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  • Angelina Grimké’s Rhetoric of Exposure
  • Katherine Henry (bio)

We have torn off the mask, and brought to light the hidden things of darkness.

—from Letters to Catharine Beecher

Sentimentalism is a cluster of ostensibly private feelings which always attains public and conspicuous expression. Privacy functions in the rituals of sentimentalism only for the sake of titillation, as a convention to be violated. Involved as it is with the exhibition and commercialization of the self, sentimentalism cannot exist without an audience. It has no content but its own exposure, and it invests exposure with a kind of final significance.

—Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture

Angelina Grimké delivered her last major public address in Philadelphia on 16 May 1838, above the din of a violent anti-abolitionist mob—a mob that, the following night, would burn the newly built Pennsylvania Hall for Free Discussion to the ground. “As the tumult from without increased, and the brickbats fell thick and fast,” recalled William Lloyd Garrison, “[Grimké’s] eloquence kindled, her eyes flashed, and her cheeks glowed.” 1 Such “eloquence” bespeaks changing assumptions about the nature of publicity and public influence. In contrast to the neoclassical ideal of the public citizen—self-controlled, independent, and male—Grimké, a daughter of slaveholders, seemed to thrive in situations that underscored her vulnerability. Instead of confronting the “public sphere” on its own terms, Grimké refigured publicity as something that exposed the “private” rather than protecting it, and that drew upon her femininity rather than denying it. [End Page 328]

There are several key moments in Grimké’s writings and speeches where she strategically turns a threat of “injury” to her advantage. “What if the mob should now burst in upon us,” she asked her Pennsylvania Hall audience after a noisy interruption, “break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons—would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?”(320). Here the immediate threat of violence is both a metaphor for the institutionalized terrorism of slavery, and a figure for the sympathy with suffering that she adamantly demanded from her audiences. Abstract reason, Grimké insisted, was insufficient to comprehend the “truth” of slavery; its “horrors,” she told her listeners, “can never be described” (319). A truer understanding depended instead on the irrational faculties of sentiment and imaginative sympathy, on the capacity to put oneself in the slave’s position, to overcome one’s “callous[ness]” and “insensibility” and “feel the truth” (320, my emphasis). Thus vulnerability of heart became something to be cultivated rather than protected against—something even to be wrought, as in Grimké’s jeremiad-like image of the abolitionists “scattering ‘the living coals of truth’ upon the naked heart of this nation” (322). 2

Moreover, Grimké invoked an ideal of vulnerability to refute the persistent argument that woman’s natural defenselessness incapacitated her for public speaking. In 1837, for example, a widely circulated pastoral letter—published in the New England Spectator and read from the Massachusetts Congregationalist pulpits—made just such an argument. Woman’s “power,” declared the ministers, “is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for protection.” When a woman disregards her “weakness,” however, and “assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer,” she also relinquishes the “care and protection” that is due her as man’s dependent, and exposes herself to “shame and dishonor.” 3 Grimké appropriated the premise of such arguments to her own ends. She maintained that woman’s “power” is indeed “in her dependence,” for the Christian ideal of sacrifice requires her to depend wholly on Christ, exposing herself to public humiliation, without regard for worldly protection, for the sake of her belief. And not only did a woman’s vulnerability mark her for a special kind of public role, it also constituted a standard of public conduct for men. “Are [men and women] not equally defenceless, equally dependent on Him?” Grimké asked in her Letters to Catharine Beecher. “What did Jesus say to his disciples, [End Page 329] when he commissioned them to preach the gospel?—’Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves’” (191).


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pp. 328-355
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