Frederick Douglass Speech
The Meaning of July Fourth for the
Frederick Douglass Speech
The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro
During the 1850s, Frederick Douglass typically spent about six months of the year traveling extensively, giving lectures. During one winter -- the winter
of 1855-1856 -- he gave about 70 lectures during a tour that covered four to five thousand miles. And his speaking engagements
did not halt at the end of a tour. From his home in Rochester, New York, he took part in local abolition-related events.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence,
held at Rochester's Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience,
"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." And he asked them, "Do you mean, citizens, to mock
me, by asking me to speak to-day?"
Within the now-famous address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called
"probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass' speeches."
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 and the Fourth of July. From Publishers Weekly: On
July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at a meeting sponsored by the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.
The speech, and indeed the meeting itself, were contrived to provide a counter-celebration to Independence Day. Speaker after
speaker, Douglass among them, took aim at the cherished pieties of the nation: the memory of the Revolution, the elusive ideal
of liberty for all, and the country's moral and religious foundation. Continued below…
As NYU professor Colaiaco (Socrates
Against Athens) makes clear, Douglass's biting oratory on that occasion resonated loudly across a startled country. "This
Fourth of July is yours, not mine," he told his white listeners. "You may rejoice, I must mourn." Douglass's remarks dove
to the heart of the hypocrisy upon which the American nation had been founded. With incisive analysis and elegant prose, Colaiaco
explains the rhetorical atmosphere in which Douglass crafted and delivered his speech. More than one abolitionist by then
was rising up to call for a "second American Revolution," to fulfill the spirit of 1776's fine words. Douglass's eloquence
added to the sharpness of this clarion call, while also drawing a firm line between the romantic folklore and grim reality
of American liberty.
Recommended Reading: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery
Politics. Review From Publishers Weekly: The perennial tension between principle and pragmatism in politics frames
this engaging account of two Civil War Era icons. Historian Oakes (Slavery and Freedom) charts the course by which Douglass
and Lincoln, initially far apart on the antislavery spectrum, gravitated toward each other. Lincoln began as a moderate who
advocated banning slavery in the territories while tolerating it in the South, rejected social equality for blacks and wanted
to send freedmen overseas—and wound up abolishing slavery outright and increasingly supporting black voting rights.
Conversely, the abolitionist firebrand Douglass moved from an impatient, self-marginalizing moral rectitude to a recognition
of compromise, coalition building and incremental goals as necessary steps forward in a democracy. Continued below...
views on race were essentially modern; the book is really a study through his eyes of the more complex figure of Lincoln.
Oakes lucidly explores how political realities and military necessity influenced Lincoln's
tortuous path to emancipation, and asks whether his often bigoted pronouncements represented real conviction or strategic
concessions to white racism. As Douglass shifts from denouncing Lincoln's foot-dragging to
revering his achievements, Oakes vividly conveys both the immense distance America
traveled to arrive at a more enlightened place and the fraught politics that brought it there. AWARDED FIVE STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org
Recommended Reading: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
(Barnes & Noble Classics Series). Description:
No book except perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin had as powerful an impact on the abolitionist movement as Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass. But while Stowe wrote about imaginary characters, Douglass’s book is a record of his own
remarkable life. Born a slave in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland,
Douglass taught himself to read and write. In 1845, seven years after escaping to the North, he published Narrative, the first
of three autobiographies. Continued below...
This book calmly but dramatically
recounts the horrors and the accomplishments of his early years—the daily, casual brutality of the white masters; his
painful efforts to educate himself; his decision to find freedom or die; and his harrowing but successful escape. An astonishing
orator and a skillful writer, Douglass became a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an eloquent spokesperson for the
civil rights of African Americans. He lived through the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the beginning of segregation. He
was celebrated internationally as the leading black intellectual of his day...and his story still resonates. Narrative of
Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers
quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design,
and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics: New introductions
commissioned from today's top writers and scholars; Biographies of the authors; Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical,
and cultural events; Footnotes and endnotes; Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings,
operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work; Comments by other famous authors; Study questions to challenge the reader's
viewpoints and expectations; Bibliographies for further reading; Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate. All editions
are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes
& Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich
each reader's understanding of these enduring works. AWARDED 5 STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org
Recommended Reading: Frederick
Douglass : Autobiographies : Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom /
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America)
(Hardcover: 1100 pages). Review From Library Journal:
Douglass (1818-95), a former slave, rose to become an abolitionist, writer, and orator. In this collection of his autobiographical
writings, edited by Gates (humanities, Harvard Univ.), he gives an extensive overview of his life. The work includes Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
(1881). Continued below...
Douglass comments on his birth, his parentage, his two masters, and the brutality of slavery he witnessed. In Bondage, he
reflects on his childhood, life on the plantation, and his runaway plot. Life and Times concludes the trilogy: it covers his
early life as a slave, his escape from bondage, and his connection with the antislavery movement. This massive volume containing
Douglass's seminal works is highly recommended for black history collections.
Reading: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Dover Value Editions). Description: Raised as a plantation
slave, Douglass went on to become a writer, orator, and major participant in the struggle for African-American freedom and
equality. In this engrossing narrative he recounts early years of abuse; his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom,
abolitionist campaigns, and his crusade for full civil rights for former slaves.
Recommended Reading: Douglass:
Autobiographies (Library of America College Editions). Description: Frederick Douglass, born a slave, educated himself, escaped, and made himself one of the greatest leaders in
American history. His brilliant anti-slavery speeches were so fiercely intelligent, and so startlingly eloquent, that many
people didn't believe he had been a slave. To prove them wrong, Douglass decided to write his own story. His autobiographical
narratives stunned the world, and have shocked, moved, and inspired readers ever since. Continued below...
Here, complete for the first time in one authoritative volume, are the three powerful and gripping stories,
now recognized as classics of American writing. Fascinating firsthand accounts of slavery and abolitionism, John Brown and
Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the emerging struggle for civil rights, they are above all the inspiring story
of a self-made American: a slave who became adviser to the President, minister to Haiti, and the most influential black
American of the nineteenth century.