Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass's 1852 Independence Day Oration

J.L. Bell, over at his always-interesting blog, Boston 1775, puts it well when he writes that one of the reasons that Independence Day is celebrated on the 4th, rather than the 2nd, of July has a lot to do with the 4th being the day that there was a public declaration of an event that occurred two days before - the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 2. Bell writes about John Adams's July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail Adams where Adams correctly predicts just about everything about how American indepence will be celebrated in the future, except for the date. (Bell also makes a good case for the role that the printed word played in cementing the 4th as the date for celebrating Independence Day.)

Public declarations - in the form of speeches - might not leap to mind as one of the elements of how Independence Day is celebrated today, however, orations have been a part of Independence Day celebrations since the 18th century - and, in fact, they continue to be a part of the celebration. (Here's but one example: the Archivist of the United States's 2007 Fourth of July address.)

While most Independence Day speeches are - and have been - celebratory in nature, many have gone beyond mere celebration - some with political motives in mind, and others reflective, and willing to ask questions about freedom and independence. Some, in certain ways, combined all of these elements.

Frederick_douglass_july_5_oration_w One well-known example is a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass at the request of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852; the (slightly stained) cover of our copy is seen here. The speech was delivered as part of the Independence Day observances in Rochester, NY. Douglass, of course, was a man who was born into slavery, escaped from slavery, and went on to become one of the foremost abolitionists in the United States. He was also one of the abolitionist movement's greatest speakers.

Who, but Frederick Douglass, might speak better of independence and freedom - and about the troubling hypocrisy many saw at the time, of celebrating independence and freedom while slavery in America persisted - than a man who escaped from slavery? (And just to tie these themes a bit tighter, it's worth remembering that slavery was addressed in a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, with wording that was not included in the adopted version of the Declaration.)

In this now-famous July 5, 1852 speech, Douglass looks to the past first, and speaks with admiration of the founders:

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.

Later in the speech, he gets to his subject, and he speaks of the situation in America at the time, speaking directly about the celebration of Independence Day and slavery. The text gives a great sense of the fiery oratory of Douglass:

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.

For the entire text of the speech, you may, of course, come in and read our copy. The text is also available online - you can go here for the full-text of Douglass's July 5, 1852 speech.

For more info on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, a fuller citation for the Douglass speech mentioned above, as well as resources on how the Fourth of July has been celebrated throughout U.S. history, we can recommend the following books from our collection:

Douglass, Frederick. Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester. Rochester : Lee, Mann & Co., 1852.
Call number: E 449 .D7 1852

Burstein, Andrew. America's Jubilee: A Generation Remembers the Revolution After 50 Years of Independence. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. [A look at the 50th anniversary of independence, in 1826.]
Call number: E 285 .B88 2001

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture : Making the Declaration of Independence. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Call number: E 221 .M24 1997 

Smith, Paul H. Time and Temperature: Philadelphia, July 4, 1776. Washington: Library of Congress, 1977.
Call number: E 221 .S57 1977

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth : Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst, Mass. : University of Massachusetts Press, c1997.
Call number: E 286 T73 1997

And, for good measure, a couple of new titles that I came across while looking into Douglass's speech and that we'll be acquiring soon:

Colaiaco, James A. Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Heintze, James R. The Fourth of July Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.