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The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, was written to protect basic American rights, yet the freedoms it presented were kept from countless African slaves. During the same year, Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and the son of former slaves, decided to challenge society’s viewpoint of slavery. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Banneker illustrates the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence, describes the oppressive conditions that slaves had to endure, and offers a solution for equality in order to argue against the cruel nature of slavery.
Banneker employs exemplification, providing a specific case to support his argument, to illustrate the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence. Aiming to take advantage of America’s historical struggles, Banneker forces his audience to remember the time when they themselves were victims of oppression. He provides a sensitive example in which America has been reduced to a “State of Servitude” by the controlling “tyranny of the British Crown” to appeal to his patriotic audience who fought so hard to free their country from oppression. Comparing America’s previous helpless state to the plight of slaves establishes a feeling of guilt among audience members who have experienced the same oppression, convincing them to take on an anti-slavery viewpoint.
Banneker candidly describes the grotesque conditions that slaves are forced to endure through a use of strong language such as the “horrors of its condition” and the “groaning captivity” and “cruel oppression”. Horrific and appalling, the description evokes a sense of pity from the audience as they imagine the insufferable obstacles that slaves have to face on an everyday basis. The audience — still guilt-ridden from the memory of their own battle with oppression — is able to emotionally connect with the plight of slaves and is more likely to be swayed to take a stance against slavery.
His compelling description of slavery still resonating, Banneker offers a solution of equality. Like a wise and patient mentor teaching his student, Banneker proposes that society “put your their souls in their souls” and promises that by doing so people will begin to adopt a sense of “kindness and benevolence”. In other words, Banneker urges his audience to put themselves in the shoes of slaves and look at the situation from the perspective of the oppressed. He backs up his claim with religious allusions, for instance, how God created all of mankind equal with an “impartial distribution of those rights and privileges”. While Banneker could have suggested a radical approach to end slavery, he gently advises society to gradually accept slaves as human beings though a peaceful method of changing one’s own nature. By justifying equality with religion, Banneker appeals to the religious members of his audience and convinces them to follow in the footsteps of God and stand against slavery.
Through the use of description, exemplification, and solution to a problem, Banneker argues against the inhumane nature of slavery. Appealing to their sense of morality with historical references, graphic imagery, and religious allusions, Banneker’s letter exerted a powerful influence on persuading people to join the abolitionist cause.
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