Why Frederick Douglass Gave His Fourth of July Speech on July 5
[Frederick_Douglass_c1855 courtesy Wikimedia]
I wanted to continue last week’s description of the Fourth of July reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro.” First, a couple of details: 1) the eleven-page version provided at the Royall House and Slave Quarters was abridged; and 2) while Douglass is discussing the meaning of the Fourth of July in this speech (and while the event I attended and many of the other events at which the speech was being read) took place on the Fourth of July, Douglass refused to give this speech on that date.
He was invited to do so, but he was so outraged by the hypocrisy of a celebration of independence and freedom in what had become a slave nation that he chose instead to give his speech on the fifth of July. That date was chosen not only because it was not the fourth of July, but also because it was the date in 1827 on which Black people of New York State (Douglass delivered his speech in Rochester, NY) celebrated the end of slavery in their state. The process of ending slavery in New York was gradual. Starting in 1799, a series of laws afforded various degrees of freedom based on age (people born after July 4, 1799 became indentured servants until they reached adulthood). It wasn’t until a law went into effect on July 4, 1827 that formerly enslaved New Yorkers won full freedom. (Even so, the 1830 census showed 75 slaves in New York; it wasn’t until 1840 that enslavement of African Americans had been completely eliminated in the state.)
Yet Black people in New York City hesitated to celebrate on the fourth of July in 1827. They feared attacks from angry racists. Therefore, they held a march of four thousand people the following day, July 5. Celebrations were held in other parts of New York as well as in Boston and Philadelphia because New York was the last of the northern states to end slavery.
So that’s some of the background. But what I also want to mention is the way the speech we read aloud last Tuesday ended. Quoting abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass says “let every heart join in saying it,” and at the event I attended last week, the entire audience joined in reciting these words in unison:
All God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good.
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
I find it truly remarkable that after this speech describing the horrifying injustice of slavery, Douglass can offer these words. The idea of changing “into a faithful friend/each foe” shows an amazing level of spiritual and moral development—one I hope we may all achieve some day.