What to the Slave is the Fourth of July
July 2, 2021

The Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society invited Frederick Douglass to give a keynote oration at an Independence Day Celebration on July 5, 1852, in front of President Millard Fillmore and a large crowd of 600 people, some abolitionists.  Douglass refused to give the speech on the Fourth of July. The speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” was a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence with speeches, parades, and platitudes, while, within its borders, nearly four million humans were being kept as slaves.

Interestingly, President Millard Fillmore’s Whig Party had completed its party platform on June 17, 1852 and condoned the series of acts of the Thirty-first Congress to agree to the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that required the North to return escaped slaves to the South. The Whig Party platform declared, The Compromise or Adjustment (the act for the recovery of fugitive slaves from labor included,) are received and acquiesced in by the Whigs of the United States as a final settlement, in principle and in substance, of the subjects to which they relate; and, so far as these acts are concerned, we will maintain them, and insist upon their strict enforcement, until time and experience shall demonstrate the necessity for further legislation to guard against the evasion of the law, on the one hand, and the abuse of their powers on the other—not impairing their present efficiency to carry out the requirements of the Constitution; and we deprecate all further agitation of the questions thus settled, as dangerous to our peace; and will discountenance all efforts to continue or renew such agitation, whenever, wherever or however made; and we will maintain this settlement as essential to the nationality of the Whig Party and of the Union.”

In his speech, while Douglass acknowledged the greatness of the founding fathers, he also decried the hypocrisy of the American government in the 1850s …” Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men, there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent and the prudent of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

…Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded, and today you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours, and you, therefore, may properly celebrate the anniversary. The Fourth of July is the first fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

…They were peace men, but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men but did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance, but that they knew its limits. They believed not in order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were “final,” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

…Fellow citizens, pardon me, and 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 the Declaration of Independence extended to 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…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…

The audience within Corinthian Hall that included President Fillmore was enthusiastic, voting to unanimously to endorse the speech at its end.