Declaration in Douglass's My Bondage & My Freedom

American Political Thought 9 (4):513-541 (2020)
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In this paper, I develop an account of Frederick Douglass’s use of declaration as an emancipatory mode of political action. An act of declaration compels an audience to acknowledge the declarer as possessing a type of normative standing (e.g. personhood or citizenship). Douglass, through acts of declaration like his Fifth of July speech and fight with the ‘slavebreaker’ Covey, compels American audiences to acknowledge him as a fellow citizen by forcefully enacting a commitment to resist tyranny and oppression. The distinctive emancipatory potential of declaration is grounded in its political epistemology of acknowledgment, on which political actors understand other persons as members of a shared community through the ways in which they comport themselves in relation to one another. Declaration makes political communities more inclusive not only by changing who we understand as fellow members, but how we understand them as such.

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Philip Yaure
Virginia Tech


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