3 September 2016
Rhetorical Analysis 1st Draft
To be an effective writer is to have a basic understanding of the rhetorical devices that
allow for a more persuasive style of writing. Masters of the art of writing are skilled in the
process of walking their reader through a specific manner of thinking that will inevitably result
in an intended conclusion. An example of an author who understood how to persuade his readers
is Fredrick Douglass. Perhaps his mastery of persuasion came from necessity, as he found
himself speaking out against an idea that found it’s roots in the foundations of American History.
In the autobiographical excerpt “Learning to Read,” Fredrick Douglass describes his early
introduction to education and the effect it had on his life while using Pathos, Ethos, and Logos to
successfully persuade his audience towards an implied conclusion that stresses the importance of
education in relation to freedom and true equality.
The first and most dominant device that Fredrick Douglass utilizes is Pathos, or an appeal
to emotion. He uses his vocabulary to powerfully describe his master’s wife’s transformation
from a “kind and tender-hearted woman” who’s “tender heart became stone, and [her] lamblike
disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (pg. 25). This description is key in that it
allows the reader to understand the consequences of slavery in relation to both its victims and
enforcers through a visual metaphor that portrays something beautiful becoming ugly. He also
refuses to give the names of his friends who aided him in learning to read because it is illegal to
do so “in this Christian country” (pg. 26). This segment is important because it is a manifestation
of the frustration he has over the fact that he cannot even show gratitude towards his teachers for
legal reasons, as well as a recognition of the hypocrisy the law itself connotes in regards to
America being a “Christian country.” However, the most emotionally compact portion of his
work is undeniably when he begins to describe his realization that his life life is hopeless. His
self-loathing spirit is a factor that resonates with every reader because of the universal nature of
the feeling of desperation. Although the reader does not fully understand his exact way of
feeling, sympathy is stirred in the readers heart and makes the entire excerpt a powerful usage of
Although his excerpt, “Learning to Read” is unavoidably littered with Pathos, Fredrick
Douglass uses Ethos, or an appeal through credibility, much more subtly. The topic of the story
itself is a testament to his credibility as it recalls just how much effort he put into attaining an
education and it conveys the passion he felt against slavery from a young age. I believe that
choosing to write an autobiography was an extremely smart decision on his part as his Ethos had
already been established in America. Writing about himself, as opposed to a fictional story,
allows the excerpt to carry a certain power that is only present because of Fredrick’s reputation
as an intellectual person as well as his past as a slave. In writing about himself, Fredrick
Douglass is also successfully displaying his personal knowledge in the matter at hand while also
making a case for the intellectual potential for slaves, should they be educated. The fact that an
ex-slave is able to understand the world around him and write about it in such an introspective
manner brings an interesting point to the table when discussing slavery for his target audience.
Understanding the audience is an important part of persuasive writing and another way in which
Fredrick Douglas succeeds in being a superb writer.
However, it is my own personal belief that the most important point of Aristotle’s Three
Modes of Persuasion is Logos, an appeal to logic. What good would emotional appeal and
credibility do without facts or solid reasoning to back them up? Like Ethos, Fredrick Douglass
uses Logos more subtly by stating facts that simply add to the story. He does not trust the men
who tell him to run away because it is known to him that many white males attempt to convince
slaves to run away in order to catch them and collect a reward, he doesn’t state the names of his
teachers because of the legality and shame, and the consequences for him being found with a
book or newspaper make it so that his reading must be done in private or through trickery. These
are facts and known circumstances that Fredrick Douglass uses in order to give the reader a
better understanding of the situation. However, Logos is as much facts as it is reasoning. This, in
my opinion, is where Fredrick Douglass really sets himself apart. At first, it may seem that the
entire excerpt focuses solely on the story being told and leaves no room for logic or reasoning.
However, the second to last sentence says: “I continued to do this until I could write a hand very
similar to that of master Thomas” (pg. 28). It is as though the entire excerpt leads to this
moment. Fredrick Douglass does not end with a contrast to where he ended up or how he
achieved his freedom; rather, he simply ends by comparing his writing to that of his young
master. This is because Fredrick Douglass is now subtly making his point obvious: education
leads to equality.
For all of these reasons, I believe that “Learning to Read” is the epitome of what it means
to use Pathos, Ethos, and Logos in an effective way. As a reader, I am fully convinced to believe
in Fredrick Douglass’s cause solely based on the arguments he makes but, more importantly, it is
the manner in which he makes these arguments that fully allows me to buy into his conclusion.
This is the reason I believe Fredrick Douglass to be of the most persuasive writers of all time. It
is not the life he lived that gave him the power with a pen but rather the manner in which he used
his pen to describe such a life that gave him said power.
Austin, Michael, and Karen Austin. Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. New York: W.W.
Norton, 2007. Print.
Douglass, Fredrick. Learning to Read. 1845. Pages 26-28. Print.