“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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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.”
– Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852
By far and without question, Frederick Douglass was the most famous and effective anti-slavery orator and abolitionist of the 19th century. His rise from escaped slave to foreign ambassador, Marshall of Washington, D.C., and advisor to presidents, is well documented in both his own writings and within whole sections of libraries, films and university courses devoted to his remarkable life.
Douglass set the pattern for all future national black American leaders who would follow over the next 100 years.
Thus, I will not dwell on Douglass’ personal history here. Rather, I hope to provide a fresh look at perhaps Douglass’ most famous speech and its continuing relevance to contemporary America.
Douglass’ speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” was presented in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. It has come down to us as a classic in rhetoric, oratory and literature.
Douglass had moved to Rochester 1847 and almost immediately began publishing a weekly newspaper called The North Star. In 1852, he was invited by the local Anti-Slavery Society to address the “meaning” of America’s “Independence Day” as it applied specifically to black people. In attendance were between 500 and 600 mostly white people, each paying 12½ cents to hear him.
The prelude to the speech offered the usual homage to what the so-called “Founding Fathers” had accomplished in providing the foundation stones for this nation-state. But Douglass soon veered directly into a severe and uncompromising condemnation of white America’s attitude and practice toward its second original sin – slavery. (Theft of Native lands and the ongoing genocide of the indigenes was and remains America’s original original sin).
Thus, Douglass began by tracing the history of the American Revolutionaries’ fight for freedom against their own legal bondage under British rule. Douglass allowed that he supported their revolutionary actions.
This was a rhetorical device, however, used to set up the glaring contrast between what the founders did for themselves and the condition of black people at that time. In 1776, he noted, many people viewed George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the others as dangerous subversives and insurgent upstarts despite British tyranny.
However, with the hindsight of 1852, he said, it was no longer problematic to see “that America was right, and England wrong.”
Likewise, Douglass noted, in 1852, abolitionism was considered a dangerous and subversive political proposition. The implication here was that future generations would consider his anti-slavery stance patriotic, just, reasonable — and necessary.
But Douglass was not there to praise or thank those putative “first” Americans. Rather, his goal was to continue and expand their work to include freedom, equality, and democracy for all Americans.
“Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us [black people]?” he shouted to the assembled “white liberals” before him.
He quickly answered himself: “This Fourth July [sic] is yours, not mine” [emphasis original]. He then gets to the meat of the matter thusly: To ask a black person to celebrate the white man’s freedom from oppression and tyranny is “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
Thus, the real subject of his speech, is not American “independence,” but rather American slavery. America, since its foundation, has been living a lie, he declared. It has been openly, patently untrue to its founding principles, its past, and its present. It is up to his audience – not future generations – but those sitting and standing before him, to fulfill what the original founders of this nation-state envisioned – or at least said they envisioned.
Douglass then went deep: To the slave, he bellowed, “Your 4th of July is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery!”
To those who continue to justify slavery for any reason whatever, or to simply ignore its presence in the South, he held in a special form of contempt. There is no person on earth, Douglass argued, who would favor becoming a slave himself. Why would anyone impose a condition upon others that they themselves would not accept?
As to the theological or divine sanction of slavery, Douglass argues that nothing inhuman may be considered divine. On the contrary, slavery is blasphemy at its height because it provides a cover to cruelty in place of God’s benevolent nature.
Douglass then points to the economic benefits derived from this damnable trade in human flesh. He shows how the America of 1852 is an emerging world power because – and only because – it rips profit from the brow of millions of abused and unpaid laborers. He compares the treatment of slaves to that of draft animals.
Douglass then condemns the American churches and ministers failing to speak out against slavery. The silence of the church is acquiescence to the existence of slavery. The church is “superlatively guilty,” he charges, because as the premier moral and ethical institution, it has a unique and unquestionable power to force the eradication of slavery merely by condemning it.
A shroud-like feature of the socio-political context in which Douglass spoke was the recent passage of The Fugitive Slave Law (1850). He called it a piece of “tyrannical legislation.” It allowed – required – all white people to actively aid in the capture and return to slavery of any runaway slave — from any and every corner of the country. It removed all due process considerations, civil and human rights from any and all black people: “For black men, there is neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion,” said Douglass. This meant that even bona fide and legally free blacks could be accused of being fugitive slaves, spirited into the South, and enslaved for the remainder of their (and all of their progeny’s) lives.
Finally, Douglass concludes on an optimistic note. He says that slavery in America will be abolished if only because world events and sentiment demanded abolition. The Mexican Revolution of the 1820s had long ago done so. Slavery had been banned in British colonies in 1834. The French colonies banned slavery in 1848. Thus, American slavery could no longer be hidden from the rest of the world.
I offer only one contemporary example of what Douglass was talking about so long ago: As a paralegal working the Cook County (Chicago) courts and jails for thirty-one years, the blocks-long lines of mostly black and brown men shackled together on their way to and from court gradually became a routine feature of daily life. This scene always conjured up images of Douglass’ long ago slave coffles shuffling through the “downtowns” of virtually every major city, village and hamlet south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The vast majority of Cook County’s “inmates” were in these updated iterations of human property for minor drug offenses or petty theft crimes.