Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and became a leading abolitionist, as well as an orator, writer, editor, and public servant.
At the time of the delivery of this speech, Douglass had been living in Rochester, New York for several years editing a weekly abolitionist newspaper. He was invited to give a fourth of July speech by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester. In the early 1850s, tensions over slavery were high across the county. The Compromise of 1850 had failed to resolve the controversy over the admission of new slaveholding states to the Union. The Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress as part of this compromise was bitterly resented by the Northern states. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel about slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or Life among the Lowly had been published a few months before and unexpectedly became a national bestseller. Across the country, people were thinking and arguing about slavery, abolitionism, and the future of the nation.
Frederick Douglas’s delivered on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, read by actor Ossie Davis.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth July?” by Frederick Douglass is not only a brilliant work of oratory. It speaks to our every frustration spurred by the gap between the ideals of the United States and the reality we witness every day; between the Bill of Rights and our decaying civil liberties; between the USA’s international declarations of human rights and the ordered drone attacks backed by presidential “kill lists”; between the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and a nation that leads the world in jailing its own citizens; between our highest ideals and our darkest realities. Here’s hoping people take the time to read the entirety of Douglass’s brilliant speech; even though his were words that spoke directly to his moment in history, they still ring with an unsettling power. As Douglass says: “Had I the ability, and could I 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.” —Dave Zirin