Frederick Douglass Speaks about the Fourth of July

(Brief audio Excerpt)  
Democracy NOW, produced a July 4th segment with an audio excerpt.
More links below and a Chronology
Also recommended to put this speech in historical context is to read Evan Carton's excellent work on Frederick Douglass' friend and co-conspirator, John Brown. The book "Patriotic Treason; John Brown and the Soul of America" gives an in-depth and very human understanding of Brown, his efforts and the times leading up to the Civil War. A selection is available at Google Books.  

Frederick Douglass' 4th of July Speech:

“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

July 5, 1852 Rochester, New York *

[See full text] ....Fellow Citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called 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 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 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 like as an hart."

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of 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 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? 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 lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yes! 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 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 jubilant shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not 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 here, 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 Fourth 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 slave-holder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some 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 these same crimes will subject a white man to like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment 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 and 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 I will 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 plowing, 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 ciphering, 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 the 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 worshiping the Christian 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 understand? 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 and insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who 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 last, 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. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today 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 denounced.

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of 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 denunciation 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's thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of 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 rival.

* Occasion: Meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, 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.

(This was originally typed in and presented by: Art McGee. His url is now missing. There was a story and excerpt on Democracy NOW read by Bernard White of Pacifica station WBAI., but that archive is now not available. I did find a recording by Fred Morsell who performs and speaks on Douglas. (Brief Audio Excerpt) Other excerpts and full recordings by Morsell may be available at A copy of the full text on this web site and its source at the Black Educator.


A Few Years Later...

A few years later, slavery was officially gone, but soon the true replacement, segregation was the new law and racist practice. Even as the US claimed it was fighting for freedom in Europe and Asia, the law and culture rationalized this new form of slavery. Here is a photo of what whites wanted their children to think about the happy life of "negroes." This photo of a "Sort of Holiday" on a Southern Plantation, is from " Lands and Peoples, The World in Color (sic)," published 1929 to 1941 and used in the public schools into the 1950's!

A PDF printout.


A F r e d e r i c k D o u g l a s s C h r o n o l o g y

The Life of Frederick Douglass

[Born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.]


1818 -- (Exact date unknown) Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey is born on Holme Hill farm in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a slave. Frederick never knew his father but suspected him to be his owner, Captain Aaron Anthony.

1826 -- Sent to live with Hugh Auld family in Baltimore.

1827 -- Asks Sophia Auld to teach him his letters. Hugh Auld stops the lessons because he feels that learning makes slaves discontented and rebellious.

1834 -- Hired Out to Edward Covey, a "slave breaker", to break his spirit and make him accept slavery.

1836 -- Tries to escape from slavery, but his plot is discovered.

1836-38 -- Works in Baltimore shipyards as a caulker. Falls in love with Anna Murray, a free Negro (daughter of slaves).

1838 -- Escapes from slavery, goes to New York City, marries Anna Murray and settles in New Bedford, Massachusetts; selects a new name: Frederick Douglass.

1839 -- Subscribes to William Garrison's "The Liberator."

1841 -- First speaks at an antislavery meeting in Nantucket; William Lloyd Garrison hires him as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society; spends the next four years on the lecture circuit speaking out against slavery and campaigning for rights of free Blacks.

1842 -- Makes first visit to Rochester attending a convention of Blacks.

1845 -- Publishes the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; to escape recapture following publication, tours Great Britain as an antislavery speaker, visiting England, Scotland, and Ireland; British friends and supporters purchase his freedom a year later for £150 from Hugh Auld, his former master.

1847 -- Returns to the United States as a free man. Against the advice of Garrison, moves to Rochester, New York, to publish a weekly newspaper, the North Star, which in later years becomes Frederick Douglass' Paper and finally Douglass' Monthly.

1848 -- Attends the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York and advocates the right to vote for women.

1850 -- Publishes an attack on the Compromise of 1850 and the new fugitive-slave law.

1851 -- Changes the name of North Star to Frederick Douglass's Paper. Helps three fugitive Maryland slaves escape to Canada as "Station Master" of the Rochester terminus of the Underground Railroad.

