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.

Frederick Douglass in 1856.

Frederick Douglass in 1856.

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 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.”


Inhuman Mockery

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.”


Unholy License

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

Each foe


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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)


Following the release of the film 12 Years a Slave, Jason McKenney reflects on the lessons that the whole of America can learn from slavery. He also argues that from the time of American independence, slavery was in demise in the USA and considers the importance of slavery in US history.

This article is provided by Jason McKenney from


Simply a Shame?

With the recent release of the film 12 Years a Slave, there has been a gale of new commentary on slavery in the United States. The film is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, a black man born free in New York State before being kidnapped and sold down the river where he was to live the life of enforced bondage in Louisiana until his escape.

Most of the reviews of the film are as much about slavery as they are about the movie itself. Based on several reviews posted at, slavery was a “tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down,” an “unrelenting horror” and “our national shame.” Thoughts like this aren’t a surprise when dealing with such an emotional and gut-wrenching subject. No sane person would disagree with these statements, but it almost feels like we’re tilling the same ground over and over here without planting any new seeds. Could there be a more positive lesson to pull out of the awe-inspiring struggle so many black slaves endured to make progress towards freedom? Is there a lesson that keeps the evil aspects of slavery in perspective while also giving us a better understanding why it was so important that black liberation succeeded?

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

Slavery and its relation to the black experience in the United States are frequently thought of in just those terms: the black experience. There are not many lessons that the white population currently take from the long struggle for emancipation beyond the fact that slavery was America’s so-called “national shame” and that whites should treat blacks as equals. Other groups such as Latinos and Asians may feel even further removed from this chapter in US national history. However, there is much more for all Americans to learn from the liberation of black slaves than it simply being the right thing to do.


Fueling the Fire of Liberation

The demise of slavery in the United States began almost the moment the nation declared its independence from Britain.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “Slavery still had decades of massive growth ahead of it after 1776.”

I will concede that point if you also concede that the broader principles, arguments and justifications for ending slavery were making unprecedented leaps and bounds in the 18th century. The philosophical movement known as “The Enlightenment” produced writers and thinkers who argued against slavery on humanitarian grounds because the treatment of slaves was growing more brutal by the moment. While valid in tone, the weakness to this argument is that it makes slavery more acceptable as long as the slave isn’t treated poorly. More complete arguments against human slavery claimed that it violated basic natural rights, including the right to liberty of person. These were ideas that had been virtually unheard of prior to The Enlightenment, and with the US Declaration of Independence, the birth of the first nation founded principally on Enlightenment Ideals was underway.

“But the Constitution made indirect allowances for slavery when it was first ratified!” you say.

“And many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves!” you say.

As the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” True and true, but as most writers will also say, perfection rarely arrives in the first couple of drafts. It can take years of delicate crafting to go from a small kernel of truth and stretch it out to a full-fledged cultural paradigm. In other words, who cares if Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? The principles of individual rights, human liberty and religious freedom which the agrarian redhead supported helped fertilize the soil out of which the fight for abolition grew.  This was because, at their heart, many of the Founding Fathers knew their ideal of personal freedom from tyranny was incompatible with chattel slavery. They believed it would only be a matter of time before the peculiar institution either phased itself out or resulted in a climactic and violent civil war.

During the eighty-nine years between the Declaration of Independence and the Surrender at Appomattox, many African-Americans, both free and slave, fought with as much heart, courage and fearlessness to free their people as any lieutenant in General Washington’s army. The fight took many forms. Frederick Douglass and William Still gave us words, stories and history. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey gave us conspiracy and execution of violent slave revolts in the antebellum countryside. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth showed us that even caught in the brambles of soul-crushing bondage, a woman’s spirit could rise above the situation and show others that a better life was possible.

Each of these people and thousands of others just like them, whether they knew it or not, were acting out natural human impulses codified in America’s Founding Documents. America was built on liberty and independence because the Founding Fathers believed that was the natural state of humankind; to be free and self-governing and not tied down to another power whether it be an English despot or some Southern plantation owner.


An Inspiration for Others

I think that too often, the black struggle for liberation is viewed as an ancillary offshoot of American history and not part of the main course. Most Americans think of US history between the 1770s and the 1860s as basically the Revolution, maybe the War of 1812, the growth of slavery, westward expansion, and then the Civil War where the slaves were freed (with a Second Great Awakening mixed in for good measure). When attention is paid to events like the Underground Railroad, Douglass’ North Star and the early 19th century slave rebellions, they are sometimes viewed as isolated or even minor events that played third fiddle to the larger strains of the American narrative. They will also tend to be viewed as sources of pride exclusively for the African-American population and less so for other ethnicities who claim this nation as home. Instead, these events should be viewed as a vindication of the ideals of the Enlightenment, justification in the founding of the United States and proof that the struggle for the abolishment of black slavery was a more tangible representation of the abstract models fought for by the Founding Fathers.

The examples given by people like Tubman, Still and Northrup to modern Americans of every stripe and color are just as powerful and just as meaningful to the blended DNA of freedom that underlies the United States as any treatise by Jefferson, maneuvers led by Washington or speeches given by Lincoln. These men and women of color fighting for their independence and inspired by the spirit of our Constitution serve as great examples of what it means to be American. Their actions will naturally carry deeper meaning for other African-Americans, but Americans of every ethnic background should take pride in living in a country that has produced such amazing leaders as these.


Jason McKenney was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and now lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His education background is in technology and business, but he has a passion for history. His adventure series Time Trip is his attempt to introduce young adult readers to famous historical events in a new and exciting way.


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