On the Fourth of July, 1842, Frederick Douglass — who started life as a slave and, after escaping to freedom, became a writer and orator of astonishing power and the leading advocate of the abolition of slavery — addressed a packed hall in Rochester, N.Y.
The event, sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, was titled: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
The answer to his title question seems obvious. To white Americans, the Fourth of July celebrated the anniversary of their nation’s “Declaration of Independence,” representing white America’s “freedom” from the rule of their former British overlords.
But to a slave, America had nothing to with freedom, except, perhaps, for being its opposite.
Douglass made this seemingly obvious point, powerfully and repeatedly and throughout his public career and quite compellingly in his remarks that Fourth of July in Rochester.
For this year’s holiday, celebrating the freedom achieved by white Americans from colonial bondage, Gillian Brockell, who writes for “Retropolis,” the Washington Post’s history blog, revisited Douglass’ 90-minute Rochester address.
The facts and arguments Douglass mustered and shared that day to answer his self-asked question about what the Fourth of July signified to a slave were beyond powerful. The arguments were specifically about slavery, but perhaps also about the even longer story of the ability of those with enough power to get away with it to sustain and even justify pure evil that happens to be in their own economic interest.
I’ll give you one long paragraph just below, and below that a link to Brockell’s full piece. Here’s the paragraph.
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 earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.