What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

by Frederick Douglass
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Last Updated on October 22, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Biblical Allusions

Douglass, a licensed preacher, was intimately familiar with the Bible, as was his predominantly Christian audience. In his speech, Douglass criticizes the “blasphemy” of American churches, which he accuses of propping up the institution of slavery. As a method of counterargument, he employs biblical allusions that illustrate the anti-slavery stance of Christianity, thereby reinforcing the hypocrisy and impiety of American churches. 

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After lamenting that the fourth of July does not hold the same meaning for him as it does for white Americans, Douglass questions whether his hosts are mocking him by asking him to speak in honor of American independence. To illustrate his point, he draws a parallel between his own situation and that of the imprisoned Israelites from Psalm 137. The Israelites, who had been captured by the Babylonians after a battle, were asked to sing with “mirth,” but they lamented that it was impossible to sing “the Lord’s song in a strange land.” Just as the Israelites were asked to sing happily despite their captivity, Douglass wonders if he is being asked to praise America despite the fact that his people remain in chains. This allusion aligns the cause of abolitionists with the values of Christianity, positioning slave owners as sacrilegious villains oppressing faithful Christians. It also serves as a subtle threat, given that the Christian God buried Babylon in “irrecoverable ruin” for its treatment of the Israelites. 

Douglass also employs biblical allusions in order to highlight the hypocrisy of the American churches. James 3:17 paints heaven as “peaceable,” “full of mercy,” and devoid of “hypocrisy.” Douglass uses this sentiment to question how Americans can claim to be true Christians when they prop up the violent slave trade and exhibit hypocrisy by claiming freedom as a core value while continuing to practice slavery. He reinforces this hypocrisy by bidding the church to follow the teachings of Isaiah 1:13-17, which commands true Christians to “cease to do evil” and to “relieve the oppressed.” This allusion implies that, by defending slavery, the church is impious and hypocritical. 

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While criticizing the reaction—or lack thereof—by self-professed Christians to the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass cites Matthew 23:23 to point out the impiety of American society. This allusion refers to Jesus Christ’s condemnation of worshippers who perform religious laws without acting on the principles behind them. Paying taxes on “mint, anise, and cumin” without practicing “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” makes hypocrites of the worshippers just as attending church services but not protesting the law forbidding mercy to escaped slaves makes hypocrites of Americans. 

Imagery and Metaphors

In attempting to convey the horrors of the internal slave trade to his audience, Douglass uses a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic imagery. He describes the “thinned and gray” locks of an old man, forced to march in the heat. He describes the near-inhuman “American slave-buyers” who examine men “like horses.” The auditory soundscape is full of “weeping” children, clanking “fetters,” and “deep, sad sobs.” The atmosphere is full of “heat and sorrow.” This scene evokes a feeling of hopelessness, with sympathetic figures like the “young mother” and “girl of thirteen” being treated like animals. The harrowing imagery that Douglass associates with the internal slave trade is meant to inspire disgust and anger in the audience, who must vividly imagine the plight of the American slave. 

Douglass also uses imagery while describing the opposing forces of slavery and abolitionism. At the beginning the speech, the United States is compared to a young river, not yet set in its path. Slavery is figured as the “dark clouds” hanging overhead, threatening to overcome the youthful river. In this metaphor, the point is to emphasize the youth of the nation and the threat that slavery poses, with the calm waters of the nation being contrasted with the “disastrous times” portended by the storm of slavery. He also figures British tyranny as a storm that the American revolutionaries had to weather, noting that the stronger the opposition against them, the more resolutely they affirmed their beliefs. 

Later in the speech, Douglass reprises the storm imagery, but this time he uses it to describe the force of the abolitionist movement. He posits that if the pro-slavery movement is a storm, then abolitionists must not try to combat it with peaceful rhetoric and logical pleas. Instead, he says that abolitionists need “fire” and “thunder” in order to make themselves heard, echoing the images of fire and brimstone often used to denote the Christian God’s wrath. Rather than trying to assail the nation with an ordinary storm, Douglass asserts that abolitionists must bring the righteous fury of God down upon the United States in order to cleanse it of the sin of slavery. 

Douglass goes on to imagine slavery as a “horrible reptile… coiled up in [the United States’] bosom.” This visual image is meant to evoke disgust and posit that slavery is not a vital economic institution, but rather a parasite that is destroying the country. The idea of slavery as a parasite is reinforced when he describes it as “nursing at the tender breast” of the nation. Nursing children are typically associated with nature and innocence, but here the nursing “horrible reptile” is instead defiling the “youthful republic” and making a mockery of what is truly natural and innocent. Douglass urges listeners to cast off the “venomous creature” and “crush and destroy” it, lest the shame of American hypocrisy further infect them.

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Rhetorical Devices