HISTORY: What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
Special to The Union
Listen to “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” read by the late great Ossie Davis at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-cVwuMmylA
Read “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” at https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
In early summer 1852 Frederick Douglass, one of America’s greatest orators, was invited to deliver a Fourth of July address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society at the newly constructed Corinthian Hall, the most prestigious venue in Rochester, New York.
Douglass declined the offer to speak on July 4th, for blacks had little stake or role in America’s patriotic celebrations. Indeed many cities and towns prohibited their participation. Furthermore, the Southern custom of holding slave auctions on the 4th of July linked those celebrations to the abhorrent institution from which Douglass had escaped to freedom in 1838. The ladies of the Society agreed that Douglass would speak on the 5th instead.
Facing a packed crowd of 600 people, Douglass delivered a speech that Yale University historian David W. Blight has described in his book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” as a “rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism,” an “oratorical symphony” and one of the “most important speeches in American history.”
Douglass initially put his audience at ease by recognizing the genius of the Founding Fathers, describing the Declaration of Independence as the “RINGBOLT to the chain of your nation’s destiny,” and the preamble the nation’s “saving principles.” Douglass’s use of the possessive pronoun “your” was deliberate for he would soon turn to the glaring hypocrisy of a nation that celebrated the lofty goals of its founding while it simultaneously treated as chattel over 3 million enslaved people.
As much as Douglass admired the Declaration of Independence, his focus was not on the past, but on the present and the future. His speech came at a time when America was confronting the increasingly irreconcilable tension between the fundamental values of the Republic’s founding and America’s dependence on a rapidly growing population of enslaved people that toiled in the cotton fields of the South that provided over half of all U.S. export earnings.
Douglass seized the moment. Projecting his baritone voice to the far reaches of the vast hall he challenged the audience: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Invoking the cadence and language of the Old Testament, a rhetorical style familiar to his largely white listeners, Douglass delivered an impassioned answer to the question, a portion of which is quoted here:
“(The 4th of July) is a day that reveals to him (the slave), 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 denunciations 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 these United States, at this very hour … Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
However passionately Douglass had outlined the evils of slavery, he did not leave his audience in despair. Instead, in the final portion of his speech he returned to the values of the Constitution. He proposed that America still had the time and tools to regenerate itself and live up to its promise. He urged his audience, and the thousands who would read the speech in printed form, to do just that. As Douglass left the podium to take his seat the audience rose to thunderous applause.
Frederick Douglass lived for another four decades. He finally saw the emancipation of the slaves, the breakup of the Confederacy and the advances blacks made during the brief period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). But he would also witness the horrors of the Jim Crow era (1877-mid-1960s) in which the states and courts stripped away the gains of Reconstruction, and brought a reign of terror and violence against black people throughout the country.
But Douglass never gave up on his belief that America would live up to its founding values. He continued to write and speak against racial discrimination, violence and the suppression of black votes until his death in 1895.
On this Independence Day might we take a moment to remember Frederick Douglass as we think about how to reconcile our 21st century American society to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that he so revered?
As Douglass wrote in January 1893, it is “Not a Negro Problem, not a race problem, but a national problem; whether the American people will ultimately administer equal justice to all the varieties of the human race in this Republic.”
Linda K. Jack, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of the Grass Valley Historical Commission. This opinion is the personal viewpoint of the author and does not reflect any official city view.
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