What is Douglass's opinion of the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence in "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July"? Explain.

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I believe the best way to characterize Douglass’s attitude toward the Founding Fathers would be one of cautious approbation. Early in his speech, he refers to the Fathers as “great men,” and he is overwhelmingly respectful of the high repute, love, and peace they brought to their country. Early on,...

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I believe the best way to characterize Douglass’s attitude toward the Founding Fathers would be one of cautious approbation. Early in his speech, he refers to the Fathers as “great men,” and he is overwhelmingly respectful of the high repute, love, and peace they brought to their country. Early on, he remarks that he “cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration,” and Douglass venerates their willingness to sacrifice their own political freedom and personal safety against the oppression of British tyranny. Though analyses of Douglass often tend to overemphasize his opposition to slavery and the contradictory nature of the freedoms granted by the Constitution, one should nevertheless not discount his respect for the statesmen of the past, whom he deeply admired.

However, in ruminating on the hopefulness of the past, Douglass is much more critical of the injustices he witnessed in his own day. This particular speech was published in 1852, nine years before the outbreak of the American Civil War would determine the fate of the country’s enslaved population. When considering the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, he accusingly questions whether they had been extended to his own people (the oppressed African American peoples in American society). Douglass was quite tendentious on the issue of celebrating July 4, as he argued that the “blessings” of the day in which the American citizens rejoiced were not blessing that were shared in common between all members of society. He says that “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me.” Again, we can see here that Douglass’s harshest criticisms fall not on the Founding Fathers but rather the (primarily Democratic) statesmen of his own age who had perverted these principles for private gain. The celebration of the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence, in his view, is hypocrisy, because it lionized a just state of society that America could not claim to possess.

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In his 1852 speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?," Frederick Douglass praises the founding fathers for including the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. He tells his audience that he respects the founders and calls them "brave" men. He says of them:

I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes

Nevertheless, he criticizes them as well for not extending their ideas of freedom and liberty to African American. He writes:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

His speech points out the hypocrisy of celebrating "freedom" in a country that allows part of its population to be enslaved, which was the case in 1852. He says Independence Day is a day of mourning for him because his people are not free. He uses his speech to highlight the plight of the slaves and to appeal to his audience to understand that they, too, would enjoy having the fruits of freedom that white American enjoy.

His speech challenges the view that there is simply one perspective on the Fourth of July by articulating the subaltern's or oppressed people's point of view. It is not easy to enjoy other people's liberty when you yourself are a slave.

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Frederick Douglass found some irony in the Declaration of Independence and with the Founding Fathers. In a speech he gave on July 5, 1852, to the Ladies of the Rochester Antislavery Sewing Society, Frederick Douglass pointed out that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. He reminded this group that July 4, which celebrates the freedom of the United States with the declaring of independence from Great Britain and celebrates the Founding Fathers, was not a celebration for all people living in the United States. He pointed out that for those who were in slavery, this was not a celebration of freedom. He believed this day reminded the slaves that equality didn’t exist in the United States. He stated this violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Frederick Douglass believed the Founding Fathers who owned slaves didn’t reflect the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence.

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One of the most powerful elements of Douglass' writing is how he raises the imminent critique or contradiction between a nation predicated upon human freedom and one that allows slavery to exist.  Douglass is quite pointed in suggesting that the reality of America is denied when it permits slavery.  Essentially, Douglass is forcing the issue with the contradiction between America's promises and its reality.  In the process, Douglass reveals a great deal about the hypocrisy of the founding fathers and those who have inherited the positions of power in American government and society.  For Douglass, until the nation can effectively outlaw and stop slavery, it will live in the chasm between its hopes and its actual function.

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In 1852, while living in Rochester, NY, Douglass, a former slave turned editor and public abolitionist speaker, was asked to speak for a fourth of July celebration. Instead of delivering a speech glorifying and celebrating the nation's independence, he delivered a massive attack against a country that violates its own declaration of independence by allowing so many people to remain enslaved. He poses a key question as to whether or not the rights are given to all:

Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

It is clear that they are not given to all, and Douglass sees and calls America out on the hypocrisy of these words. He notes that the founders crafted a document to afford equal protection and rights to all when they drafted the constitution, but those rights are not actually extended to all human beings. Slavery, as long as it exists, nullifies the declaration of independence as a a statement of rights extended to all.


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I assume that you are referring to the speech that Douglass gave on Independence Day of 1841 in Rochester, New York.

In that speech, Douglass was saying that there was no reason for slaves or for black people in general to celebrate that day.  He was saying that all the day did was to rub in to black people how hypocritical the US was.

Douglass argues that there is no reason for him to celebrate a document or the people who wrote it when the document and the people kept his people enslaved.

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