Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July

In the years before the American Civil War, Frederick Douglass was a frequent visitor to Lowell. Although the city’s entire reason for existence was the production of cloth made from cotton harvested by enslaved Africans in the American south which provided a strong incentive for those in Lowell to remain silent about slavery lest the flow of cotton into the city be interrupted because of speaking out on the issue, the city nevertheless became a center of the abolitionist movement. The first president of the Lowell Anti-Slavery society was Theodore Edson, the pastor of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, the place where the mill owners and managers worshiped, and the foot soldiers of the movement where the young women from across New England who came to Lowell to work in the textile mills.

Douglass was a former enslaved African American who became a leading abolitionist, orator, writer, and social reformer in the 19th century. Renowned for his eloquence and powerful speeches, he tirelessly advocated for the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and social justice, leaving an enduring legacy in American history and civil rights movements.

In America of 2024, a speech Douglass gave has become central to the Independence Day celebrations in many communities. Although I don’t believe it is happening in Lowell this year, in the past, the city has had community readings of the entire speech which he titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

The speech was given by Douglass on July 5, 1852, in the grand Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Invited by the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass seized the moment to confront his predominantly white audience with the brutal realities of slavery amidst the nation’s celebration of independence.

Douglass began by acknowledging the grandeur of the Fourth of July, a day commemorating the American colonies’ declaration of freedom from British tyranny. However, he quickly shifted to a somber tone, illuminating the hypocrisy inherent in the celebration. For the enslaved African Americans, he argued, Independence Day was a cruel irony, a mockery of their own lack of freedom and humanity. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” he declared, highlighting the chasm between the nation’s ideals and its practices.

In the mid-19th century, the United States was a nation divided. The North was increasingly industrialized and anti-slavery, while the South’s economy and social structure were deeply intertwined with the institution of slavery. Douglass’s speech was delivered at a time when the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had intensified tensions by mandating the return of escaped slaves to their owners, even from free states.

Douglass’s speech was not just a denunciation of slavery, but a call to action. He implored his audience to live up to the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, to extend its promise of liberty and justice to all Americans, regardless of race. His words resonated with the urgency of moral reform, framing the abolition of slavery as a national imperative.

Historically, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” has endured as a seminal text in American literature and rhetoric. It laid bare the contradictions of a nation that proclaimed liberty while upholding slavery, challenging future generations to confront and rectify the injustices of their time. Douglass’s speech remains a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and human rights, echoing through the civil rights movements of the 20th century and into the present day. In its unflinching critique and call for justice, the speech stands as a testament to Douglass’s enduring legacy as a champion of freedom and equality.

So in between the cookouts and fireworks this Independence Day, take a moment to consider the ideals embraced by the founding documents of the United States but the struggle to realize those ideals included the advocacy of Douglass and countless others and, despite fighting a deadly Civil War as a consequence, those cherished ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution still prove elusive for many who live in this country today.

One Response to Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July

  1. DickH says:

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