July 5th, 1852: Frederick Douglass gives his ‘What to the Slave Is the 4th of July’ speech

UPDATED 7:00 PM PT – Monday, July 4, 2022

On this day in 1852, one of the most important American’s expressed his thoughts on what the Fourth of July meant to slaves.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Douglass questioned. “I answer. It is a day that reveals to him more than any other day of the year. The gross conduct and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.”

On July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, former slave Frederick Douglass addressed a white audience about America’s Independence Day. Douglass was invited to speak on the Fourth of July but instead chose to give his remarks the following day, which is when most African Americans who were free and enslaved chose to celebrate. He wanted to show a contrast between the high ideals of freedom with the hypocrisies of the existence of slavery in the nation.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 but managed to escape his Maryland plantation 20 years later. He became a successful author after gaining his freedom. He wrote autobiographies about his life experiences as an American slave.

Douglass became the pre-eminent fighter for liberating all slaves in the years following. He advocated for their equality and citizenship. While speaking before the Rochester Ladies’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, he informed them of his first hand account of the horrors he was made to endure because of the ongoing violation of the nation’s highest ideals.

“Mark the sad procession,” he spoke. “Heat and sorrow nearly consumes their strength. Suddenly you hear a quick snap like the discharge of a rifle. The fetters clank, the chains rattle, your ears are saluted with the scream that seems to have torn its way into the center of your soul.”

However, Douglass recognized the foundations of the US to be based on that of human liberty. He declared American society of the time to be rife with hypocrisy and flagrantly violating the founding principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

“You boast of your love for liberty, your high civilization, your pure Christianity, while all the while, your whole political power of the nation conspires to hold in bondage three million of its countrymen,” he uttered.

Despite the deep criticisms of contemporary American society, Douglass recognized how vital the Fourth of July is to the nation’s spirit.

“This, for the purpose of this celebration is the Fourth of July,” he stated. “It is the birthplace of your national independence. It is to you what the pass over was to the emancipated people of God. It brings your minds back to that day and an act of your great deliverance!”

He expressed his great fealty to the Declaration of Independence and the war for independence from the crown.

“But your fathers, who had not chimed in of the popular idea of the day, of the infallibility of government, began to differ with those burdens and restraints,” Douglass said passionately. “They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the English Government as unruly, unjust and oppressive.”

While Douglass was a harsh critic of American society at the time he also understood the high ideals of the nation’s founding. He believed the Constitution to be a great anti-slavery document. His words and activism inspired the likes of Abraham Lincoln to hold firm to the foundational principles of individual liberty and justice for all.

“Your fathers were brave men, statesmen, patriots, and heroes,” he declared. “For the good they did and the cause they stood for, I will stand with you to honor them in their memory. Feeling themselves unjustly treated, they earnestly sought redress.”

Despite everything the American Government put him and his fellow citizens through, his appreciation for the founding of the country rings out 170 years later.

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