What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

by Frederick Douglass

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How does Fredrick Douglass portray the Fourth of July?

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This speech, given in 1852 by Frederick Douglass to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society in New York in commemoration of the Fourth of July, is one of the most powerful of all the abolitionist speeches. Essentially, Douglass uses the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their independence and their freedoms, to illustrate what he says is the "immeasurable distance" between enslaved people and the rest of Americans. He juxtaposes the ideals of America, celebrated on the Fourth, with the reality of slavery. As a result, he says, to him the Fourth is not a reminder of American liberty, but a reminder of how his people are separated from this liberty:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

To the enslaved person, American boasts of liberty sound like "hollow mockery." Freedom is a "sham." Indeed, Douglass tells his audience, "[t]here is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices...more shocking and bloody, than are the people of the United States." So Douglass portrays the Fourth of July as a holiday that simply underlines the hypocrisy of a nation that, though espousing freedom, continues to allow the existence of an institution that is in every way the antithesis of freedom. 

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