What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
Frederick Douglass, circa 1852
DateJuly 5, 1852 (1852-07-05)
VenueCorinthian Hall
LocationRochester, New York, United States
Coordinates43°09′23″N 77°36′46″W / 43.15639°N 77.61278°W / 43.15639; -77.61278
ThemeSlavery in the United States
ParticipantsFrederick Douglass
Transcript of speech

"What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"[1][2] was a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, at a meeting organized by the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.[3] In the address, Douglass states that positive statements about perceived American values, such as liberty, citizenship, and freedom, were an offense to the enslaved population of the United States because they lacked those rights. Douglass referred not only to the captivity of enslaved people, but to the merciless exploitation and the cruelty and torture that slaves were subjected to in the United States.[4]

Noted for its biting irony and bitter rhetoric, and acute textual analysis of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Christian Bible, the speech is among the most widely known of all of Douglass's writings.[5] Many copies of one section of it, beginning in paragraph 32, have been circulated online.[6] Due to this and the variant titles given to it in various places, and the fact that it is called a July Fourth Oration but was actually delivered on July 5, some confusion has arisen about the date and contents of the speech. The speech has since been published under the above title in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Vol. 2. (1982).[7]


Corinthian Hall, where the speech was given.

The Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1851. The inaugural meeting between six women took place in Corinthian Hall on August 20.[8] Frederick Douglass had moved to Rochester in 1847 in order to publish his newspaper The North Star.[9][10] He had previously lived in Boston, but did not want his newspaper to interfere with sales of The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison.[10] Douglass had spoken at Corinthian Hall in the past. He had delivered a series of seven lectures about slavery there in the winter of 1850–51.[11] Additionally, he had spoken there less than three months prior to this speech, on March 25. In that speech, he cast the abolitionist movement as being engaged in a "War" against defenders of slavery.[12]

According to the 1850 Census, there were around 3.2 million enslaved persons in the United States.[13] Although the import of people directly from Africa had been banned in 1807,[14] the domestic slave trade, still legal, was thriving. Over 150,000 persons were sold between 1820 and 1830, and over 300,000 were sold between 1850 and 1860.[15]

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had passed Congress as part of the broader Compromise of 1850. This act forced people to report people who had escaped their enslavement and escaped to a free state, under punishment of a fine or imprisonment.[16] Additionally, it awarded $10 to a judge who sentenced an individual to return to enslavement, while awarding only $5 if the claim was dismissed.[16][17] Finally, the Act did not allow the accused individual to defend themselves in court.[17] This act drew the ire of the abolitionist movement,[9] and was directly criticized by Douglass in his speech.


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.

—Advertisement for the pamphlet of Douglass' speech from the July 12, 1852, edition of Frederick Douglass' Paper (formerly The North Star)

The 1852 pamphlet printing of the speech

Douglass begins by saying that the fathers of the nation were great statesmen, and that the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence were "saving principles", and the "ringbolt of your nation's destiny", stating, "stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost." Douglass details the hardships past Americans once endured when they were members of British colonies and validates their feelings of ill treatment. He celebrates the efforts of the founding fathers of America for fighting back against the tyranny of England.[2]

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if 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.

Douglass then pivots to the present, stating that "We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future". In spite of his praise of the Founding Fathers, he maintains that slaves owe nothing to and have no positive feelings towards the founding of the United States. He faults America for utter hypocrisy and betrayal of those values in maintaining the institution of slavery.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? 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.[18]

Douglass also stresses the view that slaves and free Americans are equal in nature. He expresses his belief in the speech that he and other slaves are fighting the same fight in terms of wishing to be free that White Americans, the ancestors of the white people he is addressing, fought seventy years earlier. Douglass says that if the residents of America believe that slaves are "men",[19]: 342  they should be treated as such.

Douglass then discusses the internal slave trade in America. He argues that though the international slave trade is correctly decried as abhorrent, the people of the United States are far less vocal in their opposition to domestic slave trade. Douglass vividly describes the conditions under which those enslaved are bought and sold; he says that they are treated as no more than animals.

The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow the drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

Building off of this, Douglass criticizes the Fugitive Slave Act, holding that in this act, "slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form." He describes the legislation as "tyrannical", and believes that it is in "violation of justice".

After this, he turns his attention to the church. True Christians, according to Douglass, should not stand idly by while the rights and liberty of others are stripped away. Douglass denounces the churches for betraying their own biblical and Christian values. He is outraged by the lack of responsibility and indifference towards slavery that many sects have taken around the nation. He says that, if anything, many churches actually stand behind slavery and support the continued existence of the institution. Douglass equates this to being worse than many other things that are banned, in particular, books and plays that are banned for infidelity.

They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done.[19]: 344 

Douglass believed that slavery could be eliminated with the support of the church, and also with the reexamination of what the Bible was actually saying.

