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What is the Fourth of July to a Slave? ANSWER THIS QUESTION: The best history is

What is the Fourth of July to a Slave?
The best history is provocative and thought provoking.  As of 2024, several state governments have taken measures to restrict the teaching and dissemination of uncomfortable narratives relating to past of the United States, particularly as they relate to slavery and race (1619 project).  Read the excerpt below and tell us how does Frederick Douglass’ speech on the slave’s perspective of the Fourth of July resonate with these contemporary controversies of historiography?
FREDERICK DOUGLASS’S“FOURTH OF JULY” SPEECHLinks to an external site.(1852)
July 5, 1852
Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:
He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I
have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more
shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over
me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is
one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that
apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine
will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent
me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses,
avails me nothing on the present occasion.
The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th July oration. This certainly, sounds
large, and out of the common way, for me. It is true that I have often had the privilege to
speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But
neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall, seems to
free me from embarrassment.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation,
from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the
latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here today, is, to me, a matter of
astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to
say, I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium.
With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily
and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed
to lay them before you.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National
Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the
emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the clay, and to the act of your
great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act that day.
This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds
you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your
nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck
in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but
nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now only in the
beginning of you national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad
this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds
which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending
disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and
that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of
wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older,
the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be
shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the
thought, that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep
in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the
land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise
in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of
toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as
serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave
nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping
wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.
Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about
this day. The simple story of it is, that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British
subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then
born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as
the home government and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know,
although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental
prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in
its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.
But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of
government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home
government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints.
They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust,
unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I
scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of
your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part, would not be worth much to
anybody. It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived
during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong,
is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can
flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable
to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause
of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of
mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with
the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the
merit, and the one which, of all others, seems un fashionable in our day. The cause of liberty
may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.
Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated, by the home government, your fathers, like
men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and
remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was
wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves
treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not
the men to look back.
As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold, when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the
cause of your fathers grow stronger, as it breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure.
The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of
the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness which seems to be the
unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red sea,
the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.
The madness of this course, we believe, is admitted now, even by England; but, we fear the
lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers.
Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad,
they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous
wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy
for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was
born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The
timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and
alarmed by it.
Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet;
and their course, in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be
attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it,) may be calculated with as much precision as can
be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this
sort of change they are always strongly in favor.
These people were called tories in the days of your fathers; and the appellation, probably,
conveyed the same idea that is meant by a more modern, though a somewhat less
euphonious term, which we often find in our papers, applied to some of our old politicians.
Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their
terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on,
and the country with it.
On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and
the worshippers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national
sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions,
drawn up in our day, whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and
help my story if I read it.
Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent
States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political
connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.
Citizens, your fathers Made good that resolution. They succeeded; and today you reap the
fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly
celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the
very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in
perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the RINGBOLT to
the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that
instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions,
in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy
billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That
bolt drawn, that chain, broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day—cling to it, and to its
principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.
The coining into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event. But, besides
general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which make the advent of this
republic an event of special attractiveness.
The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime.
The population of the country, at the time, stood at the insignificant number of three millions.
The country was poor in the munitions of war. The population was weak and scattered, and
the country a wilderness unsubdued. There were then no means of concert and combination,
such as exist now. Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline.
From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and
innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and
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
fame 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.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the
highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is
exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his
country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives,
their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of
liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They
were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed
forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of
tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and
humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such
men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more
as we contrast it with these degenerate times.
How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the
politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched
away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a
glorious example in their defence. Mark them!
Fully appreciating the hardships to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause,
honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to
attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to
assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this
republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a
sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep, the corner-stone of the
national super-structure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.
Of this fundamental work, this day is the anniversary. Our eyes are met with demonstrations
of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and penants wave exultingly on the breeze. The din of
business, too, is hushed. Even mammon seems to have quitted his grasp on this day. The ear-
piercing fife and the stirring drum unite their accents with the ascending peal of a thousand
church bells. Prayers are made, hymns are sung, and sermons are preached in honor of this
day; while the quick martial tramp of a great and multitudinous nation, echoed back by all the
hills, valleys and mountains of a vast continent, bespeak the occasion one of thrilling and
universal interest—a nation’s jubilee.
Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary.
Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That
is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your
speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have
never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at
your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are
as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and
I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which
make in in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national
weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans,
and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering
Americans, if I say I think the Americans can side of any question may be safely left in
American hands.
I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have
been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!
The Present
My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his
cause is the ever-living now.
“Trust no future, however pleasant, Let the dead past bury its dead; Act, act in the living
present, Heart within, and God overhead.”
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To
all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But
now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work,
and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have
no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be
blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your
fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom
and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is
not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was
fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to
our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented
themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds
which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this
country today? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of
the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he
had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood,
and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout, “We have Washington to ‘our father.’
Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
“The evil that men do, lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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 this 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 life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours,
not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated
temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery
and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? If
so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the
example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of
the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive
lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We
hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away
captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us
one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee,
O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue
cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!
whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the
jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding
children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue
cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to
chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would
make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN
SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.
Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not
hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never
looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past,
or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and
revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be
false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I
will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the
name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call
in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to
perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not
excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape
me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a
slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and
your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you
argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would
be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.
What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject
do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?
That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slave-holders themselves acknowledge
it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish
disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia,
which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the
punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like
punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and
responsible being. The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that
Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and
penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws,
in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.
When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when
the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a
brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man .
For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the negro race. Is it not
astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical
tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron,
copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks,
merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors,
editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises
common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding
sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as
husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God,
and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove
that we are men!
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his
own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a
question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a
matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice,
hard to be understood? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and
subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it
relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself
ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the
canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work
them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them
with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with
dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their
flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a
system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No I will not. I have
better employment for my time and strength, than such arguments would imply.
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish
it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is
inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I
cannot. The time for such argument is past.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability,
and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule,
blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but
fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the
earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must
be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be
exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 these
United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of
the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have
found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every day practices of this nation, and you will
say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a

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