Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but his life was to later move into a different world. He became an important figure in the US abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Here, Christopher Benedict looks at Douglass’ views on the Fourth of July and whether slaves could really appreciate Independence Day when they were not free.
From Plantation to Platform
The Douglass family, which in 1848 consisted of Frederick and his wife Anna, not to mention their five children Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, and Annie, settled into their new nine room home at 4 Alexander Place in Rochester, New York.
From here, Douglass contributed to and edited the abolitionist newspaper North Star, embarked upon speaking engagements in New England, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, made the acquaintances of John Brown and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (whose suffrage movement benefitted from his being the sole public voice of assent), lobbied for the desegregation of Rochester’s learning institutions when Rosetta was forced to leave her private school, supported Free Soil candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, and sheltered numerous fugitive slaves while assisting them with safe passage to Canada.
These surroundings and circumstances may have been a far cry from the Maryland of his birth thirty years earlier, but his youth spent on Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, and particularly his year as a rented resource to farm owner and brutal overseer Edward Covey, would never fade into distant memory. His mother was an indentured servant named Harriet Bailey and it was believed by fellow slaves, though never confirmed nor denied, that Frederick’s father was also his white master, Aaron Anthony, which would hardly have been an uncommon occurrence.
After escaping Baltimore for Wilmington, Delaware by train in 1838 using protection papers given to him by a merchant seaman, he first sets foot in free territory after reaching Philadelphia by steamer. A second locomotive journey lands Frederick in New York City where he is reunited with Anna after their engagement back in Maryland and abandons his birth name of Bailey in favor of the alias Johnson. It would be at the urging of the welcomed and securely protected black community in New Bedford, Massachusetts that he then dropped the all-too-common Johnson for Douglas, inspired by the character of the Scottish lord from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake (and adding the additional ‘s’).
Because he had become proficient at the trade of caulking at the Baltimore shipyards of his mostly benevolent former possessors Hugh and Sophia Auld, where he began as bookkeeper after Sophia had taught him to read and write (which was then frowned upon and discouraged, necessitating his own covert self-education), Douglass easily finds work in the storied whaling village, joins the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and subscribes to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.
Invited to appear before an abolitionist fair in Concord, MA which was attended by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he then began what would become his hugely successful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself, published in 1845 (as an aside, this is still celebrated in New Bedford every February with a community read-a-thon sponsored by its Historical Society, which I proudly got to participate in while an unfortunately short-lived resident of the Bay State in 2011-12).
It begged reason for many to accept that an uncultured black man, one that the bulk of white society took on face value to be an exchangeable and disposable commodity rather than a human being with hopes and dreams and love and hurt in his heart, could compose without generous assistance such a thoughtful, highly articulate work of literature.
Nonetheless, the man born into bondage had not only endeavored toward his liberation, but was now embraced within the most illustrious intellectual circles, walking freely and proudly into their literary salons and halls of academia.
Now a distinguished citizen of Rochester, Douglass was asked to deliver a speech from the stage of Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852 commemorating the anniversary of America’s independence. The irony, if it was not intentional or, for that matter, even at first apparent to some, would be manifested brilliantly and manipulated scorchingly.
As With Rivers, So With Nations
Treading lightly while wading toward troubled waters, Douglass begins on a misleadingly modest note, offering apologies for “my limited powers of speech” and “distrust of my ability”, professing to have thrown “my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together” owing to “little experience and less learning”.
Douglass compares the deliverance of the country’s political freedom to the Passover celebrated by the emancipated children of god, noting the buoyancy inherent to the Republic’s relatively youthful age, 76 years, which he remarks is “a good old age for a man, but a mere speck in the life of a nation.” Perhaps, Frederick suggests, “Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow.”
Interestingly, Douglass refers to the free and independent states of America through the use of feminine pronouns, whether as a repudiation of their former British fatherland and/or the noble words and deeds of the nation’s Founding Fathers he feels are now being bastardized, or as an unspoken remembrance of his own birth-giver, the mother he last saw at the age of 7 or 8 when she presented him with a heart-shaped ginger cake and the pet name “Valentine”.
“Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages,” says Douglass. “They might sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away on their angry waves the accumulated wealth of toil and hardship.”
While the river “may gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on serenely as ever,” Douglass begins the shift in his discourse with the warning that “it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory.”
Dastards, Brave Men, and Mad Men
Conceding that “the point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable”, the nation’s founders were, in Douglass’ estimation, “brave men” and “great men”, also “peace men” who nonetheless “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage”, “quiet men” who “did not shrink from agitating against oppression”, and men who “believed in order, but not in the order of tyranny.”
Likewise, they had intentionally not framed within their Declaration and Constitution the idea of an infallible government, one which Douglass believed had since become fashionable, while falling out of repute was the deliberate action of “agitators and rebels...to side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor.”
Douglass’ assertion was that the natural clash of these contemporary ideologies culminated in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made legalized sport of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters, and a grotesquely profitable one at that.
George Washington, Douglass pointed out, “could not die until till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.”
He drives this point home by quoting from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Now comes Douglass’ direct confrontation of the question pertaining to why he was called upon to give this address on this occasion, the answer to which lay in the larger matter of whether the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” Thomas Jefferson bequeathed to America’s countrymen were rights that extended to him, as well as his kith and kin. If there remained any doubt about the reply, Douglass demolished it.
“The sunlight that brought light 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.”
Unable to equivocate or excuse the great blasphemy of human slavery which made a mockery not only of the Constitution but of the Bible, Douglass declared to his “Fellow Americans” that “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
He raises next the hypothetical argument of whether he and fellow abolitionists would be better served to “argue more and denounce less...persuade more and rebuke less.”
Again, his condemnation of these tactics arrives swift and decisive as a lightning strike.
“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 starve them into obedience and submission to their masters?”
To do so, Douglass insisted would “make myself ridiculous and to offer an insult to your understanding.”
If the “peculiar institution” of slavery was upheld by American religion in addition to American politics, was it to be viewed as somehow supernal?
That the church largely ignored the Fugitive Slave Act as “an act of war against religious liberty”, how else could its rituals be regarded, Douglass wonders, but as “simply a form of worship, an empty ceremony and not a vital principle requiring benevolence, justice, love, and good will towards man?”
To this says Douglass, “welcome infidelity, welcome atheism, welcome anything in preference to the gospel as preached by those Divines.”
Using the word of god against itself with incendiary righteousness, he recites from the book of Isaiah. “Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me, I am weary to bear them, and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Cease to do evil, learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed. Judge for the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
Among the exceptionally noble men that Douglass gives name to are Brooklyn’s abolitionist firebrand Henry Ward Beecher, Syracuse’s Samuel J. May, and Reverend R. R. Raymond who shared the platform with him that day. Douglass charges them with the task of continuing “to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.”
Penetrating the Darkness
The Constitution will always remain open to the interpretation of those whose will is to bend and stretch the wording of its amendments one way or another to the advancement of a specific agenda. Regardless, Frederick Douglass maintained that it is “a glorious liberty document” in which “there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing” that is slavery.
Similarly, he drew encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, “the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions.”
Knowledge and intelligence, time and space, were colliding in many wonderful ways which gave Douglass, ultimately, reason for hope and optimism.
“Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented...I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport, or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
And, despite the fact that they would shortly thereafter experience a bitter falling-out, Douglass ended on a conciliatory note, courtesy of a passage from William Lloyd Garrison:
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 friend
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- What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, speech delivered by Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY
- Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times by Frederick Douglass, edited and with notes by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Library of America, 1994)