberty. The slave in this dialogue also serves as a model for Douglass: he speaks the "truth" in order to exert power and contradict his owner's seemingly guiltless yet morally culpable "conscience." Douglass will echo this achievement in his own narrative.

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“The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass explains that he read certain passages of The Columbian Orator many times, such as the dialogue between slave and master and Sheridan's speech about Catholic emancipation, and he analyzes how these readings affected him in multiple ways. Yes, they allowed him to articulate his innate sentiments in opposition to slavery and replaced his ignorance with understanding; they also, however, made him gain additional feelings -- of hostility and even hatred towards the slaveowners that he came to "abhor" and "detest." As these readings allowed Douglass to truthfully come to terms with his condition as slave, the truth threatened Douglass' moral virtue (making him loathe his slaveowners as much as he deplored his own position) although it also allowed him to develop his abolitionist perspective and argument. In learning the "truth," Douglass not only works towards his own freedom and that of others, but also must accept the harsh reality that even the "kindest" of slaveowners are complicit in an impossibly evil institution.

“As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass continues to reflect on the way The Columbian Orator influenced his development, he more directly articulates the negative aspects of realizing the truth about his position (his "wretched condition") as a slave. After reading the work, had a more refined perspective, but still lacked the political or social means to improve his circumstance. He began to have a liminal sort of existence; he was still a slave, but he saw the ignorance (what he called the "stupidity") of his "fellow" slaves, which prevented him from fully belonging to their community. He even wished he was a "beast," feeling that it would be better to live ignorant of the full evils of his position than to be aware of them and still unable to change them.

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