Frederick Douglass’s Fiery 1852 Speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” Read by James Earl Jones

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.”

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2017.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty (Even Aristotle’s) to Think Clear­ly About Racism

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.