"What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?" Community Reading 2020

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"What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?" Community Reading 2020

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered an oration in Rochester, New York He asked his audience a simple question: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” On that day in July, Douglass exposed one of the central hypocrisies of his time, and of our national history, with just ten words Douglass used his voice and the presentation of his body, himself, as testimony, to stir others to feel Undoubtedly, Douglass was a master of rhetoric But beyond that, Douglass’s autobiography, as he learned to share it, was itself a vital record of the horrors of slavery. He was living proof of the power of resistance. He was not freed by any law, fiat, or act of kindness No, Douglass was the source of his own liberation In Douglass’s own telling, the written word had a great power to him, and it empowered him. While learning to read and write, Douglass found new “meat” and “drink.” The printed type of The Liberator, a paper promoting abolition, had such an effect that his “soul was set all on fire.” With this speech, Douglass harnessed the best oratory of his day, and improved on it. He stirred his audience to feel, and moved them to consider the weight of a hollow holiday This celebration honored leaders who fought for their freedom and ferociously withheld it from so many others. At the time when Douglass stood at this podium, a man of great and growing esteem, there were 3,204,313 people enslaved by other Americans in the United States The number of people held in bondage had in fact INCREASED in recent years This is a speech about hypocrisy. It is also part of an American tradition. To expose the evils of slavery, Douglass must retell his trauma, to once again share the pain inflicted on himself and other Black Americans. He is compelled to make the pain of those who face racial terror and live under white supremacy real for his audience. Douglass boomed: “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” What is the truth of this past? The freedom that Douglass seized for himself remained limited. With the passage of the 13th amendment, slavery was abolished, but new systems of control were implemented in its place. Today, more than 20% of the people who are incarcerated anywhere in the world are detained, behind bars, here in the United States. More than a 1/3 of that number are African American. In Massachusetts, Black residents make up 7% of the state population and 1/3 of the prison population. The education that Douglass seized, savored was illegal Today, Black students in the classroom are 4x more likely than their white peers to face suspension; this system of disciplinary action continues into adulthood. This, too, reminds us of the power of print to change lives, and to upend oppression “Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for it is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence, the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I

am glad, fellow citizens, that your nation is so young. You are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon Fellow-citizens, the simple story is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your ‘sovereign people’ (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government. England as the fatherland, although a considerable distance from your home, impose, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper But your fathers, who had not adopted the idea of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it Their opposition to the then-dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it On the second of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution We seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal it: ‘Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.’ Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history – the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory They loved their country better than their own private interests; and all will concede that it is a rare virtue, that ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating

against oppression. They showed forbearance; but 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. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. Fully appreciating the hardship to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause , wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, laid the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you Of this fundamental work, this day is the anniversary My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now. We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. Now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. 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. This 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 Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day from the slave’s point of view. Standing, here, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation

seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command…But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men! Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply. 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? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? I cannot. The time for such argument is past At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and

denounced What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I denounced by this government, as piracy, as an execrable [eksəkrəb(ə)l] traffic. To arrest it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade, as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass without condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a mandrover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human fleshjobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul! The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on Follow the drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, WHERE, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the United States Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic. In the solitude of my spirit, I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity

of the buyers and sellers of men By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form; Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun. By that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees, the liberty and person of every man are put in peril. Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport. Your President, your Secretary of State enforce, as a duty you owe to your free and glorious country, and to your God, that you do this accursed thing. Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment’s warning, hurried away in chains, and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture. Some of these have had wives and children, dependent on them for bread; but of this, no account was made. The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men there are neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes MERCY TO THEM, A CRIME; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American JUDGE GETS TEN DOLLARS FOR EVERY VICTIM HE CONSIGNS to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The oath of any two villains is sufficient to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side, is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world, that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges, who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, to hear only his accusers! In glaring violation of justice, in shameless disregard of the forms of administering law, in cunning arrangement to entrap the defenseless, and in diabolical intent, this Fugitive Slave Law stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation. Americans! Your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them,

and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. 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 You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you ‘hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a by word to a mocking earth. Be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy crush and destroy it forever! Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it: God speed the year of jubileeThe wide world o’erWhen from their galling chains set free,Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny Like brutes no more.That year will come, and freedom’s reign,To man his plundered fights againRestore God speed the day when human blood Shall cease to flow!In every clime be understood,The claims of human brotherhood,And each return for evil, good,Not blow for blow;That day

will come all feuds to end.And change into a faithful friendEach foe. God speed the hour, the glorious hour,When none on earthShall exercise a lordly power,Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;But all to manhood’s stature tower,By equal birth!That hour will come, to each, to all,And from his prison-house, the thrallGo forth Until that year, day, hour, arrive,With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,To break the rod, and rend the gyve,The spoiler of his prey deprive —So witness Heaven!And never from my chosen post,Whate’er the peril or the cost,Be driven