Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist, orator and former slave, criticised America for celebrating its political freedom, while millions of Black Americans were still in slavery. This was just a few days after America celebrated its 76th birthday.
e” href=”https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/coretexts/_files/resources/texts/c/1852%20Douglass%20July%204.pdf”>”What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech July 5, 1852, at the historic Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.|Douglass gave his “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech on July 5, 1852 at the Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York.} Douglass was invited by the Rochester Ladies’ Antislavery Society to speak on Fourth of July. However, he declined to do so because, as he explained, there were 600 white people in attendance.
You share the rich inheritance of justice and liberty, prosperity, and independence that your fathers left you. You have brought me stripes and death, while the sun has brought you life and healing. This Fourth of July [is] yours and not mine.
Douglass made what historians call the greatest antislavery speech. He cited Shakespeare, invoked the Bible and praised the Constitution as a “glorious liberty” document that was “entirely hostile” to slavery.
“He’s trying tamper with this American hypocrisy about how you could have such an enormous and growing slave system, and (a) society which claims it’s dedicated liberty and freedom, even to equality,” stated David Blight, Yale history professor and author of “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.”
Douglass’ speech, which is almost 170 years old today, still resonates in American public consciousness. This speech is often recited and quoted at this time of the year. USA TODAY spoke to leading Douglass scholars about the motivations for Douglass’ harsh critique of America.
Douglass spent nearly three weeks creating the speech. Raymond Winbush (director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University) said that Douglass’ motivation was simple.
Winbush stated that Winbush was inspired by the hypocrisy in this country. He was mad when he wrote it.
Douglass saw two Americas. One with 3 million slaves. The other where Americans beat drums, sang hymns and wave banners of “joyous enthusiasm” in celebration of their freedom.
Douglass’ famous speech was two years ago when the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1800, which required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners.
Underground Railroad was used to transport slaves from the South for decades. The Fugitive Slave Law made it illegal for Northern states to arrest runaways until the passage of this law.
Federal law required that U.S. marshals and federal officials, as well as everyday citizens, assist in the capture of suspected runaways even if they are located in free states. Anyone who refuses to capture a slave runaway or helps them can be punished with a fine or imprisonment.
Douglass believed that this law nationalized slavery, as everyone in the USA was legally bound to return escaped slaves to their owners. Robert Levine, University of Maryland professor, author of many books about Douglass, stated that Douglass believed that this law nationalized slavery. Levine stated that Douglass was angry at the act and considered it an act of violence against Blacks.
Douglass was furious that “merciless slave hunter” lawfully captured and tracked down runaways fleeing to freedom. Legally, slaves could not hide in the country.
Douglass stated in his speech that slavery had been “nationalized in its worst and most revolting form.” “That act has obliterated Mason and Dixon’s lines; New York has become Virginia; and the ability to hold, hunt and sell slaves men, women and children is no longer an institution of the state, but is now an institution for the entire United States.
Douglass’ speech was delivered in a tense political climate. Blight stated that 1852 was a presidential election season in which three parties, Whig, Democratic, and Free Soil, vied for the presidency. Both the Democrats and the Whigs supported slavery in South. Political leaders debated how to divide the country into slave-holding and free states. The country was experiencing a conflict, which almost ten years later erupted in the Civil War.