Volume XIX · Spring 1964 · Number 3
Frederick Douglass: Fourth of July Oration, 1852
--PATRICIA G. BOWMAN
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 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....
But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the 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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Curious words from a Fourth of July oration, yet, equally curious and incongruous was the choice of the orator. Frederick Douglass, the great Negro abolitonist, spoke these words in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5, 1852. As editor of the abolitionist newspaper, the Frederick Douglass' Paper (originally the North Star), Douglass had become a leader in the fight against slavery. In 1852 the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society chose him to address their Fourth of July meeting. Douglass, in turn, asked the prominent Rochester businessman and abolitionist, Samuel Drummond Porter, to take part in the celebration:
Please note: Recent (2009) research suggests that this June 26 letter which bears no year, should not be ascribed to 1852, as the author suggests here.
Rochester 26th June
Saml. D. Porter Esqr.
My Dear Sir.
You will do me a kindness by calling at my office to morrow fore noon. I have secured Corinthian Hall for the morning of the 4th and am quite anxcious [sic] that the proceedings shall be worthy of the day.
I think that if you would consent to preceed [sic] me by reading the declaration and making such remarks, as that document and the occasion would naturally suggest, you would render the cause essential service.
Most truly yours
The Frederick Douglass' Paper for July 1, 1852, included this interesting announcement of the meeting:
CELEBRATION OF THE NATIONAL ANNIVERSARY
As the 4th of July comes on Sunday, this year, it will be celebrated, by our Society, on Monday the 5th, at Corinthian Hall, at 10 o'clock, A.M.
The Declaration of Independence will be read by S. D. Porter, Esq.
An Oration will be delivered by Frederick Douglass.
Appropriate Speeches will be made by William C. Bloss, Esq., Rev. Ovid Miner, and Lindley Murray Moore, Esq.
Music by Messrs. Clark and Edward Sperry.
Our Friends in this County, and in Western New York, generally, are very cordially invited to attend.
MARIA WEDDLE, Vice Pres't. Julia Griffiths, Sec'y,.
Rochester L. A. S. Society
There will be a bountiful Refreshment table provided, in the lower Corinthian Hall, where all wishing to dine can be served, at moderate charge.
It is hoped that the Country Friends will send in liberal supplies of butter, eggs, chickens, cream, fruit and cake.
Frederick Douglass was, of course, the hub of the celebration. He delivered an eloquent and moving address to an audience of five or six hundred persons. After extolling the virtues of the American fathers of independence ("With them, justice, liberty and humanity were 'final;' not slavery and oppression.") and declaring his complete agreement with the principles contained in the Declaration of Independence, Douglass hastened to point out that his people, the American Negroes, were not permitted to enjoy the freedom guaranteed to every American under the Constitution. He declared American slavery to be the real subject of his Fourth of July oration, saying, "I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave's point of view."
Douglass saw no need to argue that the Negro slave is a man, that "man is the rightful owner of his own body," and that "men have a natural right to freedom." Is slavery wrong? Frederick Douglass answered, simply:
There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him. . .
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.
And this "scorching irony," deemed necessary by the orator, was especially apparent when Douglass denounced the incongruities of the American system.
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. . . .
While Americans contemplated foreign slave-trade with horror and outlawed it as piracy, the internal slave-trade prospered.
Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women, reared like swine, for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul! The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated for ever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, WHERE, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.
I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality.
Indeed, Frederick Douglass did know the "terrible reality" of slavery and the slave-trade; he had been a slave from his birth until he managed to escape in 1838 at the age of twenty-one. A most graphic and moving description of the horrors of slavery, witnessed or endured by Douglass himself, can be found in his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), written to refute the charge that he never was a slave, "since no slave would be able to speak and write so well."
"But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented." With these words, Douglass directed his attention to the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by the American Congress, September 18, 1850.
By that act, Mason & Dixon's line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women and children, as slaves, remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. 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. He is a bird for the sportsman's gun. . . .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.
Frederick Douglass pronounced the Fugitive Slave Law "one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty," and, in reference to their position with regard to slavery, charged the American churches with blindness, indifference, and lack of the "vital principle"-the basic spirit of Christianity.
At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law concern the 'mint, anise and cummin'-abridge the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! . . . The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions,) does not esteem 'the Fugitive Slave Law' as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness.
But worse than being indifferent to the inhuman treatment of the slaves, the church actually sided with the oppressors. Douglass charged American churchmen with having taught:
. . . .that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; . . . that we ought to obey man's law before the law of God.
Although Frederick Douglass criticized the church rather severely, he did recognize its potential power in the struggle to abolish slavery:
Let the religious press, the pulpit, the sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery, and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds, and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.
Upon returning to the topic of the day, American freedom, Douglass boldly declared:
Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure christianity, while the whole political power of the nation, (as embodied in the two great political parties,) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. . . . You profess to believe 'that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,' and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred,) all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you 'hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage, which according to your own Thomas Jefferson, 'is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,' a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
And if any said that slavery was sanctioned by the Constitution framed by the Fathers of the Republic, Douglass asserted that such an accusation was "slander upon their memory."
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.
Frederick Douglass admired the principles of freedom and justice upon which America was founded but could never bring himself to believe that his people were not meant to enjoy the promised freedom. And just as he never lost hope that he would escape from slavery, he never lost hope that slavery would be abolished.
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. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.
The reaction of the participants in the Fourth of July celebration to the oration was described in the Frederick Douglass' Paper, July 9, 1852:
When the speaker sat down, there was a universal burst of applause, and William C. Bloss, Esq., rose and moved a vote of thanks to Mr. Douglass, for the learned and eloquent address to which they had just listened. It was unanimously carried. A request was also made, that the Address be published in pamphlet form, and seven hundred copies of it were subscribed for on the spot.
A week later the paper advertised the printed speech:
The 4th of July Address, delivered in Corinthian Hall, by Frederick Douglass, is published on good paper, and makes a neat pamphlet of forty pages. The 'Address' may be had at this office, price ten cents, a single copy, or six dollars per hundred.
The Frederick Douglass' Paper was the only Rochester paper to mention the Independence Day celebration at which Frederick Douglass spoke. Other Rochester papers announced and commented on the customary July Fourth picnics, fireworks displays, band concerts, and parades, but overlooked the meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society. Perhaps for this reason, Frederick Douglass' speech, which might have shocked and outraged many, seems to have escaped the notice of most Rochesterians.
The letter quoted in this article is one of eight Frederick Douglass letters included in the Porter family papers given to the University of Rochester in 1961 by Mrs. Craig P. Cochrane. Letters from other sources bring the total of Douglass letters in the Library to twenty-nine. Excerpts from the oration were quoted from the Library's copy of the address as it was first published in 1852 by Lee, Mann & Co., Rochester. Microfilms of the newspapers edited by Frederick Douglass, various editions of the three Douglass autobiographies (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass), printed speeches, and many secondary works concerning Douglass, complete the collection of Frederick Douglass material in Rush Rhees Library at The University of Rochester.