Reading Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July Oration”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-1852

Da Realist 1

Every year on Independence Day, I try to re-read Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July Oration (1852),” or “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” I can’t take credit for this idea. My good friend from graduate school, Tiwanna, told me that she read the speech every year. I thought it was such a great idea that I decided to make it part of my holiday as well. (So, now you know what we historians do for fun.)

I always wonder what the people in the audience must have thought of his bold statements. Douglass employs a forceful critique of Christianity, a recurring theme in his anti-slavery writings. He charges American Christianity with being “a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man stealers, and thugs” for its support of slavery and the domestic slave trade. There was a similar kind of denunciation for false religion in the appendix of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, where he writes that there is a difference between the “impartial Christianity of Christ” and the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land.”

Da Hype 1

Thanks to Da Realist 1, I too, read this speech each year. What is most fascinating to me about this speech is the structure in which it is delivered. It has to be one of the most cleverly written speeches I have ever read.

Douglass begins speaking in a very humble manner. He tells his audience, who includes the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore and other white dignitaries that, he doesn’t know how he, an ex-slave, will be able to deliver a speech to a crowd such as that. The irony in the statement is that he had given speeches to many in that crowd before and to a crowd that size in the same arena. It became clear to me that, not only was he was stroking the egos of the white men in the crowd, but that he had much trepidation about delivering this particular speech to this crowd.

And shouldn’t he, an ex-slave feel some kind of way about delivering a speech about freedom and independence to a crowd of white men who either participated in the institution of slavery by owning slaves or supporting the idea of its existence, or to men who sat idly by while black men, women, and children in their nation were treated as animals?

Anyway, just as the white men in the crowd had become comfortable with the way Douglass engaged them, he delivers an eloquent “smack down.” Douglass, proceeds to talk about independence and freedom by using the pronoun, “you.” “Your independence.” “Your freedom.” He tells his audience that the the Fourth of July belongs to them, not him because of the great shame that America has looming over them, in continuing to enslave his brethren.

In answering the question, what to the slave is the fourth of July, Douglass responds, “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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless . . .”

So, we have shared some of our thoughts on the speech, but we want to know what our 2 Dope readers think. Let us know!


2 thoughts on “Reading Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July Oration”

  1. You’re spot on Hype 1. I look at his picture and think, There was not a humble bone in his body. But he knew how to work a crowd.

  2. Hi, Da Realist. I liked your comment, “Now you know what we historians do for fun.” I appreciated the way you summarized Douglass’s speech and mixed in your own thoughts.

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