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Christian Braun

Period 1 AP Lang
The Peculiar Institution and Its Peculiar Effect
The greatest stain in the history of the United States is the institution of slavery, in which
some Americans bought and sold African-American slaves as chattel. This practice seemed to be
vital to society at the time, but in the early 19th century, fierce anti-slavery sentiment began to
emerge, especially in the North. In addition to many white men and women, some former slaves
who had escaped their masters, such as Frederick Douglass, partook in this movement. In his
autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass utilizes the rhetorical
devices of irony, analogy, and parallelism to successfully emphasize the dehumanizing effects of
slavery on all participants, from slave to slave owner.
To begin the story, Douglass uses these rhetorical devices whilst narrating the trials and
tribulations of other slaves to highlight the dehumanizing effect of slavery. While describing the
vast plantation of Colonel Lloyd, Douglass utilizes irony while referencing the Colonels deep
concern for the care of his horse. He notes that the slaves in charge of the stable, old Barney and
young Barney, would frequently be whipped if Lloyds horse has not been sufficiently rubbed
and curried, or if he has not been properly fed; his food was too wet or too dry; he got it too soon
or too late; he was too hot or too cold; he had too much hay, and not enough of gram; or he had
too much grain, and not enough of hay (17). In this passage, Douglass presents the irony in this
situation, for the slaves on Colonel Lloyds plantation frequently had the same exact problems:
not being fed, not being cleaned, or not being sheltered. However, the primary concern of Lloyd
is to ensure that his horse, which is a mere work animal, has all of these necessities, while he
allows his slaves, who are human beings, to suffer the consequences of being denied these bare

minimums of life, effectively placing the worth of the horse above the worth of the slave.
Therefore, by describing this irony, Douglass emphasizes the dehumanizing effect of slavery on
the slaves, whose worth is being reduced to less than that of animals. Furthermore, while
describing the conditions of slave children, Douglass uses analogy when he details how the
children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour
the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and
none with spoons (27). Instead of merely recording that the children were served undesirable
food, Douglass creates an analogy which likens the slave children to pigs, emphasizing how the
institution of slavery reduces the value of human life to that of livestock. Also, by noting that the
children did not have basic utensils, like spoons, to eat with, Douglass further illustrates how
slaves are denied what every free person took for granted, again emphasizing the dehumanizing
effect of slavery. In addition, Douglass utilizes parallelism while explaining how a slave,
Demby, was murdered in cold blood by the overseer, Mr. Gore, for simply disobeying orders
after running away from a punishment. After he gave the first call to return to the plantation and
Demby made no response, the second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore
then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional
call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor
Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the
water where he had stood (23). In this passage, Douglass utilizes parallelism to make what
should be a decision filled with hesitation and guilt -- murder -- into a simple, matter-of-fact
occurrence, stripping the event of all human emotions. By creating this apathetic tone with
parallel structure, Douglass emphasizes the dehumanizing effect of slavery, for instead of being a
gut-wrenching event, taking the life of another human seems like a normal, boring occasion for

Mr. Gore. Furthermore, by utilizing gory imagery at the end of his description of the murder,
Douglass appeals to pathos, striking up great emotion and disgust at the savage act committed by
Gore and further emphasizing the sheer cruelty and disregard for human dignity within the
institution of slavery. Thus, by utilizing the rhetorical devices of irony, analogy, and parallelism
while describing the conditions of other slaves, Douglass emphasizes the dehumanizing effect of
Later in his autobiography, Douglass uses the same rhetorical devices of irony, analogy,
and parallelism while detailing his own experiences as a slave to underscore the dehumanizing
effect of slavery on all participants, from slave to slave owner. Douglass uses irony while
describing how during his time as a slave, after learning to read, he attempted to create a Sabbath
school in the town of St. Michaels to enable other slaves to read the Bible. However, to keep
the school safe from resistance, he and his students had to keep the religious masters
unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and
drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather
see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and
accountable beings (81). In this passage, Douglass describes the obvious irony present: that
religious masters, whose primary goal should be to ensure the moral behavior of their followers,
instead strived to make slaves dependent on vice. Thus, the real goal of the religious masters
was to make slaves easier to control, not to ensure religious salvation, which is their goal for all
other whites. By seeking to corrupt the lives of slaves, these leaders proved to be more like slave
masters than religious masters, for in their view, slaves were chattel to be controlled rather than
souls to be saved. In addition to this, after being sent to Mr. Covey, who was known as a slavebreaker, Douglass uses and analogy to highlight both his savage cruelty and crazed mannerisms,

which led the slaves to call him the snake. When we were at work in the cornfield, he would
sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly
in our midst (61). While describing this odd mannerism, Douglass utilizes an analogy which
compares Covey to a snake, specifically in regard to his cunning and furtiveness. By referring to
him as a snake, Douglass strips Covey of his humanity and instead compares him to an animal so
evil it was banished from the Garden of Eden, emphasizing how the immense power of one
human over another in the institution of slavery reduces human beings into savage animals.
Thus, slavery dehumanizes slave owners, too. Furthermore, after one of his masters died and the
estate was divided, Douglass utilizes parallelism while explaining the valuation process, where
all were ranked together... Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked
with horses, sheep and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children,
all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and all were subjected to the same narrow
examination. (45). By constructing these careful, parallel sentences, Douglass groups all those
present at the valuation -- slave and livestock -- into one large group, no matter their similarities
or differences. By creating this group, Douglass equates slaves with livestock, illustrating how
the institution of slavery stripped living, sentient human beings of their humanity, reducing them
into beasts of burden. Therefore, by utilizing these rhetorical devices whilst describing his own
experiences as a slave, Douglass emphasizes the dehumanizing effect the institution of slavery
has on both slaves and their owners.
In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass utilizes the
rhetorical devices of irony, analogy, and parallelism to highlight the dehumanizing effect of
slavery on all participants, from slave to slave owner. To accomplish his goal, he vividly
describes multiple events he both witnessed and participated in which illustrate the negative

effect slavery has on the humanity of both slave and master. Thus, although at the time slavery
may have seemed to be beneficial to prosperity in America, in reality, it was perhaps the greatest
obstacle to the United Statess full potential -- a republic in which all citizens, having been made
equal by the Creator above, are treated as such and are able to accomplish any goal in mind.