Critical Essays The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro


Frederick Douglass was a fiery orator and his speeches were often published in various abolitionist newspapers. Among his well-known speeches is "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," presented in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, a version of which he published as a booklet. It is often studied in literature classes today. Douglass moved to Rochester in 1847, when he became the publisher of The North Star, an abolitionist weekly. There were approximately 500 attendees who heard him speak, each paying twelve and a half cents.

He had been invited to speak about what the Fourth of July means for America's black population, and while the first part of his speech praises what the founding fathers did for this country, his speech soon develops into a condemnation of the attitude of American society toward slavery.

Douglass begins his speech by addressing "Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens." Here, he is likely addressing the president of the Anti-Slavery Society — not the president of the United States. It is noteworthy that Douglass considers himself a citizen, an equal to the spectators in attendance. Throughout this speech, as well as his life, Douglass advocated equal justice and rights, as well as citizenship, for blacks. He begins his speech by modestly apologizing for being nervous in front of the crowd and recognizes that he has come a long way since his escape from slavery. He tells the audience that they have gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July, but he reminds them that the nation is young, and, like a young child, it is still impressionable and capable of positive change.

He touches on the history of the American Revolutionaries' fight for freedom against their legal bondage under British rule. He tells the audience that he supports the actions of these revolutionaries. Douglass thereby sets up an argument for the freeing of slaves. He reminds the audience that, in 1776, many people thought it was subversive and dangerous to revolt against British tyranny. In 1852, however, with hindsight, to say "that America was right, and England wrong is exceedingly easy." Similarly, he reasons, in 1852, people consider abolitionism a dangerous and subversive political stance. Douglass thus implies that future generations will probably consider his anti-slavery stance patriotic, just, and reasonable.

Douglass praises and respects the signers of the Declaration of Independence, people who put the interests of a country above their own. He concedes, however, that the main purpose of his speech is not to give praise and thanks to these men, for he says that the deeds of those patriots are well known. Instead, he urges his listeners to continue the work of those great revolutionaries who brought freedom and democracy to this land.

Douglass then asks a rhetorical question: "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us [blacks]?" He pushes forward his thesis: "This Fourth July [sic] is yours, not mine" [italics his]. Indeed, he says, to ask a black person to celebrate the white man's freedom from oppression and tyranny is "inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony." By "sacrilegious," he means the evil defilement of sacred American ideals — democracy, freedom, and equal rights.

The real subject of his speech, he concedes, is American slavery. He condemns America for being untrue to its founding principles, its past, and its present. The audience must fulfill what the founders of the country advocated. To the slave, Douglass tells the audience, "your 4th of July is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license [for enslaving blacks] . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery."

Douglass spends the next part of his speech pre-empting some of the arguments that theoretical opponents might make. As for the mildly sympathetic spectator who complains that the abolitionist fails to make a favorable impression by constantly denouncing slavery rather than making persuasive arguments, Douglass retorts by saying that there are no more arguments to be made. He says there is no person on earth who would be in favor of becoming a slave himself. How can it be, therefore, that some people are in favor of imposing a condition on others that they would not impose on themselves? As for those who maintain that slavery is part of a divine plan, Douglass argues that something which is inhuman cannot be considered divine. He considers such a pro-slavery posture to be blasphemy because it gives cruelty a place in God's nature.

Douglass condemns the profits made from the slave trade, and, once again, he compares the treatment of slaves to that of animals. He mentions that in Baltimore, slave traders transported slaves in chains to ships in the dead of night because anti-slavery activism had made the public aware of the cruelty of that trade. Douglass recalls that when he was a child, the cries of chained slaves passing his house on route to the docks in the middle of the night had a chilling, unsettling effect on him.

Next, Douglass condemns the American churches and ministers (excluding, of course, abolitionist religious movements such as Garrison's) for not speaking out against slavery. The contemporary American church, by remaining silent and acquiescing to the existence of slavery, he argues, is more of an infidel than Paine, Voltaire, or Bolingbroke (three eighteenth-century philosophers who spoke out against the churches of their time). Douglass argues that the church is "superlatively guilty" — superlative, meaning even more guilty — because it is an institution which has the power to eradicate slavery by condemning it. The Fugitive Slave Law, Douglass reasons, is "tyrannical legislation" because it removes all due process and civil rights for the black person: "For black men, there is neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion." (Under this Act, even freed blacks could easily be accused of being fugitive slaves and taken to the South.) The Christian church which allows this law to remain in effect, Douglass says, is not really a Christian church at all.

Douglass returns to his theme of American democracy and freedom. He criticizes American ideology as inconsistent. For him, while it professes freedom, it does not give all people that right. And while it advocates democracy in Europe and elsewhere, it does not grant it to all of its own people. Similarly, he argues that while the American Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal," American society creates an under-class of men and women.

To his opponents who believe that the Constitution permits slavery, Douglass offers the writings of Spooner, Goodell, Sewall, and Smith — four abolitionists whose essays "clearly vindicate the Constitution from any design to support slavery." Douglass sides with those activists who believe that the founding fathers meant to eliminate slavery and that the Constitution reflects this.

Douglass concludes on an optimistic note. He believes that anti-slavery sentiments will eventually triumph over pro-slavery forces. Nations, particularly Western countries, in the mid-nineteenth century were generally against slavery. In fact, slavery was banned in the British colonies in 1834 and in the French colonies in 1848; politicians in those countries could no longer claim to support the rights of man while allowing slavery. He argues that no longer can the cruelties of American slavery be hidden from the rest of the world. Trade and commerce have opened up borders, and political ideas know no boundaries. Douglass closes his essay with a poem by Garrison entitled "The Triumph of Freedom," stressing the inevitable arrival of freedom and the abolitionist's promise to fight slavery "whate'er the peril or the cost."