Nevertheless, Douglass claims that this can change. The United States does not have to stay the way it is. The country can progress like it has before, transforming from being a colony of a far-away king to an independent nation. Great Britain, and many other countries of that time, had already abolished slavery from its territories. The British accomplished this through religion or more specifically, the church. Because the church stood behind the decision to abolish the selling and buying of people, so did the rest of the country. Douglass argues that religion is the center of the problem but also the main solution to it.

Douglass then returns to the topic of the founding of the United States. He argues that the Constitution does not permit slavery, contrary to the claims of contemporary defenders of the institution. He refers to the Constitution as a "Glorious Liberty Document".


A major theme of the speech is how America is not living up to its proclaimed beliefs. He talks about how Americans are proud of their country and their religion and how they rejoice in the name of freedom and liberty and yet they do not offer those things to millions of their country's residents.[19]: 345  He also attempts to demonstrate the irony of their inability to sympathize with the Black people they oppressed in cruel ways that the forefathers they valorized never experienced. He validates the feelings of injustice the Founders felt then juxtaposes their experiences with vivid descriptions of the harshness of slavery.[2]

However, if slavery were abolished and equal rights given to all, that would no longer be the case. In the end, Douglass wants to keep his hope and faith in humanity high. Douglass declares that true freedom can not exist in America if Black people are still enslaved there and is adamant that the end of slavery is near. Knowledge is becoming more readily available, Douglass said, and soon the American people will open their eyes to the atrocities they have been inflicting on their fellow Americans.

Essentially, Douglass criticizes his audience's pride for a nation that claims to value freedom though it is composed of people who continuously commit atrocities against Blacks. It is said that America is built on the idea of liberty and freedom, but Douglass tells his audience that more than anything, it is built on inconsistencies and hypocrisies that have been overlooked for so long they appear to be truths. According to Douglass, these inconsistencies have made the United States the object of mockery and often contempt among the various nations of the world.[19]: 346  To prove evidence of these inconsistencies, as one historian noted, during the speech Douglass claims that the United States Constitution is an abolitionist document and not a pro-slavery document.[20][21][22]

A handwritten announcement of the date and time of the speech
An advertisement for the occasion of the speech.

In this respect, Douglass's views converged with that of Abraham Lincoln's[23] in that those politicians who were saying that the Constitution was a justification for their beliefs in regard to slavery were doing so dishonestly.

The speech notes the contradiction of the national ethos of United States and the way enslaved persons are treated. Rhetoricians R. L. Heath and D. Waymer refer to this as the "paradox of the positive" because it highlights how something positive and meant to be positive can also exclude individuals.[4]

Given that the speech was actually delivered on July 5, some scholars have placed it in the "Fifth of July" tradition of the commemoration of New York State emancipation.[24][25]

Later views on American independence

The speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" was delivered in the decade preceding the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865 and achieved the abolition of slavery. During the Civil War, Douglass said that since Massachusetts had been the first state to join the Patriot cause during the American Revolutionary War, Black men should go to Massachusetts to enlist in the Union Army.[26] After the Civil War, Douglass said that "we" had achieved a great thing by gaining American independence during the American Revolutionary War, though he said it was not as great as what was achieved by the Civil War.[27]


In the United States, the speech is widely taught in history and English classes in high school and college.[5] American studies professor Andrew S. Bibby argues that because many of the editions produced for educational use are abridged, they often misrepresent Douglass's original through omission or editorial focus.[5]

A statue of Douglass erected in Rochester in 2018 was torn down on July 5, 2020—the 168th anniversary of the speech.[28][29] The head of the organization responsible for the memorial speculated that it was vandalized in response to the removal of Confederate monuments in the wake of the George Floyd protests.[30]

Notable readings

The speech has been notably performed or read by important figures, including the following:


