“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Editorial note: The following is an excerpt from the speech abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered at a meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester Hall, Rochester, N.Y. To illustrate the full shame of slavery, Douglass delivered a speech that took aim at the pieties of the nation — the cherished memories of its revolution, its principles of liberty, and its moral and religious foundation. The Fourth of July, a day celebrating freedom, was used by Douglass to remind his audience of liberty’s unfinished business. It is as relevant today.
July 5, 1852
“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…
“ …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 everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. …
“ … 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.
“I, therefore, leave off where I began — with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
“Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference…
“ … But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.
“Wind, steam and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated.
“Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved.
“The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be light,’ has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage, whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.
“The iron shoe and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment.”