A speech given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852
Frederick Douglass was invited by William Lloyd Garrison to address the citizens of Rochester on the Fourth of July celebration. The speech, delivered on July 5, is one of the most famous of his orations. Reprinted as a pamphlet, it reached a wide audience. The Journal reprints excerpts from Douglass speech:
For the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth 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. citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is, that seventy-six 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. But your father, 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. Feeling themselves Harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress.
Oppression makes a wise man mad. On the second of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshippers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution. 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.
My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and His cause is ever-living now. 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 being 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? For is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him?
Who so stolid and selfish what would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man to leap as an hart.” 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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is not for me. You may rejoice, I must mourn. Above your national, tumultuous joy I hear the mournful wail of million, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. I cannot agree in relation to my love and attachment to this land. I have no love for America; I have no patriotism; I have no country. The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man. I am not thought of, spoken of, out of the antislavery ranks as a man. Now, in such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism.
The only thing that links me to this land is my family, and the painful consciousness that here there are three millions of my fellow creatures, groaning beneath iron rod of the worst despotism that could be devised, even in Pandemonium; that here are men and brethren, who are identified with me by their complexion, identified with me by their hatred of slavery, identified with me by their love and aspirations for liberty, identified with me by stripes upon their backs, their inhuman wrongs and cruel sufferings. This, and this only, attaches me to this land and brings me here to plead with you, and with this country at large, for the disenthrallment of my oppressed countrymen, and to overthrow this system which is crushing them to the earth.
How can I love a country that dooms three million of my brethren, some of them my own kindred, my own brothers, my own sisters, who are now clanking the chains of slavery upon the plains of the South, whose warm blood is now making fat the soil of Maryland and of Alabama, and over whose crushed spirits rolls the dark shadow of oppression, shutting out and extinguishing forever the cheering rays of that bright sun of Liberty lighted in the souls of all God’s children by the Omnipotent hand of Deity itself?
How can I say I love a country this cursed, thus bedewed with the blood of my brethren? A country, the church of which, and the government of which, and the Constitution of which, is in favor of supporting and perpetuating this monstrous system of injustice and blood? I have not, I cannot have any love for this country, as such, of for its Constitution. I desire to see it overthrown as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments, rather than this foul curse should continue to remain as now.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice shall not confess to be right and just. I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more and denounce less; would you persuade more and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?
The present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. It is not astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold, that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian’s God and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grace, we are called upon to prove that we are men!
A time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Feelings of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
To the American Negro, your Fourth of July is 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 brassfronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings; with all your religious parade and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up the 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. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.