Every year on this day, Frederick Douglass’s fiery, uncompromising 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” gets a new hearing, and takes on added resonance in the context of contemporary politics. It has never ceased to speak directly to those for whom the celebrations can seem like a hollow mockery of freedom and independence. The American holiday commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—next to the Constitution, the U.S.A.’s most cherished founding document, and a text, for all its rhetorical elegance, which cannot escape the irony that it was written by a slaveholder for an emerging slave nation.
Slavery had always been a contentious subject among the colonists. And yet the American Revolution was a war waged for the full freedom and enfranchisement of only a very few white men of property. Not only were black people excluded from the nation’s freedoms, but so too were conquered Native American nations, and in great part, poor white men and women who could not vote—though they were not chained in perpetual servitude as human chattel, with little hope of liberty for themselves or their descendants.
Douglass gave the speech in Rochester, NY, seventy-six years after the first July 4th and at a time when the country was riven with irreconcilable tensions between abolitionists, free-soilers, and the slaveholding South. The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act—at least, in hindsight—made the impending Civil War all but inevitable. The speech reveals the celebration as a sham for those who were or had been enslaved, and who could not consider themselves American citizens regardless of their status (as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney would affirm five years later.)
Just above, you can hear a powerful reading of Douglass’s speech by James Earl Jones, delivered as part of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Read an excerpt of the speech below.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a 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 denunciation 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—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
Douglass’s speech condemned the “scorching irony” of American independence even after the Civil War, as racist terrorism and Jim Crow destroyed the promise of Reconstruction. In our present time, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor Isabel Wilkerson, amidst the rash of high profile police killings and an ensuing lack of justice, events “have forced us to confront our place in a country where we were enslaved for far longer than we have been free. Forced us to face the dispiriting erosion that we have witnessed in recent years—from the birther assaults on a sitting black president to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act that we had believed was carved in granite.” We might add to this list the resumption of the failed “War on Drugs” and the federal government’s announcements that it would do little to safeguard civil rights nor to investigate and prosecute the surge of white supremacist violence.
And yet the “self evident” mythology of American freedom and equality—and of American innocence—remains potent and seductive to many people in the country. As the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute put it a few days ago, “The birth of the United States was unique because it was a nation founded not on blood or ethnicity, but on ideas.” To this ahistorical fiction, which manages to erase the founders’ own statements on race, the colonization of indigenous lands, and even the bloody Revolutionary War in its strangely desperate zeal to sweep the past away, Douglass would reply: “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 the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
Hear other readings of the speech by Morgan Freeman, here, and by Danny Glover, here.
The Civil War & Reconstruction: A Free Course from Yale University
Take Free Courses on African-American History from Yale and Stanford: From Emancipation, to the Civil Rights Movement, and Beyond
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
“You’re welcome.”–said the 350,000 Union troops who died to free the slaves…
And since the descendants of slaves in America are still treated with racism, hatred, prejudice, employment discrimination, police brutality and the unrelenting pursuit to give tickets to African Americans for petty violations so as to humiliate and dehumanize us more than any other race in America, and other atrocities that many Caucasian Americans spend their lifetime inventing, I can confidently say that their deaths were in vain!
How can a groups of white European colonists who stole the territories now known as “America” from the First Nation Peoples, and proceeded to attempt to exterminate them, be deserving of any respect whatsoever. It is long past time this colony received its independence. It should be handed back to the First Nation Peoples immediately, and any of the colonists who do not wish to to live under their governance should be allowed to return to their home countries.
An essay unworthy of Open Culture on this day, great respect for Frederick Douglass notwithstanding.
Great Outstanding Speech by a Great Outstanding Man!!
This is to the scary person who had the disrespectful nerve to say he don’t care about black slaves … Let me correct and truthfully educate you. First if you are white and your saying this to the public I speak openly for my people you are a ass and f you. You must be racist how can you take owner ship for something that ya own people didn’t have or invented? Your whole race stole from us for more then 100 years then your racist folks came out making counterfeit paper is called ssc birth certificate as well as what you call money in America. Your kind lied misguide our children is the school systems you created police which was ranned by the members of the KKK clan and to protect you bums from us beating ya ass Everytime your people talk crazy calling bronze folks black and the n word. This is why ya kind is getting away with everything. There’s facts to back up what I mentioned. Police pigs are only to serve and protect there own people meaning white folks and that shit will never change so please watch your discussing mouth about speaking falsely about my family and my people.
To “Someone Said;
We know that you and most of your Klan associates don’t care! I’ve always said this America is more racist than anyone could ever imagine. What are the foundations of your warped thinking? The cradle of civilization lies in Africa! When the almighty created “civilization”, He didn’t make it replete with ignorance! There was knowledge in abundance. He gave us (Black folks) certain gifts. For example; melanin! “Oops” You may be ignorant to this! To say that Blacks are not worthy of any freedom is asinine! Jackass! You are a grafted product of Blacks! we were free before your ancestors brought us here. With all the resources that are and were there we would have been a prosporous nation independent of outside “influence”! rape, robbing, stealing, lying,are all a part of your tricknowledge scheme! So I leave you with this; free yourself and study the “unconvoluted” history of Africa. I ask you and others alike to face the truth. One final question; Are you a product of the beasts who made you witness lynchings? Sure sounds like it.
First I have to take issue with the essay itself. I’m not sure where you guys learn your history but nearly everyone of you have no context for your statements and its f’ing sad. Public education in America!Second I’m a white man who grandfathers where atrocious racist. I learned very early as my Father and Mother were very into the Christian Church that God sees the content of character. Third, As the last line may have indicated I respect my past, it informs my future, and Douglas and King are two of the most influential men to live in this country, both of which I have great respect and most white people today respect them, on top of the fact that your ancestors changed the heart on a whole nation of people. More sad than that is most of you think that M.L. King was a white mans puppet? Stupid, ignorant thinking. Fourth, To all of my black brothers and sister in the U.S., the chinese were treated no better and they were the ones to build the continental railroad. Throughout history one race has fought to enslave another over land, power, gold, tactical position, etc…. but the American civil war was the only time a race fought itself to free those very people. Britain brought the slaves here to sell. They were in control of South Africa. The NYT would have you believe that they were ending slavery in the British Isles. You better really take a look at the British Monarchy throughout history before you make an ignorant statement like that….. History guys, read enough maybe we want destroy ourselves whining about things we can’t change, while people that hate us plot to destroy ALL of us, not just white people! IF anyone believes anything not Islam you are the enemy! How you don’t see it shocks me.
Thank you for that speech we have to educate our children to know that not only do they count but they have rich legacy steeped in history parents take time to teach your children so they will know that they do matter and is expected to add to the positive history and let us journey on for the night is gone and the sunlight does appear every morning is a new opportinity to continue the journey and to the pages of history God bless you God bless America