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 Truth --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 Frederick Douglass? 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 resistance.
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
Questions before 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, 1977.