Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Douglass's "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"

About a year ago on a message board I'd subscribed to I posted a link to Frederick Douglass's myth-challenging speech of July 5, 1852, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Since it's the day after a national celebration of independence in a country that is steadily witnessing many of its basic liberties vanish or surrendering them outright as it engages in an illegal and poorly planned war, and since the United States has never fully reckoned with its slave past or adequately taken into account and addressed the needs of those former slaves' descendents, Douglass's lecture, I think, is especially appropriate for today.

As the Yale historian David W. Blight (thanks, Elizabeth A, for pointing it out) notes in his recent Time note on the speech, which Douglass delivered to a mostly white audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, Douglass wrote it at a time when the political and social struggles surrounding slavery were beginning to approach their crescendo (Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had only been published a few months earlier and the Civil War would official begin less than a decade later after the election of Abraham in Lincoln in 1860), and at a moment of tremendous personal stress and transformation. He was moving from the "moral suasionist strategies of abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to political abolitionism and the possible uses of violence to overthrow slavery," Blight notes, and this change in vision and tone comes through in the text.

Blight continues, "In thought and feeling, Douglass the ironist had never been in better form. No abolitionist had ever brought the two great intellectual traditions of antislavery—the Enlightenment and the Bible—together with such power. The meaning of slavery and freedom in America had never found such a voice at once so terrible and so truthful. As Douglass took his seat, 600 white Northerners roared, wrote a journalist, with 'a universal burst of applause.'"

You can read the complete text of Douglass's speech here, at the Archives of American Address Frederick Douglass page.

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