What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

by Frederick Douglass

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On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was invited to give a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass was a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement and his fiery, incisive rhetoric made him a popular and compelling orator. Asked to deliver a “4th [of] July narration,” Douglass began the speech by praising the values and vision of the Founding Fathers. However, he then shifted his focus. Before an audience that included sitting President Millard Fillmore, various prominent politicians, and abolitionists from across the United States, Douglass issued a scathing criticism of the United States’s hypocritical stance towards slavery. 

Douglass begins by establishing his ethos as a humble man who is gracious for the opportunity to speak before the assembled crowd. As he speaks, he creates an intentional distance between himself and his audience, noting the meaningfulness of the 4th of July in the lives of white Americans, and the pride they ought to take in the actions of their forefathers. However, he also cautions against taking so much pride in the past that the present and future are neglected. Though he joins his audience in admiration of the great deeds of the Founding Fathers, he also maintains that his own investment in American independence is limited by the knowledge that it has meant nothing for slaves. 

As Douglass begins to discuss the issues of the present, his rhetoric transitions away from humility and becomes increasingly impassioned. Eschewing the more reverent approach to the 4th of July that he established earlier in his speech, Douglass instead poses the question, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” His answer is that it is a day that reveals, more than any other, the “hypocrisy” and “impiety” of America. While white Americans celebrate the “liberty” and “independence” won by their forefathers, American slaves continue to live without any of the equality promised in the Constitution. 

To emphasize this hypocrisy, Douglass cites examples of the ongoing atrocities in the United States, such as the internal slave trade and the pro-slavery pronouncements of southern churches. He criticizes the Compromise of 1850, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore, who was in attendance at the speech. In particular, Douglass lambastes the expansion of slavery into new territories and the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that slaves who had escaped to the North be returned to their masters. He accuses American churches, particularly Southern churches, of propping up the institution of slavery. Douglass posits that, without church support, slavery would end immediately. Instead, the “impious” church teaches people to “obey man’s law before the law of God.” 

Douglass ends his speech by denouncing all those who view the Constitution as a justification for slavery and declaring that the end of slavery is inevitable. He says that the world has become too connected and that information now spreads easily, making it impossible for a moral scourge like slavery to last. The United States, in its relative youth, is still changeable, and Douglass believes that freedom will soon triumph over tyranny. 

Though it would take another twelve and a half years, Douglass’s predictions proved correct. On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which formally outlawed slavery in the United States. While delivering his 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial, Douglass described the night of the proclamation as unforgettable. Douglass remained a devoted activist until his death in 1895, championing the rights of Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and women.

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