As we get ready for the Fourth of July tomorrow, we’re remembering a remarkable speech about Independence Day. In July of 1852 in Rochester, N.Y., a crowd of about 600 people gathered together in a hall. They’d been brought together by the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Their guest speaker was Frederick Douglass. Douglass had been born enslaved. He’d secretly taught himself to read and write. He was a genius who became one of the best-known abolitionists and thinkers in the world. This speech that Douglass gave before that crowd in Rochester was called “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?” Yale historian David Blight says it was one of the most riveting and compelling speeches Douglass ever gave.
DAVID BLIGHT: This speech is a symphony with three movements. First movement, he sets them at ease by honoring the Founding Fathers. He calls the Declaration of Independence the ring-bolt of American liberty. He calls the Fourth of July the American Passover. He sets them all at ease, but then he takes them through a litany of all the horrors of the slave trade, of the slave ships, of slave auction blocks. He takes that audience to the dark heart of what slavery really is.
And then that middle movement – he says, oh, be warned. Be warned. There is a horrible reptile coiled up at your nation’s heart. And then he ends. And the last movement of the speech, he says, your nation is still young. It is still malleable, changeable. It’s not quite too late. You might yet have a chance to save yourselves.
This speech is a rhetorical masterpiece. And its great theme is American secular and religious hypocrisy for the practice of slavery. And it is a great warning that if the country doesn’t find a way to face this problem, it will face tremendous disruption, tremendous violence. Today, it will remind people so much of the current crisis we’re in and this ever-lasting problem that we never quite are able to solve – the question of race.
KING: As you said, he doesn’t start this speech with a condemnation. He starts with a compliment. The Founding Fathers, he says, were great men. They were statesmen, patriots, heroes. Why does he begin that way?
BLIGHT: Well, he’s setting his audience in a safe place. Also, he meant what he said. He called the principles of the Declaration saving principles – equality, the natural rights tradition, popular sovereignty, which means a republican form of government, and the right of revolution. And he says, look, these were geniuses who created this republic out of the 18th century.
But then, of course, the rhetoric begins to shift. And in that middle of that speech, it is almost like a hailstorm. It’s like he’s raining down thunder and hail on his audience. And I have to believe some of them were squirming. And where you see it is how often he uses the pronouns you and your. It’s your nation. Your founders, your Declaration of Independence. You, your and you and your.
He’s separating himself already and says – I quote – “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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand, illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
KING: Was this speech a gutsy move? Or because he was in front of a friendly audience, was it extraordinary but not particularly brave?
BLIGHT: It was a gutsy move. Even if you’re speaking to a crowd, essentially, of your like-minded friends, this is still a very poignant attack on anyone who considered themselves a patriotic American. What Douglass is really doing here is pointing to America’s creeds, its first principles. They are right there in the Declaration of Independence. He says, you know, you’ve got the document. The principles are terrific. It’s the practice that violates it all.
KING: Have you ever thought, having spent so much time thinking about Frederick Douglass, if he were alive today, what he’d be doing and what he might say in his speeches, in a speech like this one?
BLIGHT: (Laughter) This much we know about his character. He would never miss using a crisis when something shocking happened. He was a creature of words. He was a genius with language. Douglass would go to words and try first to explain to himself what he thought about it. Then he would go take it out to the public. As for the kind of crisis we’re having now, who knows what he would say?
But after 130-some years, he’d say, you know, I died in the late 19th century, and you all are still at this? For God’s sake. But he also – I think he tried to harness young people. He’d be out there trying to harness this energy. And he would be harnessing it and devoting. He always believed that, somehow, the right to vote was at the core of liberty. And he would be out there right now, trying to harness them into voting.
But what he would be seeing is what we’re all seeing, possibly the third great reckoning about this in our history. The first was the Civil War and Reconstruction. The second was the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. And now we’re probably having a third one – whatever we’re going to end up calling this. But he would be saying harness this now and try to get it right this time. And he’d warn us that the whole world is watching to see whether this thing called an American republic can really survive.
KING: Professor David Blight, author of the award-winning book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom.” Thank you so much for taking the time today.
BLIGHT: Thank you, Noel. It’s an honor.
KING: And on npr.org right you, you can watch an amazing short film featuring five young descendants of Frederick Douglass as they read and respond to excerpts of his famous speech.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.