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What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?


[Note 4: Extract from an oration delivered by Frederick Douglass at
Rochester, N. Y., July 5, 1852.]

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the greatest of Negro orators, though born and
reared a slave, attained great eminence in the world. After a successful
career as lecturer and editor and author, he held successively the
positions of Secretary to the Santo Domingo Commission, 1871;
Presidential Elector for the State of New York, 1872; United States
Marshal for the District of Columbia, 1876-81; Recorder of Deeds for the
District, 1881-86; Minister to Hayti, 1889-91.

Fellow Citizens:

Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here
to-day? 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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to
the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout
gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer
could be truthfully returned to these questions. Then would my task be
light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that
a nation's sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the
claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such
priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his
voice to swell the halleluiahs of a nation's jubilee, when the chains of
servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case
like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the "lame man leap like
a hart."

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of
disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious
anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable
distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not
enjoyed in common. 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 of July is yours, not mine. You may
rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand
illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous
anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean,
citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a
parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you, that it is dangerous to
copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were
thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in
irrecoverable ruin. I can to-day take up the lament of a peeled and
woe-smitten people.

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yes! We wept when we
remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst
thereof. For there they that carried us away captive, required of us a
song; and they who wasted us, required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one
of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If
I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the
mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday,
are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach
them. If I do forget, if I do not remember those bleeding children of
sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my
tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly
over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be
treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach
before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow citizens, is
"American Slavery." I shall see this day and its popular characteristics
from the slave's point of view. Standing here, identified with the
American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare,
with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never
looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July. Whether we turn to the
declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the
conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is
false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to
be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding
slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity, which is
outraged, in the name of liberty, which is fettered, in the name of the
Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon,
dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can
command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery--the great sin and
shame of America! "I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;" I will use
the severest language I can command, and yet not one word shall escape
me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is
not at heart a slave-holder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say it is just in this
circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a
favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more and
denounce less, would you persuade more and rebuke less, your cause would
be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there
is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you
have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this
country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?
That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slave-holders
themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government.
They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the
slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if
committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to
the punishment of death; while only two of these same crimes will
subject a white man to like punishment. What is this but the
acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible
being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact
that Southern statute-books are covered with enactments, forbidding,
under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or
write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of
the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When
the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on
your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall
be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with
you that the slave is a man!

For the present it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro
race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and
reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses,
constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron,
copper, silver, and gold; that while we are reading, writing, and
cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants, and secretaries, having among us
lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and
teachers; that while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common
to other men--digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the
Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving,
acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives, and
children, and above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian God,
and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave--we are
called upon to prove that we are men?

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the
rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I
argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans?
Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter
beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the
principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day in
the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show
that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and
positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so would be to make
myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There
is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery
is wrong for him.

What! 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 burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and
submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with
blood and stained with pollution is wrong? No; I will not. I have better
employment for my time and strength that such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that
God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken?
There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be
divine. Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I
cannot. The time for such argument is past.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is
needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I
would to-day pour out a fiery streak of biting ridicule, blasting
reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that
is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need
the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. 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 its crimes against God and man must be denounced.

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 the 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 denunciations 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 which would disgrace a nation
of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practises more
shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this
very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies
and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search
out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the
side of the every-day practises of this nation, and you will say with me
that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns
without a rival.

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