  1. ^ Douglass, Frederick (1852). Frederick Douglass, Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5th, 1852. Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852. Rochester, NY: Lee, Mann & Co. Archived from the original on 2018-10-25. Retrieved 2018-10-25.
  2. ^ a b c Douglass, Frederick (July 5, 1852). "'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?'". Teaching American History. Archived from the original on July 5, 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
  3. ^ McFeely, William S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-0-393-02823-2.
  4. ^ a b Heath, Robert L.; Waymer, Damion (2009). "Activist Public Relations and the Paradox of the Positive: A Case Study of Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July Address". Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations II: 192–215. ISBN 9781135220877.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Bibby, Andrew S. (July 2, 2014). "'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?': Frederick Douglass's fiery Independence Day speech is widely read today, but not so widely understood". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on September 12, 2015. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  6. ^ The paragraphing referenced here is taken from an edition of the speech at RhetoricalGoddess Archived 2019-07-03 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Douglass, Frederick (1982). Blassingame, John W. (ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches Debates, and Interviews. Vol. 2, 1847–54. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 359–387.
  8. ^ "Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers (1848–1868)". William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Retrieved 2023-02-03.
  9. ^ a b ""Frederick Douglass's, 'What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?'"". National Endowment of the Humanities. Retrieved 2023-02-03.
  10. ^ a b Douglass, Frederick (1892). "Triumphs & Trials". Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Boston, Mass.: De Wolfe & Fiske Co. ISBN 9780486431703.
  11. ^ Douglass, Frederick (2000). Foner, Philip S.; Taylor, Yuval. (eds.). Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago Review Press. p. 163.
  12. ^ Douglass, Frederick (2000). Foner, Philip S.; Taylor, Yuval. (eds.). Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago Review Press. p. 486.
  13. ^ J. D. B. DeBow, Superintendent of the United States Census (1854). "Slave Population of the United States" (PDF). Statistical View of the United States. United States Senate. p. 82.
  14. ^ Finkelman, Paul (2007). "The Abolition of The Slave Trade". New York Public Library. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  15. ^ Pritchett, Jonathan B. (June 2001). "Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820–1860". The Journal of Economic History. 61 (2): 467–475. doi:10.1017/S002205070102808X. JSTOR 2698028. S2CID 154462144.
  16. ^ a b Cobb, James C. (18 September 2015). "One of American History's Worst Laws Was Passed 165 Years Ago". Time. Retrieved 2023-02-03.
  17. ^ a b Williams, Irene E. (1921). "The Operation of the Fugitive Slave Law in Western Pennsylvania from 1850 to 1860". Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 4: 150–160. Retrieved 2023-02-03.
  18. ^ Battistoni, Richard. The American Constitutional Experience: Selected Readings & Supreme Court Opinions Archived 2022-03-01 at the Wayback Machine, pp. 66–73 (Kendall Hunt, 2000).
  19. ^ a b c d Douglass, Frederick (1852). "Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5, 1852". In Harris, Leonard; Pratt, Scott L.; Waters, Anne S. (eds.). American Philosophies: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell (published 2002). ISBN 978-0-631-21002-3.
  20. ^ Colaiaco, James A. (March 24, 2015). Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July. St. Martin's Publishing Group. ISBN 9781466892781. Archived from the original on March 1, 2022. Retrieved July 5, 2018 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ "Exceptionalism and the left". Los Angeles Times. December 13, 2010. Archived from the original on July 5, 2020. Retrieved July 3, 2020.
  22. ^ African Americans In Congress: A Documentary History, by Eric Freedman and Stephen A, Jones, 2008, p. 39
  23. ^ Gorski, Philip (February 6, 2017). American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400885008. Archived from the original on March 1, 2022. Retrieved July 5, 2018 – via Google Books.
  24. ^ Mirrer, Louise; Horton, James Oliver; Rabinowitz, Richard (2005-07-03). "Opinion | Happy Fifth of July, New York!". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-05-15.
  25. ^ Britton-Purdy, Jedediah (2022-07-01). "Opinion | Democrats Need Patriotism Now More Than Ever". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-05-15.
  26. ^ Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass on Slavery and the Civil War: Selections from His Writings Archived 2022-07-05 at the Wayback Machine, p. 46 (Dover Publications, 2014): "We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the State of Massachusetts. She was first in the War of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools, and she was first to answer with her blood the alarm cry of the nation, when its capital was menaced by rebels."
  27. ^ Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies Archived 2022-07-05 at the Wayback Machine, p. 765 (Library of America, 1994): "It was a great thing to achieve American Independence when we numbered three millions, but it was a greater thing to save this country from dismemberment and ruin when it numbered thirty millions."
  28. ^ Schwartz, Matthew S. (July 6, 2020). "Frederick Douglass Statue Torn Down On Anniversary Of Famous Speech". NPR. Archived from the original on July 7, 2020. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  29. ^ Brown, Deneen L. (July 6, 2020). "Frederick Douglass statue torn down in Rochester, N.Y., on anniversary of his famous Fourth of July speech". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on July 7, 2020. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  30. ^ Pengelly, Martin (July 6, 2020). "Frederick Douglass statue torn down on anniversary of great speech". The Guardian. Archived from the original on July 7, 2020. Retrieved July 7, 2020. Speaking to WROC, [Carvin] Eison asked: 'Is this some type of retaliation because of the national fever over Confederate monuments right now? Very disappointing, it's beyond disappointing.'
  31. ^ Thurston, Baratunde (July 4, 2020) [Recorded July 1, 2016]. Baratunde Delivers USA Co-Founder Frederick Douglass 1852 Speech: 'What To The Slave Is The 4th of July'. Facebook. Directed by Tara Garver Mikhael. Brooklyn Public Library. Archived from the original on July 5, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  32. ^ "VIDEO: Frederick Douglass' Descendants Deliver His 'Fourth Of July' Speech". NPR.org. Archived from the original on 2021-06-01. Retrieved 2021-05-22.

Further reading

External links