Douglass’ “The Lessons of the Hour”, Part II
“But my friends, I must stop. Time and strength are not equal to the task before me. But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the trump of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages.” (365-6)
Frederick Douglass must conclude his lengthy and final speech, “The Lessons of the Hour”, so he tells his listeners, who at this point are his “friends” that he must stop. He has moved his rhetorical position from that of a witness to that of judge condemning Americans for their basic lack of respect for the black man (Childree) and now he sounds the notes of a prophet calling America back to its rightful place as world savior. This twenty-six page speech with its lengthy explanation of Douglass’ initial rhetorical position as witness and then his rhetorical position of judge would require much time to deliver. Thus, Douglass’ explanation that he has not the “time” for the “task before [him]” furthers his initial claims that he not waste anyone’s time (Childree). In addition, Douglass cites that his “strength” is also “not equal to the task before [him]”, allowing him as a black man to humbly leave the remaining task to others. This may also be a reference to his approximate age of seventy-six in 1894 and the time and strength he will no longer have as he faces a future death.
Instead of simply ending, though, Douglass sounds the call of a prophet, one not heard by his nation when he wishes “But could I be heard by this great nation.” Like many of the prophets of the Old Testament whom the Israelite nation did not listen to and so entered into greater and greater sin, Douglass calls the audience to attention by reminding it of the auspicious birth of the United States. Here, Douglass is a prophet of hope, even if he is not heard, reminding Americans that when the country formed (“its birth…[that]…saluted a listening world”) it formed from “sublime and glorious truths.” These truths were named in the Declaration of Independence, and the new nation’s “voice” was like that of “an archangel” at the day of judgment.
Matthew 25:31-46 (KJV) describes Jesus’ return to earth and his separation of the people into groups of those who gave to the sick, injured, and poor and those whose greed consumed them. America’s birth, for Douglass, is the savior’s return to the world. The world’s monarchy (“crowned heads”) feared the birth of the United States for it meant that the monarchy, or any other governmental power, could not wield unchecked power; their greed had consumed them and condemned them to death. Those monarchs who “shrieked” were like the demons who fled from Jesus during his earthly ministry, those with “unclean spirits” who like the demon possessed man in Mark 1:24 (KJV) “cried out, “Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.” For Douglass, America’s birth represented the destruction of the demon of unfettered power.
The idea of a nation “based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality” and the realization of this idea by the United States upon independence from the crown of England demonstrates for Douglass that a nation based on the truths of the Enlightenment named in the Declaration would be a nation that did what the Israelite nation could not: create a world free “from the bondage of ages”. As Israel produced a spiritual savior, so the United States at its inception produced a physical savior, and Douglass is its prophet, now in old age, proclaiming that until America applies “these sublime and glorious truths to the situation”, America will never again become the land where freedom for all men is a reality and not a misspent dream of a nation that refused to listen to her prophets and turn from evil.
The Bible. King James Version. The Bible Study App. 10 Aug. 2016.
Childree, Heather D. “Douglass’ ‘The Lessons of the Hour.’” ENG 551: African American Rhetoric Discussion Post, Arizona State University, 30 Aug. 2016.
Douglass, Frederick. “The Lessons of the Hour.” The Oxford Frederick Douglas Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 340-366.