Frederick Douglass’ essential speech

One hundred sixty-eight years ago today, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the most powerful and important speeches in U.S. history.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (National Park Service image).

Titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, it drew on the language and moral fervor of the Old Testament prophets to expose the contradictions between the American ideal of liberty and the institution of slavery.

“What Douglass crafted and delivered on July 5 was nothing less than the rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism,” historian David Blight writes in his 2018 biography of Douglass.

Blight describes the speech as a symphony in three movements. In the first, the abolitionist, who had escaped slavery only 14 years earlier, praises America’s founders and celebrates its independence.

In the second movement, his tone turns bitter as he describes the horrors of slavery. “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he tells the audience, the Rochester, New York, Ladies Antislavery Society. “You may rejoice. I must mourn.”

He closes the speech with an appeal to the ideals of the Constitution and an expression of optimism and faith in progress, foreshadowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s claim that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Douglass’ speech should be part of the American canon, alongside the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Every American should have encountered it in school while learning about Douglass’ remarkable life. If you missed out, here are some options:

I’m mystified that Douglass and this speech were missing from my education. I wish I could find a copy of my 11th-grade history textbook, to be sure. I recall only two African Americans deemed worthy of mention: Booker T. Washington, who advocated Black progress through manual training and self-reliance; and George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist and inventor.

Was there really nothing about Douglass? Or W.E.B. Du Bois, Washington’s rival and a founder of the NAACP. Or Harriett Tubman, who escaped slavery and later made 13 missions to free 70 enslaved people.

Granted, this was 50-plus years ago. The Lost Cause mythology of the American South was still pervasive. The Civil War, textbooks claimed, was about states’ rights, not slavery. Reconstruction was presented as an ill-considered disaster.

Hopefully, students today learn a more accurate version of history, but I’m not confident. In 2008, historian James Loewen surveyed high-school teachers who took part in U.S. history workshops about the Civil War. A large majority named states’ rights as the primary cause. Only 20% identified slavery.

Recent Black Lives Matter protests have focused our attention on the ways in which monuments tell a distorted story about American history. Race and slavery are essential elements of that story, and we need to tell the full truth, in the public square and the classroom.

1 thought on “Frederick Douglass’ essential speech

  1. Pingback: Douglass’ speech should be in school libraries | School Matters

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