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Frederick Douglass, 1852 Speech

Frederick Douglass, 1852 Speech

by William H. Benson

June 30, 2019

     The Rochester, New York Ladies Anti-Slavery Sewing Society asked the abolitionist Frederick Douglass to deliver the address at the Fourth of July celebration on Monday, July 5, 1852.

     This was nine years before voters elected Lincoln president, before the Southern states departed Congress to form the Confederacy, before shots rang out at Fort Sumter, and ten years before Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the 3.5 million slaves in the former Southern states.

     No one in 1852 knew that a bloody civil war was imminent, that it would rip the nation apart, and that its winner would toss slavery into the dustbin of history, where it belonged. 

     Partway into his speech, Douglass stops and asks, “why am I called upon to speak here to-day?”

     He notes the “sad sense of the disparity between” himself, a black man and a former slave, and his audience, white free ladies, and dares to point out the obvious. “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! 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. The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

     “I will, in the name of humanity, dare to call in question and to denounce everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!”

      He then submits five questions. First, “Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” He answers, “It is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race.”

     He asks, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty?” He answers, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

     He asks, “Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?” He answers, “No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength.”

     He asks, “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?” He answers, “That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot.”

     Finally, he asks a crucial question, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

     He answers, “a day that reveals to him 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.

     “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

     Douglass then denounces the internal slave trade. “Here,” he says, “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. I was born amid such sights and scenes.”

     He picks up again his attack upon the church. “But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines!

     “They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs.

     As were most abolitionists, Frederick Douglass was bare-knuckled, unrelenting, hostile, in-your- face, and merciless, when he spoke, when he condemned the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as he did on July 5, 1852. The Ladies Anti-Slavery Society received an earful that day, more than they expected.

     Today, in certain cities, mainly in New England, groups gather to celebrate the Fourth of July with a “Reading Frederick Douglass” event. Participants take turns reading portions of Douglass’s speech.

     For example, participants will gather on Friday, July 5, at 6:00 p.m. in Boston’s Egleston Square to hear a complete reading.

     In 2018, the Yale historian David Blight won the Pulitzer Prize for history for writing his biography, Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. In it, he called Douglass’s 1852 speech “abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.” Indeed, it is.