4 reflections on the Fourth of July from Frederick Douglass

For your flag-waving enjoyment, consider these four segments from Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” delivered on this day in 1852.

1. On the irony of asking him, a former slave, to speak.

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…. 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.

2. On Christianity and the church’s role in the oppression of enslaved people:

But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.

3. On America’s hypocrisy:

 You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill.

4. On the change that’s gonna come

[N]otwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery… No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference… Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other.… No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.

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