1852 Speech by African American Leader Frederick Douglass
The following is an abridged version of a speech African American leader Frederick Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. He had been invited to address the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on the occasion of the July 4 national holiday.
World-Outlook is publishing it to mark U.S. Independence Day. Though not often presented this way today, July 4, 1776, was a starting moment of one of the world’s first anti-colonial revolutions. But like others that followed, it was marked by both successes and failures. Allowing chattel slavery with all its horrors to flourish was the main manifestation of its decay.
Douglass delivered this famous address at a time when slavery reigned supreme in the U.S. South and the planter aristocracy dominated national politics. Without dismissing the significance for humanity of the first American revolution, Douglass eloquently pointed to the degeneration of that far-reaching anti-colonial struggle and the need for a second American revolution to eradicate slavery.
Nearly 170 years have passed since then. During this time, U.S. society has undergone major transformations through momentous events. These include the U.S. Civil War, the rise and fall of Radical Reconstruction, the ensuing century of Jim Crow segregation, the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power at the dawn of the 20th century, and the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Despite the passage of time and the historic changes that have taken place since 1852, the ideas Douglass outlines below retain value for today. They are especially relevant to those involved in current struggles against police brutality and racism. They will be appreciated by those fighting for a world based on human solidarity and social equality rather than the class injustice, bigotry, and dog-eat-dog competition that are prevalent in the United States today.
Douglass was an enslaved Black man who escaped and became a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement that sought to eradicate slavery before and during the Civil War. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the end of the Civil War two years later, he continued to push for racial and social equality and for women’s rights until his death in 1895. His work served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. His legacy lives on to this day.
In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass described his time as an enslaved worker in Maryland.
Douglass was born into slavery in or around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. He was never sure himself of his exact birth date, as was the case for many slaves. His mother was of Native American ancestry and his father was of African and European descent. He was born “Frederick Bailey” (his mother’s name), and took the last name Douglass only after he escaped.
Separated from his mother as an infant, Douglass lived for a time with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. However, at the age of six, he was taken away from her to live and work on the Wye House plantation in Maryland.
From there, Douglass was “given” to Lucretia Auld, whose husband, Thomas, sent him to work with his brother Hugh in Baltimore, where Douglass taught himself to read and write. Douglass soon became known for teaching fellow enslaved people to read using the Bible. As word of his efforts spread, Thomas Auld took him back and transferred him to Edward Covey, a farmer known for his brutal treatment of slaves. Roughly 16 at this time, Douglass was regularly whipped by Covey.
After several failed attempts, Douglass finally escaped Covey’s farm in 1838, eventually arriving in New York. Once settled there, he sent for Anna Murray, a free Black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity. She joined him, and the two were married in September 1838. They would have five children together. The young couple soon moved from New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In New Bedford Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement, during which he was exposed to the writings of William Lloyd Garrison. The two eventually met, and Garrison encouraged Douglass to take a leading role in the emerging anti-slavery movement. By 1843, Douglass was taking part in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s six-month nationwide tour. He was physically assaulted several times during the tour by proponents of slavery. In one particularly brutal attack, in Pendleton, Indiana, Douglass’ hand was broken. The injuries healed improperly, and he never regained full use of his hand.
Douglass was influenced by his travels abroad, including visits to Ireland and Great Britain, especially Scotland where the anti-slavery movement had a lot of support. While in Ireland in 1845, at the start of the infamous “potato famine,” he met Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work.
In 1847, Douglass began publishing his own abolitionist newsletter, the North Star. He also became involved in the movement for women’s rights. He was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists in New York, in 1848. His advocacy for women’s rights, especially female suffrage, resulted in the 1852 invitation by the anti-slavery society in Rochester, where he gave the speech published below.
In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown stayed with Douglass in Rochester, as Brown planned his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry—part of his attempt to establish a stronghold of formerly enslaved people in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was caught and hanged for masterminding the attack, offering the following prophetic words as his final statement: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
During the Civil War, Douglass worked tirelessly for the end of slavery and the right of newly freed Black Americans to vote. Although he backed Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass criticized the U.S. president for not using it to simultaneously grant formerly enslaved people the right to vote, particularly after they had fought as part of the Union army, making it possible for the North to defeat the slavocracy. He later worked with Radical Republicans toward the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which, respectively, outlawed slavery, made Blacks citizens, and extended the right to vote to Black males.
In the post-war Reconstruction era, Douglass served in many official positions in government, including as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, becoming the first Black man to hold high office. He also continued speaking for African American and women’s rights.
Douglass remained an active leader of these struggles until his death in 1895. He died after suffering a heart attack shortly after he returned home from a meeting of the National Council of Women, a women’s rights group still in its infancy at the time, in Washington, D.C.
His life and work serve as an inspiration for millions to this day. As Douglass said, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” It’s in this spirit that World-Outlook is publishing his speech.
The text below is taken from the online edition of Douglass’ speech—now in the public domain—by Mass for Humanities (masshumanities.org). The full version of the speech is easily accessible here. Subheadings and footnotes are by World-Outlook.com. Due to its length, we are publishing it in three parts, the first of which follows.