1852 -- Splits with Garrison over the means to achieve the abolition of slavery. Chosen vice-presidential candidate at the Liberal Party convention. July 5th, gave the July Forth Speech. on July 5th in Rochester, NY.

1855 -- Publishes his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom.

1858 -- John Brown stays at the Douglass home in Rochester while developing plans for encouraging a slave revolt.

1859 -- After assisting John Brown in drawing up plans to incite a slave revolt, Douglass declines to join the raid on Harper's Ferry; escapes to Canada to avoid being arrested and then sails to England to avoid prosecution, staying six months.

1860 -- Returns to the United States upon hearing of the death of his eleven-year old daughter, Annie and is not charged in the John Brown raid.

1861 -- The Civil War begins. Calls for the use of Black troops to fight the Confederacy through the establishment of Negro regiments in the Union Army. November: Abraham Lincoln is elected president. December: South Carolina secedes from the Union.

1862 -- Congress abolishes slavery in Washington, D.C.

1863 -- Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation takes effect, abolishing slavery in the states that are "in rebellion." Douglass becomes a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African-American soldiers; his sons Lewis and Charles join the regiment. Eventually his son Frederick Douglass Jr. becomes an army recruiter also. Meets with President Lincoln to discuss the unequal pay and poor treatment black soldiers receive. About 180,000 African Americans serve in the Civil War on the Union side.

1864 -- Meets with Lincoln again. In case the war is not a total Union victory, Lincoln asks Douglass to prepare an effort to assist slaves escaping to the North.

1865 -- April 14, Lincoln is assassinated. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, is ratified.

1866 -- Attends convention of Equal Rights Association and clashes with women's rights leaders over their insistence that the vote not be extended to Black men unless it is given to all women at the same time.

1867 -- Turns down President Andrew Johnson's offer to name him commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau inasmuch as the National Black Leadership supported General Oliver O. Howard's continuation in the post.

1870 -- Becomes owner and editor of the New National Era, a weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C.

1871 -- President Ulysses S. Grant appoints Douglass to the Commission of Inquiry into the possible annexation of Santo Domingo.

1872 -- Rochester home mysteriously destroyed by fire (arson?) with the loss of the newspaper archives. Moves his family to Washington, DC. Nominated for vice-president by Equal Rights Party on a ticket headed by Victoria Woodhull.

1874 -- Named president of the troubled Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company. Works with the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to save the bank, which ultimately fails.

1875 -- Congress passes a Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in public places.

1877 -- Appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

1878 -- Purchases Cedar Hill, a 9-acre estate in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC.

1881 -- President James A. Garfield appoints Douglass recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia; publishes his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

1882 -- Anna Murray Douglass dies. Abolitionist 1813-1882

Because of her husband [born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey] Douglass' prominent place in American Black History, it is easy to see how Anna Murray could easily be over shadowed. However, because of her tremendous courage, loyalty, love, and support for Bailey, she too has secured a place in history. It was through Murray's financial efforts that Bailey [Douglass] was able to escape from Baltimore to New York disguised as a sailor. Upon his safe arrival, she joined him, and the two were married. They assumed the name 'Johnson', but after meeting Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Mass., he formally introduced the new couple as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass. While Frederick traveled, Anna provided comfort and shelter to hundreds of runaway slaves at their Rochester, New York home, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Although illiterate, she was the family's financial manager and maintained rock solid stability during Frederick's absence. Stricken with paralysis, Anna Murray Douglass, a devoted wife and mother of four, died in their Washington D.C. home in 1882.

1884 -- Having been a widower since 1882, Douglass marries Helen Pitts, his former secretary.

1889-91 -- Serves as minister and consul to Haiti, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison.

1891 -- Revises and then republishes Life and Times autobiography.

1892-93 -- Appointed Charge d'Affaires for Santo Domingo and Minister Resident and Consul-General to Haiti. Leads Haitian legation to World's Columbian Exposition.

1895 -- Dies at his home (Cedar Hill) of a heart attack.

12 Principles For Success Mentioned in Writings by Frederick Douglass


[Made several small edits for clarity. Exact source of this chronology is unknown. WT]

Other chronologies are available at The National Park Service, and The Frederick Douglass Papers Project .

Higher quality brief speech, mp3.

This page updated: 05/10/2018 .