For a writer, an orator, or a critic, how important is credibility? This is the question that Sophie Spiers sought to answer in a series of essays she wrote for my WR 100 course, “Oratory in America.” The essay included here, “Frederick Douglass: The [In]Credible Orator,” which was selected by the editors of WR as the prize-winner for the best WR 100 essay for the 2011–2012 academic year, culminated her writing for the semester.
In order to make the kind of nuanced and sensitive arguments that are essential to credible claims, Sophie worked on a number of important rhetorical moves, including a judicious use of first person. Like many students, Sophie was unaccustomed to using first person in her academic writing. Over time, however, she discovered how the first person point of view contributed to her rhetorical arsenal. We can see in this essay, for example, how the use of first person allows her to assert her own voice and to make clear to readers important distinctions between her views and those of others.
The essay also demonstrates close reading of several texts, acknowledgement of and responses to alternative viewpoints, and concessions to legitimate objections to her claim. Throughout, the essay sustains a clear argument that compares the rhetoric of three significant nineteenth-century abolitionists, who also endorsed women’s rights. As you can see, Sophie claims that the rhetoric of Frederick Douglass, far more successfully than that of William Lloyd Garrison or Sarah Grimké, manifests credibility because of his sensitivity to the dangers inherent in linking two independent and radical reforms.
I hope you enjoy reading this essay as much as I did. Sophie’s hard work, her willingness to take intellectual risks, and her commitment to excellence allowed her to grow into an exceptional (and quite credible) writer. I am very happy to share this excellent essay with you.
— DAVID SHAWN