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Frederick Douglass was the celebrity speaker at the 1852 Independence Day celebrations in Rochester, New York. Think of it like PBS' A Capitol Fourth—but without the washed-up celebrities—because on July 4th, 1852, Douglass was a prime headliner.
If his listeners were expecting a "God Bless America" pep rally, they got something entirely different. Instead, Douglass took the opportunity to throw serious sarcastic shade at the whole room. And we're guessing you have a hunch about the topic.
Yup: slavery. (We know, the title totally gives it away.)
"The Hypocrisy of American Slavery" is only one of dozens of speeches Douglass gave on the topic of slavery. In fact, he emerged as the leading African American figure of the 19th century largely because of his way with words—not only through his speaking, but also through his writing.
In the speech, Douglass contrasts white citizens' experience of the Fourth of July (which was the 19th-century equivalent of sparklers, strawberry shortcake, foam Lady Liberty crowns) versus enslaved people's experience of the Fourth of July (um, that of righteous anger at being enslaved).
Here is Douglass' main point: don't expect slaves to be really excited about your liberty. In fact, stop patting yourselves on the back and thinking you're so special because of that one time you declared independence from Great Britain. If you really cared about liberty, you'd be doing a whole lot more to end slavery in the United States.
Douglass had escaped slavery in Maryland 14 years earlier, and in those 14 years, he had become a respected anti-slavery speaker and writer. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1845, and when he gave this speech, he was also publishing an abolitionist newspaper called Frederick Douglass' Paper, which indicates not that he was kind of narcissistic but that he had sufficient name recognition to sell a paper on his name alone. (Douglass knew how to build a personal brand before personal branding was cool.)
Douglass repackaged "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery," added some extras, and gave it again the next day as "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"
Hey, the guy knew a powerful speech when he saw—er, delivered—it. Contrasting the celebration of the United States' Independence Day with the uncomfortable fact of ongoing slavery was pure rhetorical gold.
And it still is, even today. Time selected it as one of the "Top 10 Greatest Speeches," alongside others from the likes of Socrates, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. (You know that you're a big-deal orator when you're sharing company with heavyweights like them.)
Slavery is over, right? Sure, slavery was bad…but what does Frederick Douglass have to say that matters to us today?
A lot, actually. It's no accident that Douglass spoke on the hypocrisy of American slavery on the Fourth of July because what he's really getting at is the idea of two Americas.
Allow us to elaborate...
There's one group of people that America works for. One group for whom the high ideals of liberty and justice for all exist. One group who gets to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But there's another group that America doesn't work for. One group that has no chance of achieving the American Dream themselves because they're being exploited in order to support somebody else's American Dream.
While chattel slavery based on race is long gone, issues of social and racial justice are still around. Think of income inequality. Think of access to basic needs like health care, clean water, fresh food, affordable housing, and public education. Think of the race- and class-based disparities in the treatment of individuals by the U.S. justice system.
One of the major ways these issues affect American life is through a little something (okay, a big something) called "systemic racism." This means that even though individual Americans might not think of themselves as holding racial biases, the system itself is rigged against people of color. Because that rigged system doesn't have the same effect on white people, many white people aren't even aware that racial injustice still exists in America today.
But it does. Even Ben and Jerry (yeah, the ice cream guys) know about it, and they've served up some facts and figures about systemic racism in America today.
The history of slavery continues to have other impacts on Black Americans today. One of those is generational wealth building. Think about it: if you have white ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, your family has had 400 years to accumulate wealth and status in America—and that benefits you in tangible (moolah) and intangible (connections) ways.
But if your ancestors came over on a slave ship and weren't allowed to own property until less than (and a lot less than, in many cases) 200 years ago, your family hasn't had nearly as much time to make it big.
Some studies also suggest that the stress involved in living through slavery, Jim Crow, and other racially biased experiences has had a genetic effect on Black Americans, making them more prone to certain types of diseases—and systemic racism makes them less likely to receive appropriate treatment for those diseases. (Source)
But race isn't the only element to consider as we think about who America does and doesn't work for today. We also have to consider identity markers like social class, gender identity, and sexuality. People who live in poverty, women, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ+ community may also wonder if America is for them.
There are still two (or possibly more) Americas. One group for which the high ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are attainable and expected and one group for whom they're not a given.
And until there's one America, with liberty and justice and equal opportunity for all, the Fourth of July will always have an element of irony.
Or hypocrisy, as Douglass would call it.
Frederick Douglass' Virtual Reality
Can't visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington? No problem: kick back at your computer and enjoy a virtual museum exhibit.
F.D. in D.C.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington (Douglass' last home, from 1878-1895) is your go-to site for all things Frederick Douglass.
Rockin' in Rochester
Read all about abolition and the Civil War in Rochester, New York, where Douglass lived most of his adult life and where he gave "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." This pathfinder from the Monroe County Library System takes you straight to the source.
History Makes the News
Think history never changes? Think again. New information is uncovered all the time, like this previously unknown picture of Frederick Douglass. Read all about it here.
A Brief History of a Long Road
Brush up on your knowledge of the American abolitionist movement with this quick rundown from Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis.
A Frederick Douglass Biography
Here's the American National Biography article on Frederick Douglass. It's a great place to start your research since it includes cross-references and suggestions for the best sources of further reading.
Photography Changes the World
This article discusses the impact of photographs of Frederick Douglass and how he used the images to effect political change. (Warning: this makes your selfies look super shallow.)
Truth and Douglass and Photographs
This article discusses new scholarship on the photographs of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and how the two used photography to impact the abolitionist movement.
Frederick Douglass' Filmography
Frederick Douglass has appeared as a character in dozens of movies and television shows over the years. Here's a sampling.
A Frederick Douglass Biography (Again!)
Perhaps we should have said "A Frederick Douglass Biography on Biography" because that's what this is. No time to read Douglass' three autobiographical books? Get the scoop here.
Voyage of Discovery
Produced by the City of Rochester, "Rediscovering Frederick Douglass" discusses the discovery of a previously unknown photograph of Douglass in the city archives.
What Do Frederick Douglass and Darth Vader Have in Common?
James Earl Jones has voiced both of them. Listen to the actor read excerpts from Douglass' "The Meaning of July 4th for the N****," which has passages identical to "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery."
F.D. on NPR
A Douglass historian discusses Douglass' take on Independence Day.
He's probably in his 20s here.
He probably looked like this around the time of "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery."
This is the photo gallery from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. It's got all the Douglass photos you could possibly want.
Late-in-life Douglass rocks a bow tie.
There Through It All (Or Most of It, Anyway)
Anna Murray Douglass, Douglass' first wife.
She's Not the Pitts
Helen Pitts Douglass, Douglass' second wife.