Study Guide

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery Main Idea

By Frederick Douglass

  • Main Idea

    Adding Insult to Injury

    Frederick Douglass sees the irony in a former slave celebrating the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the declaration of independence from Great Britain, or, as it's more informally known, "Freedom Day."

    Okay, so maybe no one actually says "Freedom Day"—but to be fair, that's how people think of it.

    Douglass feels like his audience (and the United States as a whole) has some nerve to devote a whole day to celebrating their freedom while at the same time holding slaves. "Really," says Douglass, "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see how weird this is. How can you celebrate freedom with all this bondage around you? It's like it's not enough that you're holding people as slaves, you have to go and rub your freedom in their faces."

    Not cool, America.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. If Douglass were giving this speech today, would the main idea still apply? Are there any groups in the United States who might feel that the Fourth of July is not for them? Why or why not?
    2. What does Douglass accomplish by presenting the Fourth of July from a slave's point of view?
    3. Is Douglass saying that Americans shouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July as long as slavery exists? What evidence do you have for your answer?
    4. Is it possible, today or in 1852, for Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July with clear consciences, knowing we've done everything possible to fulfill the ideals of founding documents like the Declaration of Independence?

    Chew on This

    Douglass uses the idea of a national holiday devoted to the celebration of freedom to show that slavery is incompatible with American ideals.

    Contrasting the facts of slavery with the ideals of freedom allows Douglass to argue more effectively against slavery in the United States than if he had simply tried to prove that slavery is inhuman.

  • Brief Summary

      

    The Set-Up

    Frederick Douglass, a former slave and accomplished orator, gave this speech to the citizens of Rochester, New York, during their Independence Day celebration on July 4th, 1852.

    The Text

    Douglass starts by pointing out to the audience that asking a former slave to speak on Independence Day, a holiday that celebrates freedom, is pretty weird. After all, can slaves celebrate freedom? Uh, no. Is this some kind of sick joke?

    The only way Douglass can reconcile speaking at a celebration of American freedom is to speak about American slavery, so that's what he does. He points out all the ways in which it is seriously messed up for white Americans—even abolitionists—to celebrate their own freedom while people are held in bondage. He points out how hypocritical it is to celebrate the nation's freedom while the nation is actively false to those ideals.

    Then, Douglass brings up all the arguments he's not going to make about slavery. He essentially says, "Come on, guys and gals, you know it's ridiculous to argue that slaves are people, too, when obviously slaves are people, too."

    He finishes up the speech by repeating his earlier assertion that celebrating freedom while slaves are held in the United States is hypocritical, and he goes on to say that really, celebrating the Fourth of July just makes the United States look even worse than it did before.

    Mic drop.

    TL;DR

    Douglass says that celebrating the Fourth of July while slavery is still legal is ridiculous and cruel in a whole lot of ways.

  • Questions

    1. How do you think Douglass' use of sarcasm affected his listeners? How would listeners respond to a speech with this tone today?
    2. How would this speech be different if Douglass gave it today? Are any of his themes still relevant?
    3. What other speeches or documents in American history show a connection to the speech, either influencing Douglass' words or being influenced by them?
    4. Are any of Douglass' arguments relevant in a post-slavery society?
    5. How do you think Douglass would respond to racial issues in America today?
    6. How does Douglass use the idea of the Fourth of July to organize his speech?