Due to its importance in portraying the plight of African Americans during the American slavery era, Frederick Douglas’ 1852 speech with the title “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” has gained notoriety in recent years. Therefore, it is impossible to debate the speech’s historical importance.
The Man: Frederick Douglas
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was raised in Talbot County, Maryland, United States. Douglass grew as a leading social reformer, abolitionist, orator, author, and statesman in the United States. He rose to national prominence in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York after fleeing slavery in Maryland. Douglass rose to fame as a result of his persuasive writings against slavery and oratory prowess.
The speech Frederick delivered on July 5, 1852, is thought to be the most moving of all of his addresses. This speech was given at a celebration honoring the Declaration of Independence’s signing that took place at Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall.
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? is the title of the speech, which he asked while delivering it. It was a scathing speech.
The rhetorical question that now serves as the speech’s title questioned whether the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which were the American Declaration of Independence’s motto, applied to African Americans who were the offspring of the transatlantic slave trade given the extent of racial discrimination, inequality, and injustice perpetrated against them.
In his speech, Douglass thanked the American Founding Fathers who helped draft the Declaration of Independence for their dedication to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but he questioned what aspect of that commitment applies to African Americans given their situation.
“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration.
They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. Also, he spoke of the nation’s founders as great men for their ideals for freedom, but in doing so he unveiled the hypocrisy of their ideals with the existence of slavery on American soil. Douglass continued to interrogate the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, to enslaved African Americans experiencing grave inequality and injustice:
“…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? 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?
“…Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the ‘lame man leap as an hart.’
But such is not the state of the case. 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…”
Douglass stated that while Native Americans had reason to celebrate, African Americans had no reason to celebrate independence or take part in its joy. African Americans were unable to pursue their aspirations of life, liberty, and happiness due to the pervasive segregation, injustice, and tyranny that prevailed at the time.
Among all of Frederick Douglass’ speeches, the what to the slave is the Fourth of July address is regarded as his most moving.