Fredrick Douglass always had a way with words and when it came down to his argument of what the Fourth of July must have meant to African American slaves he had an even more masterful way of conveying his message. His message was delivered in such a way that was captivating yet stern when bluntly addressing the country’s treatment of slaves. Frederick Douglass was an articulate and strategic public speaker in that he was able to translate his speeches from multiple points of view. He was able to compare various standpoints to aid in the inclusion of many people’s backgrounds which, as a result, would appeal to and hold the attention of large audiences.
During one of the more difficult times in American history and right before the civil war had begun, Douglass held an important position to stand before a predominately religious Caucasian crowd on the Fourth of July—the day that those who were white, male, and owned significant property were able to celebrate as the day America gained independence from Great Britain. “I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust in my ability, than I do to this day.” Douglass took his time to first humble himself toward the crowd to establish common ground.
Later, to further garner respect and promote patriotism, he instills memories of the courageous acts of revolution of those to have preceded the current generation, “Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress.” Douglass’s intentions for this speech was to indirectly plant a seed within the minds of Americans of a new and essential revolution that the country unconsciously thirsted for.
If anything, he yearned for the people to come to the realization that the same oppression once felt by Great Britain was being acted upon the African American slaves within America at that moment in time. He ends up reminding the audience of how speaking out or revolting against British tyranny, in 1776, was dangerous and reasons that if they were speaking of those events in regards to Britain now with an ease that, similarly, future generations would consider slavery unjust. Being that his audience was also predominately Christian, he appeals to their religious tendencies by asking the audience, “am I, therefore called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar?” He implies that Christianity, despite its previously known irrefutable “purity,” passively allows for the imprisonment of human life.
By calling their religion into question, this would ideally have audience members re-evaluate the meaning of their Christian doctrines concerning the practice of slavery. As previously mentioned, the American Revolution as a war waged for the full freedom of only a select few white men who owned significant property. Not only were the African Americans excluded from freedoms, but the Native Americans, the poor, and women regardless of their race were all denied civil liberties.
Moving forward toward the sections of Douglass’s speech labeled, “The Present,” we truly start to witness him moving away from the common ground established to show how astronomically separate he was considered to his audience. Douglass’s focus trails off away from the past and uses God as a tool to leverage his standpoint, “My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.” He begins to exhort his audience and announces that they are cowards for hiding under their father’s revolutionary skirts by living under the false pretense of what they were declaring to be a country of freedom, “You have no right wear out and waste hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”
The day America gained its independence from Great Britain represented the oppression millions faced on a daily basis during this time, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural injustice embodied in that Deceleration of Independence extended to us?” Douglass goes on to describe that although within the constitution the external slave trade had been denounced by the federal government he focuses in on that fact that there remains the internal slave trade. Douglass goes into important detail of the conditions of slavery affecting various people ranging from the young mother to the elder.
Although Douglass gives this speech in front of an audience in Rochester, NY located in the North of America where there is no slavery around to witness, it was important for those not exposed the realities of the practice to hear of it from someone who experienced it first-hand, “I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me, the American slave-trade is a terrible reality.” Douglass ends up condemning the profits made from the internal slave trade and compares the treatment of these human beings to that of animals. Although slavery was not allowed in the north, there was a large percentage of the population in the north who did not truly understand or really care about slavery.
Douglass not only criticizes the American people but the Federal government as well by referencing the horrors of previous doctrines. For example, the Mason Dixon line which established a clear divide between the North and the South and essentially defined a slave-holding South. However, what truly gave rise to more conflict was the Compromise of 1850. There was a piece of the compromise, the Fugitive Slave law, that mandated that those slaves who have escaped from their owners should be returned to their owners regardless of what side of the line they lie. Douglas again states that any Christian church which allows for The Fugitive Slave law truly is not Christian.
Throughout the entirety of Douglass’s speech, his tone of voice and content create a sense of urgency that America was in need of a revolution—the end to all slavery and to free the men and women who have given their lives to serve their country dutifully. He ends the speech on a positive note emphasizing the arrival of freedom and for the abolitionists to continue to fight for their freedoms, “whate’er the peril or the cost.” Douglass gave this speech in Rochester, NY, about seventy-six years after the first-ever Fourth of July celebration of American gaining their independence from Great Britain. During the time of his speech tensions were undeniably high between the abolitionists: those who abhorred slavery, the free soilers: those who opposed the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, and those who were entirely for slavery in the South.
The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act both ignited the fire of what was to become the American Civil War eventually. The Compromise of 1850 was made up of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress which helped to define the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War. It was after the Mexican-American war and laying claim to these specific territories that brought about the question of whether to allow for slavery within the newly gained territories.
This sparked polarization between the northern and southern United States in the most bitter sectional conflict. Many argue that this compromise laid out the groundwork for future conflict over slavery. A small yet profoundly large part of the compromise, The Fugitive Slave law, prohibited the slave trade, however, allowed slavery in general in the District of Columbia. In reaction, Harriet Beecher Stowe created a novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which further aroused feelings of bitterness towards slavery in the North.
This novel was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second-best selling novel within that century right behind the Bible and was credited for igniting the abolitionist movement within the early 1850s. Around this time is when Frederick Douglass was called to give a speech delivered on July 5, 1852, in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. During his speech, Douglass refers to American Independence Day the day after celebrations had taken place. He evaluated the Constitution, the Bible, and values-based arguments towards the American Internal Slave Trade.
Douglass, throughout his speech, shows respect towards the Constitution by declaring it to be an abolition document and states that the Constitution was being used as a tool to justify that the practices of slavery were sound. “The Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.” He calls upon the positive statements towards liberty, citizenship, and freedom being a mockery towards the majority of those who made up the United States who did not have one or more of this list of liberty, citizenship, and freedom—slaves, women, and the poor.
He wanted the audience to realize that they celebrated in the name of freedom and liberty all while there were millions of human beings within their countries suffering and being denied of such privileges. He refers and describes of the merciless exploitation, cruelty, and torture of those bound by slavery and argues religion is the center of the problem, however, can be used ultimately to be the solution, “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.”
Douglass stresses that this knowledge is readily available to the American people and that one day, America will take matters into their own hands, “Cling to this day. Cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight…. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.” As an example, during the mid-nineteenth century, in the western countries were generally against slavery. The British had banned slavery in the 1830s while the French had abolished it not too long after in the 1840s.
Douglass states that at some point in time the world would recognize us as being one of the only countries remaining on stage for the mistreatment of negroes, therefore, making it more likely for future anti-slavery sentiments. Douglass was able to touch upon all social layers to his audience—slaveholders, statesmen, and churchmen who not only break the laws of nature but also are going against religion to uphold superiority over a population of human beings.