Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day address was delivered July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
… Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, 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? 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 hallelujahs 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 as an hart.”
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of 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 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. 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 irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
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.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! 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, 0 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, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully 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 there 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 slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
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!
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 slaveholders 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 the same crimes will subject a white man to the 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 to 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!
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 today, 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 that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that 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 than 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 passed.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream 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 proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 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 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 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 the 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 everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….
… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. – Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.
The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.”
From “The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860” by Philip S. Foner, published by International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950.
A Frederick Douglass chronology: The life of Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
1818 – (Exact date unknown) Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey is born on Holme Hill farm in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a slave. Frederick never knew his father but suspected him to be his owner, Captain Aaron Anthony.
1826 – Sent to live with Hugh Auld family in Baltimore.
1827 – Asks Sophia Auld to teach him his letters. Hugh Auld stops the lessons because he feels that learning makes slaves discontented and rebellious.
1834 – Hired Out to Edward Covey, a “slave breaker,” to break his spirit and make him accept slavery.
1836 – Tries to escape from slavery, but his plot is discovered.
1836-38 – Works in Baltimore shipyards as a caulker. Falls in love with Anna Murray, a free Negro, daughter of slaves.
1838 – Escapes from slavery, goes to New York City, marries Anna Murray and settles in New Bedford, Massachusetts; selects a new name: Frederick Douglass.
1839 – Subscribes to William Garrison’s The Liberator.
1841 – First speaks at an antislavery meeting in Nantucket; William Lloyd Garrison hires him as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society; spends the next four years on the lecture circuit speaking out against slavery and campaigning for rights of free Blacks.
1842 – Makes first visit to Rochester attending a convention of Blacks.
1845 – Publishes the first of three autobiographies, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”; to escape recapture following publication, tours Great Britain as an antislavery speaker, visiting England, Scotland and Ireland; British friends and supporters purchase his freedom a year later for £150 ($1,250) from Hugh Auld, his former master.
1847 – Returns to the United States as a free man. Against the advice of Garrison, moves to Rochester, New York, to publish a weekly newspaper, the North Star, which in later years becomes Frederick Douglass’ Paper and finally Douglass’ Monthly.
1848 – Attends the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and advocates the right to vote for women.
1850 – Publishes an attack on the Compromise of 1850 and the new fugitive slave law.
1851 – Changes the name of North Star to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Helps three fugitive Maryland slaves escape to Canada as “station master” of the Rochester terminus of the Underground Railroad.
1852 – Splits with Garrison over the means to achieve the abolition of slavery. Chosen vice presidential candidate at the Liberal Party convention.
1855 – Publishes his second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom.”
1858 – John Brown stays at the Douglass home in Rochester while developing plans for encouraging a slave revolt.
1859 – After assisting John Brown in drawing up plans to incite a slave revolt, Douglass declines to join the raid on Harper’s Ferry; escapes to Canada to avoid being arrested and then sails to England to avoid prosecution, staying six months.
1860 – Returns to the United States upon hearing of the death of his 11-year-old daughter, Annie, and is not charged in the John Brown raid.
1861 – The Civil War begins. Calls are made for the use of Black troops to fight the Confederacy through the establishment of Negro regiments in the Union Army. November: Abraham Lincoln is elected president. December: South Carolina secedes from the Union.
1862 – Congress abolishes slavery in Washington, D.C.
1863 – Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation takes effect, abolishing slavery in the states that are “in rebellion.” Douglass becomes a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African-American soldiers; his sons Lewis and Charles join the regiment. Eventually his son Frederick Douglass Jr. becomes an army recruiter also. Meets with President Lincoln to discuss the unequal pay and poor treatment Black soldiers receive. About 180,000 African Americans serve in the Civil War on the Union side.
1864 – Meets with Lincoln again. In case the war is not a total Union victory, Lincoln asks Douglass to prepare an effort to assist slaves escaping to the North.
1865 – April 14, Lincoln is assassinated. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, is ratified.
1866 – Attends convention of Equal Rights Association and clashes with women’s rights leaders over their insistence that the vote not be extended to Black men unless it is given to all women at the same time.
1867 – Turns down President Andrew Johnson’s offer to name him commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau inasmuch as the National Black Leadership supported Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s continuation in the post.
1870 – Becomes owner and editor of the New National Era, a weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C.
1871 – President Ulysses S. Grant appoints Douglass to the Commission of Inquiry into the possible annexation of Santo Domingo.
1872 – Rochester home mysteriously destroyed by fire (arson?) with the loss of the newspaper archives. Douglass moves his family to Washington, D.C. Nominated for vice president by Equal Rights Party on a ticket headed by Victoria Woodhull.
1874 – Named president of the troubled Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Co., works with the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to save the bank, which ultimately fails.
1875 – Congress passes a Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in public places.
1877 – Appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes.
1878 – Purchases Cedar Hill, a nine-acre estate in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C.
1881 – President James A. Garfield appoints Douglass recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. Douglass publishes his third autobiography, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”
1882 – Anna Murray Douglass dies, an ardent abolitionist 1813-1882. Because of her husband’s prominent place in American Black history, it is easy to see how Anna Murray could easily be overshadowed. However, because of her tremendous courage, loyalty, love and support for Douglass, she too has secured a place in history. It was through Murray’s financial efforts that he was able to escape from Baltimore to New York disguised as a sailor. Upon his safe arrival, she joined him, and the two were married. They assumed the name Johnson, but after meeting Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Mass., Frederick formally introduced the new couple as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass. While Frederick traveled, Anna provided comfort and shelter to hundreds of runaway slaves at their Rochester, New York, home, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Although illiterate, she was the family’s financial manager and maintained rock solid stability during Frederick’s absence. Stricken with paralysis, Anna Murray Douglass, a devoted wife and mother of four, died in their Washington, D.C., home in 1882.
1884 – Having been a widower since 1882, Douglass marries Helen Pitts, his former secretary.
1889-91 – Serves as minister and consul to Haiti, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison.
1891 – Revises and then republishes “Life and Times” autobiography.
1892-93 – Appointed chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister resident and consul-general to Haiti. Leads Haitian legation to World’s Columbian Exposition.
1895 – Dies at his home, Cedar Hill, of a heart attack.