An Abridged Version of “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” -Frederick Douglass, 1852.
An abridged version of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” given in 1852 to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, NY:
The 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence…your political freedom.
I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young…There is consolation in the thought, that America is young.
You were under the British Crown…[it] imposed 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…went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable and oppressive…
To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy…but there was a time when, to pronounce against England…tried men’s souls.
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 unfashionable in our day.
Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic…I will unite with you to honor their memory…
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.
As a people Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait–perhaps a national weakness…
Men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own…people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great…
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day?
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…confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
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 of 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?
Fellow-citizens; above your national tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, 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…would make me a reproach before God and the world….
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 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….Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?
The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of their laws for their government…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.
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…Who can reason such a proposition? … The time for such argument is past…it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder…
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?
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,…hollow mockery;
your prayers and hymns, your sermons…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 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…lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that,
for the revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival.
Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now…. the power is co-extensive with the star-spangled banner, and American Christianity. Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred…The right of the hunter to his prey, stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, nor religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes mercy to them, a crime; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American Judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so.
The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters…and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines!
They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire and Bolingbroke put togheter, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that ‘pure and undefiled religion’ …but a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, “stay there”; and to the oppressor, “oppress on”…
Albert Barnes declared that “there is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry, but how? …great religious lights of the land, have deliberately taught us, against the example of the Hebrews, and against the remonstrance of the Apostles, they teach the we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.
There are exceptions, and I think God that there are…
The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham…your christianity a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad…it saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth…and yet you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably, work the downfall of slavery. “The Arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain.
In the fervent aspirations of William Garrison, I say…
God speed the year of jubilee!
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Taylor Storey is a Cultural Studies MA Student at Universität Potsdam in Germany. He splits time between Germany and the Central Coast of California, where he grew up.
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