First Edition Pamphlet of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?" (1852)

The 4th of July Address, delivered in Corinthian Hall, by Frederick Douglass, is published on good paper, and makes a neat pamphlet of forty pages. The 'Address' may be had at this office, price ten cents, a single copy, or six dollars per hundred.

So ran an advertisement in Frederick Douglass' Paper (originally the North Star), a week after the famed abolitionist and orator had, on July 5th, 1852, stood before a packed Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, and delivered one of the most important speeches in the history of the United States. In addition to its masterful use of rhetoric and other oratory techniques since studied in classrooms throughout the US, the speech is memorable for casting a searing spotlight on the nation’s hypocrisy of celebrating liberation while also denying the liberty of millions through a vast and brutal regime of slavery. Upon finishing his speech to the six hundred or so mostly white abolitionists, Douglas was met with “a universal burst of applause” and seven hundred copies of the above-featured pamphlet were subscribed to on the spot.

While the pamphlet bears the rather stiff title Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852, Douglass’ anti-slavery speech is now known widely as "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?". This arresting appellation — which first appeared a few years later as title to an excerpt printed in Douglass' 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom — is a variation on the piercing question so central to the speech: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

It's perhaps a shame that the question, in its repackaged form as a title, suffered the loss of that salient “your”. This simple possessive determiner carries a significance which runs to the very heart of Douglass' message — that this day celebrating liberty could never be for Douglass and his fellow Black Americans as long as slavery existed (“This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn”). As he goes on to powerfully reply:

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 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 practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

This critical stance toward the Fourth of July had long been shared by Black Americans — a date to "mourn", not "rejoice" — and it was, in fact, the following day of the fifth that became important, at least for New Yorkers, celebrating as it did the full abolishment of slavery in their state in 1827. Legislators had in fact chosen the date of July 4 for the decree to take effect and with this choice likely had noble intentions — an attempt to foster some sense of now “shared” liberty perhaps — but the sad realities of persisting racial prejudice and violence would temper this idealistic and somewhat naive vision. As the New York Times notes, when debating how to celebrate the historic day Black New Yorkers worried, in addition to the hypocrisy inherent in the fourth, that a parade down Broadway on that date would be met with violence — “white revelers often attacked blacks on public holidays”. And so the day after was chosen for the celebration and on July 5, 1827, four thousand Black New Yorkers marched along Broadway, and celebrations held as far away as Boston and Philadelphia. Holding celebrations on the fifth instead of the fourth became common among Black communities (amongst those that were not still enslaved, of course). As Peter Osborne declared to the congregation at the New Haven African Church in Connecticut on July 5, 1832: “On account of the misfortune of our color, our fourth of July comes on the fifth; but I hope and trust that when the Declaration of Independence is fully executed, which declared that all men, without respect to person, were born free and equal, we may then have our fourth of July on the fourth.”

Douglass’ famous speech was, of course, also given on the fifth. Most sources agree that Douglass refused an invitation from the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society to speak on the fourth, and insisted on the fifth instead. A few other sources state that actually the whole celebration had been moved to the fifth due to the fourth falling on a Sunday (the “Lord’s Day”) — a reason given by the Society themselves in an announcement in Douglass' paper, though it is quite possible this excuse was after the fact and that they moved the whole day of celebrations to work around the prized speaker's wishes. (Some confusion may have also been sown by the existence of a letter dated June 26 in which Douglass states that he'd "secured Corinthian Hall for the morning of the 4th" — but an initial assumption it was from the year 1852 has since been questioned: Douglass was a frequent speaker at the Hall). Whatever the reason for this date of the fifth, it remains a powerful fact that one of the most important speeches on American freedom and liberty, centring on the meaning of the Fourth of July celebrations, was so subtly out of synch with that so hallowed date — a powerful metaphor for a freedom delayed.

frederick douglass Corinthian Hall 1852 speech

Handwritten broadside announcing the 4th of July celebration (on the 5th) at which Frederick Douglass spoke; from the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers at William L. Clements Library, Michigan — Source.

Coming as it did in the wake of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act (which required citizens of free states to cooperate with returning escaped slaves), the debate stirred up by Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin (published just a few months before), and it being an election year, it seems Douglass was aware of the potential far-reaching impact of the Corinthian Hall event. A prolific speechwriter, Douglass appears to have poured extra effort into this one. Writing to the abolitionist Gerrit Smith two days later Douglass stated that the writing of the speech had “taken up much of my extra time for the last two or three weeks. You will readily think that the Speech ought to be good that has required so much time. Well, Some here think (it) was a good Speech.”

In writing the speech Douglass will have had in mind the printed version, and his words reaching beyond the room of abolitionists. In addition to the pamphlets that were printed and distributed, the oration was also published a few days later on July 9th in Frederick Douglass' Paper under the headline “The Celebration at Corinthian Hall”. Later that year, Douglass would go on to publish "The Heroic Slave" (as part of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society's anthology Autographs of Freedom), his first and only published work of fiction. Nine years later, the American Civil War would begin, and four years after that the eventual end of slavery in the US, or at least in its explicit chattel form — (for a fascinating study into how the institution of slavery in the US has been perpetuated beyond 1865, we highly recommend Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary 13TH).

You can read a plain text transcript of Douglass' full speech at the Rochester University site here, in addition to his other writings. You can also browse a collection of Douglass' speeches (and correspondence) at the great Frederick Douglass Papers Digital Edition project.

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