UC Davis Free Soil and Abolitionist Forests Discussion

As you read Lance Newman’s “Free Soil and the Abolitionist Forests” and Cristin Ellis’s “Amoral Abolitionism,” take careful notes on the following questions (you do not have to submit answers to these).

Newman, “Free Soil and the Abolitionist Forests of Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave

Part I

1) According to Newman, how does Douglass’s rhetorical strategy change during the 1850s? His goal, of course, is to abolish slavery–but what kind of arguments does he start making to achieve this goal? And what audience is Douglass trying to appeal to?

2) A key term in this essay is “republican pastoralism,” first introduced on p. 128. At this point in the essay, what do you think this term means?

3) According to Newman, why is Douglass’s example of republican pastoralism significant?

Part II

4) Why does Douglass employ so much anti-pastoral imagery in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

5) What, according to Newman, was the problem with the abolitionist tactics of William Lloyd Garrison? (p. 130-131)

6) How does Douglass’s Narrative employ anti-pastoral imagery? Summarize at least three examples and describe the rhetorical effect of each example. (p 131-132)

Part III

7) How does Douglass’s portayal of nature change in his novella The Heroic Slave? (p. 134)

8) How does Douglass’s portrayal of churches differ from Apess’s in A Son of the Forest? (p. 135)

9) What are the key features of Douglass’s “republican pastoralism”? Summarize at least three examples and describe how they differ from the anti-pastoral examples you described earlier (p 1350-137)

Part IV

10) How did Douglass’s experience in Britain help inspire the changes in his rhetorical strategies? (p. 137-139)

11) What is the Free Soil Party and what do they stand for? Who makes up this political party? How does the Free Soil movement influence Douglass? (139-143)

Part V

12) How do Douglass’s rhetorical strategies, especially his republican pastoralism, influence My Bondage, My Freedom? (p. 145-147)

Cristin Ellis, “Amoral Abolitionism: Frederick Douglass and the Environmental Case Against Slavery”


1) How do modern readers usually interpret Douglass’s abolitionist rhetoric? (p. 275-276)

2) According to Ellis, why is Douglass’s utilitarian, sustainability-focused antislavery argument in My Bondage, My Freedom significant for modern ecocritics? (p. 276-278)

The Soil Crisis and Antislavery’s Environmental Imaginaries

3) Why was soil exhaustion in the South such a problem? Or in other words, why were people concerned about it? (p. 278-280)

4) How did sentimental abolitionists interpret the causes of soil exhaustion in the South? (p. 280)

5) How did the newly formed Republican Party interpret the causes of soil exhaustion? (280-281)

6) How did Southern agricultural experts interpret the causes of soil exhaustion? (p. 281-282)

Landscapes of Protest in My Bondage and My Freedom

7) How have previous critics interpreted Douglass’s descriptions of nature in My Bondage, My Freedom? How are these arguments different from the one Ellis is making? (p. 283-284)

8) According to Ellis, how does Douglass’s reject pastoral tropes in his portrait of Grandmother Betsey? (p. 285-287)

9) According to Ellis, how does Douglass reject pastoral tropes in his description of the Lloyd plantation? (p. 287-288)

10) According to Ellis, what does nature mean to Douglass? (p. 288-289)

11) According to Ellis, how does Douglass’s description of New Bedford also reject pastoral tropes? (p. 289-291)

Ecological Pragmatism: Telling Risk from Wrong

12) According to Ellis, why does Douglass move from pastoral/moral arguments to economic and ecological arguments in the 1850s? (p. 291-292)

13) In the context of the 1840s and 1850s, how does Douglass’s move away from moral arguments against slavery suit his rhetorical situation? (p. 292-293)

14) According to Ellis, how can Douglass’s example of ecological anti-slavery argument serve as a useful model for modern ecocritics and environmental activists? (p. 293-296)


Let’s begin with two questions:

1) To what extent do you agree with Newman’s argument about how Douglass adopts “republican pastoralism” to make anti-slavery arguments in My Bondage, My Freedom? Why?

2) To what extent do you agree with Ellis’s idea about how Douglass rejects pastoral conventions in favor of economic and ecological anti-slavery arguments in My Bondage, My Freedom? Why?

The first person to respond gets to answer these two questions. Please write 100-300 words explaining your thoughts about these two scholars’ ideas. Then, conclude your response by posing a new discussion question of your own, for your classmates to address.

After the first response is posted, everyone should first read through the entire thread and see what your classmates have already said in response to the previous questions.

Then, address the MOST RECENT QUESTION submitted by one of your classmates. You can also address some of the earlier questions and ideas discussed in the thread, but at minimum, you must respond to the most recent comment. Please write 100-300 words and conclude your response by posing a new discussion question of your own for your classmates.

Quote or paraphrase from Newman, Ellis, and especially the assigned chapters from Douglass whenever needed (and please include page numbers).

Note: Your discussion question can ask for clarification about a certain point, but it’s better to focus on a debatable point that either Newman or Ellis makes–something that requires our intellectual engagement with their ideas. Our goal is to analyze their arguments together: to break them down and understand how they work, in preparation for the RA.

And please feel free to “like” thoughtful responses that help you understand these arguments better, or that you find otherwise interesting (all “likes” are anonymous).

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