Is Frederick Douglass’s Most Famous Speech Misunderstood?

On July 5th, 1852, 11 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, former enslaved statesman Frederick Douglass took the stage at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall before the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and delivered what has been hailed as the great orator’s most moving speech. To many historians it is also his most scathing.

Indeed, at 40 pages the blistering oration, audaciously scheduled when most Americans were still basking in the glow of Independence Day celebrations, contains some of Douglass’s most memorable criticisms of the United States.

“Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?” he asked those in attendance. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” 

You can almost hear the pin drop. 

He continued:

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour.”

In light of these remarks it would be easy to conclude that Douglass hated America. How could one conclude otherwise when he uses the words “sham, heartless, hollow, fraud” and “savage” to describe the country and its people?

One might further feel compelled to make the point that Douglass’s animosity toward America was certainly understandable and justifiable given the harm and suffering the country had caused Douglass. After all, he had to first escape the bondage of slavery before he could publicly denounce it.

However, according to Lucas Morrell, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, those who see this speech solely as a condemnation of America and all it represents are missing a key point. Douglass, Morrell claims, was using this speech to announce to the world that he had changed his mind about America.

“Somehow he learned from the country that had enslaved him that there were principles as well as institutions and practices that he believed leaned towards freedom,” Lucas said in a podcast interview with Jeffrey Sikkenga, executive director of the Ashbrook Center.*

“[Douglass] wasn’t blinded by the obvious manifest ways we fell short,” Morrell said. “He was able to see the good amidst the bad. And use that to marshal a pro-freedom, pro-liberation movement in America.”

As evidence of Douglass’s approval of the American idea, Morrell points to his praise of the nation’s founders, expressed so effusively in his speech.

“They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage,” said Douglass. “They were quiet men, but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance, but that they knew its limits. They believed in order, but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final,’ not slavery and oppression.” 

According to Morrell, Douglass was effectively saying to the people of America, from the north and south, “You don’t look a thing like the founders. Because even though … they were slaveholders, they were not content to remain a slave-holding society. They announced principles and produced institutions that they expected would get rid of that contradiction to those truths.”

This speech, Morrell said, was not a rebuke of the American idea. It was a rebuke of the present reality in 1852 America which represented a “harsh denial” of the American idea.

A denial so harsh, even the Declaration of Independence was “canceled” in certain parts of the country, Morrell said. He noted laws on the books at that time to stop the publishing of anything that could cause a slave revolt, to the point where even someone reading the Declaration aloud could be accused of causing insurrection because the document so clearly articulates the principles of freedom and equality.

The same could be said for the U.S Constitution, which Douglass described as a “glorious liberty document.” He viewed the Constitution as the way the promises made in the Declaration would ultimately be kept.

“We should imitate Douglass in finding those resources and reserves in America’s founding, in its Constitution, and especially its Declaration, to help us regain a common language of rights, of equality, of consent, and the rule of law. We can find those in principle and in rhetoric in the past,” stated Morrell.

Today we hear calls to cancel America’s founding institutions and documents and those responsible for creating them. However, if equality and liberty are what we seek, Douglass suggests taking the opposite path, a path paved by the vision of America’s founders that leads inevitably to the fulfillment of America’s promise.

“Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future,” Douglass said. “They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!”

*The mission of the Ashbrook Center is to strengthen constitutional self-government by educating our fellow Americans—students, teachers and citizens—in the history and founding principles of our country and the habits of reflection and choice necessary to perpetuate our republic. Click here for more information.

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