What does Douglass hope to accomplish by accusing white Americans of injustice and hypocrisy in "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whenever we consider a primary source like "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" it is important to consider its context. In this case, perhaps the most relevant context is its audience. Douglass first delivered this speech to a gathering of an anti-slavery society in Rochester, New York in 1852. So, it was delivered to a friendly audience, one which would have been very supportive of his efforts in the abolitionist movement.

But, in this speech, Douglass asks his (almost entirely white) audience to go one step further—to try to imagine how men like himself, having lived as enslaved people, view the United States. He does this by looking at the Fourth of July, a secular holiday that is nevertheless sacred to Americans. As Douglass tells his audience, "[the Fourth of July] to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God." So, Douglass says, white America justly celebrates the "Founding Fathers." 

But Douglass goes on to say what this holiday means to enslaved people. To them, it is a "sham," and "impudence" for white people to celebrate liberty when millions are held in bondage. As long as slavery exists, Douglass tells his audience, it is impossible for him to imagine the ideals celebrated on the Fourth as anything other than "bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages." He is especially critical of Christians who do not use their morals as a foundation to attack the institution. 

When we take into account that Douglass was speaking to people that agreed with his beliefs, we recognize the speech as one intended to mobilize them, to encourage them not to be comfortable in their own progressive values. He wants them to remember that, because they are white Americans, slavery is a stain on their conscience as well, and that they must take active measures to eradicate it. He does this by emphasizing the enormous chasm between America's stated ideals and the practice of slavery.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his speech, given in 1852, Douglass cites the inconsistencies between the nation's Fourth of July celebration of liberty and the continued enslavement of African Americans. He writes in eloquent terms about the ways in which Americans freed themselves from the British in 1776 and their forefathers' hopes for liberty and equality.

He expresses the hypocrisy of celebrating independence and emancipation for Americans on Independence day when African Americans are still enslaved. Douglass hopes that by pointing out the tragic irony of enslavement in a country that is supposed to be free, that he will motivate white Americans to feel guilty enough to work towards the abolition of slavery. He reminds his audience to return to the Constitution and to read the document thoroughly. He tells them that they will find that slavery is not consistent with the document and its purposes and goals. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What Douglass hopes to accomplish with his accusations in this speech is to persuade white Americans to throw off their hypocrisy and really do something to help the slaves.  In this speech, he is trying to get them to see that their own actions and those of their fellow Northerners really are part of the problem.  He is trying to get them to see that the country that they feel so proud of is really not based on freedom and liberty but on slavery and tyranny.  He is trying to get them to see that so that they will be shocked and be motivated to do something about slavery.

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