(Published on July 4, 2021, at 9:01am and updated at 1:12pm and 8:40pm.)
By Frederick Douglass
Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:
…This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old.
I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. …
British colonial rule
Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.
But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers…
Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back.
As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold, when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the cause of your fathers grow stronger, as it breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure. The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.
The madness of this course, we believe, is admitted now, even by England; but we fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present ruler.
‘Oppression makes a wise man mad’
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. 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 (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.
Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet; and their course, in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.
These people were called Tories in the days of your fathers; and the appellation, probably, conveyed the same idea that is meant by a more modern, though a somewhat less euphonious term, which we often find in our papers, applied to some of our old politicians.
Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.
On the 2nd of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.
“Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”U.S. Declaration of Independence, Continental Congress, 1776
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 this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
July 4th means ‘revolution, not peaceful submission’
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.…
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the 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…
The present in light of the past
My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.
“Trust no future, however pleasant, Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.”
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blessed by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence…
Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout, “We have Washington to our father.” Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
“The evil that men do, lives after them,
The good is oft’ interred with their bones.”
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, 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 that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful…
…But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between 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.
The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? …
Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!”
To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY.
(To be continued)
 This is one site where Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech is available in its entirety: https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
This is a Original Edition which was first Published in 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition written by famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglass. It is generally held to be the most famous of a number of narratives written by former slaves during the same period.
Born a slave circa 1818 (slaves weren’t told when they were born) on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read and write. This book calmly but dramatically recounts the horrors and the accomplishments of his early years—the daily, casual brutality of the white masters; his painful efforts to educate himself; his decision to find freedom or die; and his harrowing but successful escape.
An astonishing orator and a skillful writer, Douglass became a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an eloquent spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans. He lived through the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the beginning of segregation. He was celebrated internationally as the leading black intellectual of his day, and his story still resonates in ours.
A True Classic that Belongs on Every Bookshelf!
Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Narrative-Life-Frederick-Douglass-Autobiography/dp/B0948LNQ4D/ref=sr_1_2_sspa?dchild=1&keywords=Narrative+of+the+Life+of+Frederick+Douglass&qid=1625403066&sr=8-2-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUEyUlJNME43MjhaTEpXJmVuY3J5cHRlZElkPUEwMTU5MjY0MlVBT1pOS0g4MFc3SiZlbmNyeXB0ZWRBZElkPUEwOTQzNTU4MktHR0IxMDFSQ0lCQiZ3aWRnZXROYW1lPXNwX2F0ZiZhY3Rpb249Y2xpY2tSZWRpcmVjdCZkb05vdExvZ0NsaWNrPXRydWU=
- The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine
- America’s Revolutionary Heritage by George Novack
- Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. DuBois
This pioneering work was the first full-length study of the role Black Americans played in the crucial period after the Civil War, when the slaves had been freed and the attempt was made to reconstruct American society. Hailed at the time, Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 has justly been called a classic.
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois
The Souls of Black Folk is a 1903 work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology and a cornerstone of African-American literature.
The book contains several essays on race, some of which the magazine Atlantic Monthly had previously published. To develop this work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African American in U.S. society. In particular, DuBois presents in this volume a very touching portrait of the conditions of Black farm workers after Radical Reconstruction under conditions of debt slavery.
- Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877 – The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction by Peter Camejo
- Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice by Bruce Levine
Thaddeus Stevens was among the first to see the Civil War as an opportunity for a second American revolution—a chance to remake the country as a true multiracial democracy. One of the foremost abolitionists in Congress in the years leading up to the war, he was a leader of the young Republican Party’s radical wing, fighting for anti-slavery and anti-racist policies long before party colleagues like Abraham Lincoln endorsed them. It was he, for instance, who urged Lincoln early on to free those enslaved throughout the US and to welcome Black men into the Union’s armies.
During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Stevens demanded equal civil and political rights for Black Americans, rights eventually embodied in the 14th and 15th amendments. But while Stevens in many ways pushed his party—and America—towards equality, he also championed ideas too radical for his fellow Congressmen ever to support, such as confiscating large slaveholders’ estates and dividing the land among those who had been enslaved.
In Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine has written the definitive biography of one of the most visionary statesmen of the 19th century and a forgotten champion for racial justice in America.
- Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877by Eric Foner
Eric Foner’s “masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history” (New Republic) redefined how the post-Civil War period was viewed.
Reconstruction chronicles the way in which Americans—Black and white—responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the ways in which the emancipated slaves’ quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship shaped the political agenda of Reconstruction; the remodeling of Southern society and the place of planters, merchants, and small farmers within it; the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations; and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans.
This “smart book of enormous strengths” (Boston Globe) remains the standard work on the wrenching post-Civil War period—an era whose legacy still reverberates in the United States today.
Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Reconstruction-Updated-Unfinished-Revolution-1863-1877/dp/0062354515/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Reconstruction+%E2%80%93+America%E2%80%99s+Unfinished+Revolution+1863-1877+by+Eric+Foner&qid=1623961190&sr=8-1