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Frederick Douglass
American Slavery
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(Born a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped to the North
in 1838. After publishing his autobiography ("The Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave") in 1845, he fled to
Great Britain. There he raised enough money to buy his freedom
and return to America in 1847 as a free man. When the leading
citizens of Rochester asked him to make a speech as part of their
July 4th celebrations in 1852, Douglass took the opportunity to
point out the hypocrisy of a people that glorified freedom and
independence with speeches and parades, yet kept nearly four
million human beings as slaves.)



Fellow citizens, pardon me, and 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 bring 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?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative
answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. Then
would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For
who is there so cold that a nation's sympathy could not warm him?
Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would
not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid
and selfish that 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 leap as an hart."

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of
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 life
and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth
of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a
man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call
upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and
sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me
to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me
warn you, that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation
(Babylon) whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down
by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin.

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the
mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday,
are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach
them. If I do forget, if I do not remember those bleeding children of
sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my
tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!"

To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs and to chime in with
the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking,
and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

My subject, then, fellow citizens, is "American Slavery." I shall see this
day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view.
Standing here, identified with the American bondman, making his
wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the
character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than
on this Fourth of July.

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions
of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and
revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and
solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and
the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of
humanity, which is outraged, in the name of liberty, which is fettered,
in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded
and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all
the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate
slavery -- the great sin and shame of America! "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, or who is not at heart a
slave-holder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some of my audience say it is just in this circumstance
that you and your brother Abolitionists 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. What point in the anti-slavery creed would
you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of
this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a
man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slave-holders
themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government.
They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the
slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if
committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him
to the punishment of death; while only two of these same crimes will
subject a white man to like punishment.

What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral,
intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is
conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are
covered with enactments, forbidding, under severe fines and penalties,
the teaching of the slave to read and write. When you can point to
any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent
to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets,
when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish
of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish
the slave from a brute, then I will argue with you that the slave is
a man!

For the present it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the
Negro race. Is it 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 we are engaged in all the 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 worshipping the Christian God, and looking
hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave -- we are called
upon to prove that we are men?

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is
the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must
I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans?
Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter
beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the
principle of justice, hard to understand? How should I look today in the
presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show
that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and
positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so would be to make
myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is
not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that
slavery is wrong for him.

What! Am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them
of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant
of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay
their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them
with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock
out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and
submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked
with blood and stained with pollution is wrong? No - I will not. I have
better employment for my time and strength than such arguments
would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that
God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken?
There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be
divine. Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may --
I cannot. The time for such argument is past.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.
Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today
pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering
sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire;
it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the
whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling 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 denounced.

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day
that reveals to him more than all other days of 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 shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mock; 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
of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the
people of these United States at this very hour.

Go 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.

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Read by: E.L. Felder
 

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