What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July Summary

In Frederick Douglass's "What to the slave is the fourth of July?" what does he say the effect of slavery has on white people in the north?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of Douglass' critical points in the speech is the idea that America has become desensitized to its hypocrisy.  For Douglass, this is what has become of White citizens in the North.  A nation that eloquently articulated the condition of freedom against the British failed to acknowledge the same in the issue of slavery:  "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty?  That he is the rightful owner of his own body?  You have already declared it." Given this reality, American citizens, especially those in the North, have lost a level of sensitivity to the issue.  In the regaling of freedom in the 4th of July, Douglass suggests that American citizens have little ground to celebrate freedom, while the institution of slavery still exists.  What is experienced by Northern and White American citizens cannot be experienced by those who are of color in America:

I say it with a sad sense of disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

In this particular quote, Douglass sees the Fourth of July as an opportunity to awaken the moral conscious of White Americans as they celebrate the spirit of independence, in hopes of expanding this enfranchisement of freedom to all of America's children.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his speech, Douglass mentions the hideous effects of the Fugitive Slave Law, which requires northerners to comply with slave hunters who go north of the Mason-Dixon Line in search of escaped slaves. He writes that this law makes the north put life and liberty in danger, as it makes northerners into hunters of men who have not committed any crime, and he refers to the law as the foremost example of "tyrannical legislation." He believes that the law makes northern clergymen into hypocrites because as they are praising God for their own religious and civil freedoms, they are mum about a law that robs others of these liberties. Douglass finds northern religion wanting for not speaking out about the law and for not regarding religion as more than a form of worship but instead as a practice of benevolence. He states that he prefers atheism to a religion that countenances these types of laws. Therefore, Douglass feels that slavery has made northerners hypocritical and essentially unchristian.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

So far as I can tell, Douglass never explicitly says "here is the effect that slavery has had..."  But from the overall message of the speech, I would argue that he is saying that slavery has made them hypocrites.

Here are some of his major arguments that tend, in my opinion, to support my reading:

  • His discussion of churches.  He says that church men have justified slavery and that therefore when people go to church they are implicitly supporting slavery.
  • His discussion of American attitudes towards other countries.  He points out that Americans celebrate refugees from the tyranny of places like Russia while yet allowing slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act and such to exist.

I would argue that the subtext of these arguments is that people in the North implicitly support slavery even as they profess to condemn it.

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