What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? is the popular name of a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass on the Fifth of July 1852 in Rochester, N.Y.
The most famous speech of the orator’s career, it marked a departure from his mentor, Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In it, Douglass expressed his desire to participate in the political life of the nation, while the more radical Garrison rejected it outright.
Garrison thought the U.S. Constitution supported slavery, that the country was built on slavery and that free states should secede from the Union.
Douglass’ Fifth of July speech argued people could interpret the Constitution as opposed to slavery. And it expressed his hope and desire to share in the freedom and justice sought by the Founding Fathers.
In other words, Garrison wanted out of the government created by the Constitution, while Douglass wanted in.
The Fifth of July speech, at 10,000 words, probably took Douglass over an hour to deliver. His sponsors, the ladies of the “Rochester Anti Slavery Sewing Society,” had 100 copies printed of his ‘most able and eloquent oration’ in pamphlet form.
Fifth of July Speech
Douglass starts the Fifth of July speech by telling the white audience that the Fourth of July is the birthday of their independence and freedom. And he tells them their celebration, their ‘jubilee shouts,’ make the chains of the enslaved ‘more heavy and intolerable.’
He acknowledged the achievements of the country’s founders, and his audience’s right to celebrate them:
They succeeded; and today you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary.
But then he asks the rhetorical questions, What am I doing here? Should I celebrate this day?
…why am I called upon to speak here today? 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?
No, he answers just as rhetorically:
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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
“What to the slave…”
The 46th paragraph of the speech was perhaps Douglass’ most famous passage.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which lie is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity…
He grows more and more furious, more and more vituperative:
…your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence.
Shout of liberty and equality, he stormed, are “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 which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
He then excoriates religions for their silence on the subject of slavery. But, unlike, Garrison, he defends the U.S. Constitution as a document that rejects slavery.
“Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro . slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.
Douglass ends the Fifth of July speech on a note of hope. He predicts the Civil War – and the end of slavery.
The Road to the Fifth of July Speech
Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass rode the Underground Railroad to freedom in 1838 at the age of 20. He settled in New Bedford, Mass., a good choice of residence. The whaling city’s maritime industries were open to African-Americans, and many who escaped from slavery put down roots there. New Bedford by 1853 would have the highest population of African-Americans in the Northeast.
Douglass had taught himself to read while enslaved, and eventually he began to speak out against slavery at abolitionist meetings in New England. He gave his first speech on Nantucket, describing the cruelties of slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, heard him speak. He decided to put him on the broader abolitionist circuit. Garrison, 13 years older than Douglass, mentored him as he rose to stardom as an abolitionist lecturer.
Douglass moved to Lynn, Mass., in 1841, and then to Rochester, N.Y., in 1852.
Burning the Constitution
Two years later, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution. On a hot July 4, 1854, at the Harmony Grove picnic area in Framingham, Mass., he began with a speech. Much as Douglas had, he questioned Fourth of July celebrations.
“To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit?” he asked. “With what purpose? to what end?”
He then burned a copy of the hated Fugitive Slave Act as the abolitionist crowd cried “Amen.”
Then he burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution. He called it “the source and parent of all the other atrocities–‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell’.'” As it burned, he cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”
Douglass and Garrison broke over their different views of the Constitution. Douglass later explained:
When I escaped from slavery, and was introduced to the Garrisonians, I adopted very many of their opinions, and defended them just as long as I deemed them true. I was young, had read but little, and naturally took some things on trust. Subsequent experience and reading have led me to examine for myself. This has brought me to other conclusions.
Eventually the two men reconciled after the abolition of slavery.
Read the whole speech here.
This story was updated in 2023.