by Jimmy Lu
Every year Americans celebrate Independence Day in remembrance of the arduous political struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. In Frederick Douglass’ time nineteenth-century Independence Day carried a different meaning for Black people in America as he claimed in his “Fourth of July Speech.” White-Americans enslaved Blacks in a society that ironically upheld freedom. In fact, Independence Day for Blacks was “problematic … so long as white Americans continued to keep millions of slaves in chains” (Slate). Douglass’ speech, which was given on July 5th, 1852, calls for an awakening of America’s moral conscience in order to challenge America’s unjust and immoral status quo and to excite societal reformation.
The speech calls for a social and political revolution in order to challenge the unjust status quo in America: slavery and disenfranchisement. Douglass references the Founding Fathers as courageous examples:
“But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, … [pronounced] the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and … not to be quietly submitted to” (Fourth of July).
He criticizes the ideas of “this day,” noting passive acceptance of unjust government in America. Douglass promotes the Founding Fathers’ courage who preferred “revolution to peaceful submission” to an unjust status quo of British colonialism (Fourth of July). The speech is a call to action for American people to take responsibility for their government, and they ought to support causes such as abolitionism and universal enfranchisement in order to create a more just society.
In order to excite reformation, Douglass points out the immorality of slavery and its deleterious effect on the image of America. Douglass condemns slavery using strong rhetoric:
“I will … dare to call in question and to denounce … everything that serves to perpetuate slavery–the great sin and shame of America! … I will use the severest language I can command …” (Fourth of July).
He shames America for sanctioning slavery, and according to Abigail Censky, this criticism was in the wake of the Compromise of 1850 which equaled the “nationalization of slavery” (NPR). Douglass labels slavery as “sin,” which adds a moral appeal to abolitionism; and the audience, especially women, could sympathize with societal oppression and restrictions. According to James West Davidson, Rochester was the “epicenter of the so-called burned-over district, a region along the Erie Canal swept repeatedly by religious revivals and reform” (Slate). The setting and audience of this speech are significant for garnering support for abolitionism. He uses the severest language because he wants Americans to fight against slavery through the democratic process.
In order to awaken the moral conscience of his audience, Douglass presents the Black perspective on the 4th of July, and he points out America’s hypocrisy. Douglass poses a question to his audience:
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 lie is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States … (Douglass)
According to Censky, Frederick Douglass posed this question to “500-600 abolitionists,” and the crowd at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society was “enthusiastic, voting unanimously to endorse the speech at its end” (NPR). This is significant for understanding why Douglass voices vociferous criticisms of the American status quo in his speech: white-Americans could celebrate their nation’s independence, but Blacks had yet to gain their emancipation. Douglass is pointing out the hypocrisy of white-Americans who are celebrating an unfinished cause, and he puts America to shame in an international context by saying that “there is not a nation on the earth.” For him, Americans ought to awaken their moral conscience and emulate the Founding Fathers who “staked their lives … on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests” (Douglass). Similarly, Douglass lives selflessly by speaking and fighting for abolitionism. He encourages Americans to continue the legacy of challenging an immoral status quo and to never lose sight of the power of the democratic process.
The abolitionist movement sought to reform America’s unjust and immoral status quo of slavery, which Douglass brings to attention through his appeal to religious morality. His vehement attacks on America’s complacency and hypocrisy seek to awaken his audience’s conscience in order to fight for the unfinished cause of universal freedom.
Censky, Abigail. “’What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?’ Frederick Douglass, Revisited.” NPR. 17 Jul. 2017. 5 Nov. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/2017/07/05/535624532/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july-frederick-douglass-revisited>
Davidson, James West. “The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History” Slate. 2 Jul. 2015. 5 Nov. 2017. <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2015/07/fourth_of_july_revisiting_frederick_douglass_s_fiery_speech.html>
Douglass, Frederick. “Fourth of July Speech” Lee, Mann & co.. 5 Jul. 1852. 5 Nov. 2017. <http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2945>