Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882)
Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Ideas that seem radical in one era often become common sense in another
and thus may appear obvious to the point of being uninteresting. Furthermore,
out of its historical context, Garnet's "Address to the Slaves of
the United States" may be hard for students to distinguish from other,
more moderate abolitionist appeals.
Garnet's diction is primarily that of a highly literate nineteenth-century
black man who has had a white education in theology. Students will understand
what he's saying, but unless they can hear
his voice they'll have
trouble feeling what he means.
To teach Garnet effectively, his work should be presented in the context
of the wider (and, of course, two-sided) debate on abolition. Second, it's
important to pay attention to the form of this address and to its actual
audience: Garnet is speaking before the National Negro Convention (1843).
Is he speaking to that audience or is he trying to communicate with American
slaves? The former, obviously. Ideally, some of this should be read aloud.
Despite his radicalism, Garnet fits comfortably into a tradition of
"learned" nineteenth-century religious/political orators. As
such, Garnet is a fine representative of the abolitionists who made the
argument against slavery in part by demonstrating their intellectual equality
with whites. But there is another strain of American abolitionists-- perhaps
best represented by Sojourner
--who made the same argument on personal and emotional grounds,
and whose appeal belongs to another great American tradition, one that
is in some sense almost anti-intellectual in its emphasis on the value
of common sense and folk wisdom. Particularly since those two traditions
are alive and well in contemporary America, it is useful to place them
side by side.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It may be useful to point out that Garnet's appeal failed (by a single
vote) to be adopted by the Convention. Why might this have happened? Garnet's
speech is steeped in Christianity, but he seems to advocate violence in
the name of Christianity. When is the use of force legitimate? Useful?
How is his position different from those taken by contemporaries such as
Garnet's audience is implicitly exclusively male; how can one be so opposed
to slavery and yet so unconcerned about women's rights?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Although this speech was eventually printed (1865), it was obviously
written for oral delivery. Nevertheless, Garnet's pretext is that he is
writing a letter; could his pretended audience of slaves have actually
received such a letter? Certainly not. What is the rhetorical purpose of
pretending to address one audience while actually addressing another? Could
Garnet's "Address" be regarded as a sermon? If so, can a sermon
also be a call to arms? It is useful to approach the "Address"
as a piece of argumentation, to see how Garnet makes his case, and to show
how it builds itself through repetition (e.g., the repeated address to
"Brethren") and through the chronological deployment of names
of famous men and famous deeds to his conclusion, which is a call for armed
The simplest way to evoke a discussion of audience is to ask a set of
fairly obvious questions: What is the stated audience? What is the "real"
audience? How large an audience would that have been in the 1840s?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
First, and most obvious, Garnet can be contrasted with King
to discuss theories of resistance and passive resistance. (Consider especially
the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" with its "real" and
"implied" audiences.) It is also useful to have students read
the "Address" against Lincoln's
Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural (to compare form and content).
Garnet may be read against Walker
(to show similarities and differences, the evolution of the radical position)
and against Douglass
(to discuss styles of persuasion).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
reading: Who or what is Garnet's real audience?
Why does he pretend to be writing a letter?
Bremer, William. "Henry Highland Garnet." In Blacks in
White America Before 1865
, edited by Robert Haynes. New York, 1972.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists
. New York, 1969.
Schor, Joel. Henry Highland Garnet
. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood,