How Frederick Douglass Challenged the Hypocrisy of Independence Day


This Wednesday (July 4), marks Independence Day, even as protesters mark America’s denial of liberty to people of color. As The Associated Press noted yesterday (July 1), formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass addressed the failure of American commitments to freedom more than a century ago in several Fourth of July-focused speeches.

The AP traces Douglass’ critique back to an 1852 speech that he delivered to a predominantly White audience in Rochester, New York. “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” which he technically delivered on July 5, captured how ongoing enslavement of African Americans sullied the holiday:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 denunciation 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 the United States, at this very hour.

He delivered “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion” a decade later, on July 4, 1862, during the Civil War. Douglass denounced the ways supporters of enslavement twisted the Declaration of Independence to support their beliefs.

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