On July 5, 1852, eminent African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a brilliant speech to nearly six hundred people filling Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall, as organized by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. His powerful indictment of American slavery and racism, presented to a predominately white abolitionist audience, has resonated for 168 years, including in NPR’s recent video of five young descendants of Douglass reading excerpts from the speech. Those excerpts are mainly drawn from the ones Douglass himself chose to include in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” as an “extract from an oration,” in My Bondage and My Freedom, his second autobiography, published in 1855. The passages in the extract have been the ones generally quoted over the years.
There is value, though, in reading the entire text. You can find the full speech printed in Douglass’ own newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, July 9, 1852, beginning on page 2, six short paragraphs below the title, “The Celebration at Corinthian Hall.” Following a deferential opening and acknowledgment of the bravery of those who led the country to independence, Douglass pointedly and repeatedly excluded himself and all Black Americans from celebrating that independence.
The July 5th date for the event, instead of the 4th, is significant. The reason given for this date in an announcement in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, July 1, 1852, is that “the 4th of July comes on Sunday,” but that was not the only reason. As Douglass emphasized, celebrating the July 4th Independence Day while millions of Black Americans were enslaved was the height of hypocrisy. In addition, the July 5th date had special importance for African Americans in New York. On July 5, 1827, Black New Yorkers marched through lower Manhattan to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the state, which took effect the day before. One reason for their choice of July 5th then was concern of violence from white July 4th revelers. Another despicable association with July 4th was that slave auctions were sometimes conducted on that date.
Douglass’ ideas on many issues evolved over the years, but the view of the hypocrisy of celebrating the July 4th holiday while millions of African Americans were enslaved was a repeated theme for Douglass, as well as other abolitionists, before and after the 1852 oration. At least as early as July 7, 1848, just eight months after Douglass founded The North Star, the original title of his newspaper, he blasted the celebration of July 4th as “This anniversary of American hypocrisy passed off in this city with every demonstration of enthusiasm.” In the editorial, “The Shame of America,” in the June 27, 1856 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, he lamented, “What a pity, and, at the same time, what a shame it is, that our Nation’s holiday, instead of being, as it should be, a renewing of a people’s vows in behalf of human liberty, should only exist as a stupendous monument of a nation’s inconsistency and disgrace!”
Coverage of the 1852 speech in the July 9th issue concluded with the report that Douglass received “a universal burst of applause,” a vote of thanks, and a request that the “Address be published in pamphlet form, and seven hundred copies of it were subscribed for on the spot.”
The pamphlet was advertised as available for sale as soon as a week later, in the newspaper’s July 16th issue.
The pamphlet provided a way for Douglass to reach an even wider audience. To do, what he strove to do: “O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, deal out biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” Frederick Douglass had that ability and his speeches and writings continue to reach the nation’s ear.
- A Community Reading: Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” A reading of the full speech sponsored by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom of the National Park Service; introduced by David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
- Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847 to 1874, online newspaper collection from the Library of Congress
- Frederick Douglass: A Resource Guide from the Library of Congress
- Chronicling America, 1789-1963, contains additional African American newspapers and extensive coverage of Frederick Douglass. This online newspaper collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.