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What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
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Frederick Douglass circa 1852
The 1852 pamphlet printing of the speech
"What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" is the title now given to a speech by Frederick Douglass delivered on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, at a meeting organized by the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. The speech is perhaps the most widely known of all of Frederick Douglass' writings save his autobiographies. Many copies of one section of it, beginning in paragraph 32, have been circulated online. Due to this and the variant titles given to it in various places, and the fact that it is called a July Fourth Oration but was actually delivered on July 5, some confusion has arisen about the date and contents of the speech. The speech has since been published under the above title in , Series One, Vol. 2. (1982) 
While referring to the celebrations of the Independence Day in the United States the day before, the speech uses biting irony and bitter rhetoric, and acute textual analysis of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the Christian Bible, to advance a values-based argument against the continued existence of Slavery in the United States. Douglass orates that positive statements about American values, such as liberty, citizenship, and freedom, were an offense to the enslaved population of the United States because of their lack of freedom, liberty, and citizenship. As well, Douglass referred not only to the captivity of enslaved people, but to the merciless exploitation and the cruelty and torture that slaves were subjected to in the United States. Rhetoricians R.L. Heath and D. Waymer called this topic the "paradox of the positive" because it highlights how something positive and meant to be positive can also exclude individuals.
1 Views expressed in the speech
2 Later views on American independence
3.1 Notable readings
4 References 5 Further reading 6 External links
Views expressed in the speech
The 4th of July Address, delivered in Corinthian Hall, by Frederick Douglass, is published on good paper, and makes a neat pamphlet of forty pages. The 'Address' may be had at this office, price ten cents, a single copy, or six dollars per hundred.
—Advertisement for the pamphlet of Douglass' speech from the July 12, 1852 edition of (formerly )
Douglass said that the fathers of the nation were great statesmen, and that the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence were "saving principles", and the "ringbolt of your nations destiny", stating, "stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost." However, he maintained that slaves owed nothing to and had no positive feelings towards the founding of the United States. He faulted America for utter hypocrisy and betrayal of those values in maintaining the institution of slavery.
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?...What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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.
Douglass also stresses the view that slaves and free Americans are equal in nature. He expresses his belief in the speech that he and other slaves are fighting the same fight in terms of wishing to be free that White Americans, the ancestors of the white people he is addressing, fought seventy years earlier.
They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and…with them, justice, liberty, and humanity were final; not slavery and oppression.: 340
Douglass also says that if the residents of America believe that slaves are "men",: 342 they should be treated as such. True Christians, according to Douglass, should not stand idly by while the rights and liberty of others are stripped away.
Douglass denounces the churches for betraying their own biblical and Christian values. He is outraged by the lack of responsibility and indifference towards slavery that many sects have taken around the nation. He says that, if anything, many churches actually stand behind slavery and support the continued existence of the institution. Douglass equates this to being worse than many other things that are banned, in particular, books and plays that are banned for infidelity.
They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done.: 344
(1852) Frederick Douglass, "What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July" •
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to address the citizens of his hometown, Rochester, New York. Whatever the expectations of his audience on that 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass used the occasion not to celebrate the nation’s … Read More(1852) Frederick Douglass, “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July”
(1852) FREDERICK DOUGLASS, “WHAT, TO THE SLAVE, IS THE FOURTH OF JULY”
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1852
Daguerreotype photo by Samuel J. Miller
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to address the citizens of his hometown, Rochester, New York. Whatever the expectations of his audience on that 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass used the occasion not to celebrate the nation’s triumphs but to remind all of its continuing enslavement of millions of people. Douglass’s speech appears below.
Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country schoolhouses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.
The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for it is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall, seems to free me from embarrassment.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here today is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say, I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.
Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown . Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.
Behind the Speech: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
Pulitzer-winning Frederick Douglass biographer David Blight explains what to know about the famous speech, and why its message still endures
'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?': The History of Frederick Douglass' Searing Independence Day Oration
American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1855. Library of Congress—Getty Images
BY OLIVIA B. WAXMAN
UPDATED: JUNE 26, 2020 2:40 PM EDT | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY 3, 2019 11:00 AM EDT
merica has been working to fully live up to the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence ever since the document was printed on July 4, 1776. So while the U.S. tends to go all out celebrating freedom on the Fourth of July, alternate independence commemorations held a day later often draw attention to a different side of that story, with readings of the Frederick Douglass speech best known today as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
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The speech was originally delivered at a moment when the country was fiercely locked in debate over the question of slavery, but there’s a reason why it has remained famous more than 150 years after emancipation, says David Blight, author of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
To some, celebrations of American independence on July 4 are a reminder of the country’s hypocrisy on the matter of freedom, as slavery played a key role in the nation’s history; even today, America’s history of racism is still being written, while other forms of modern-day slavery persist in the U.S. and around the world. For those who feel that way, July 5 may be an easier day to celebrate: on that day in 1827, 4,000 African Americans paraded down Broadway in New York City to celebrate the end of slavery in their state.
One person who felt that way was Douglass, the famous abolitionist, who was himself born into slavery. When the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, N.Y., invited Douglass to give a July 4 speech in 1852, Douglass opted to speak on July 5 instead.
Addressing an audience of about 600 at the newly constructed Corinthian Hall, he started out by acknowledging that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “brave” and “great” men, and that the way they wanted the Republic to look was in the right spirit. But, he said, speaking more than a decade before slavery was ended nationally, a lot of work still needed to be done so that all citizens can enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Above “your national, tumultuous joy” — the July 4th celebrations of white Americans — were the “mournful wails of millions” whose heavy chains “are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
In the oration’s most famous passages, Douglass discussed what it felt like to see such festivities and to know independence was not a given for people like him:
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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?…
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…
What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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 him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Douglass’ speech also foreshadowed the bloody reckoning to come: Civil War. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder,” he said. “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
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At the time Douglass spoke, Blight says, the opportunity was ripe for a lecture on the moral crisis.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin had just been published that spring and was taking the country by storm. The country was in the midst of crises over fugitive slave rescues in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The political party system was beginning to tear itself asunder over the expansion of slavery,” he says. “It’s also an election year; the 1852 presidential election was heating up that summer. The Nativist party is rising. It’s an extraordinary political moment.”