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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? (1-4)
Douglass starts strong with the sarcasm. "What's up with this?" he asks. "Am I supposed to talk about how grateful Black people are that you let us live in this country?"
Think about the rest of the text: how do the rhetorical questions Douglass asks in the opening paragraph foreshadow the rest of the speech?
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. (7-10)
"You'd have to be a jerk to not feel grateful for the blessings of living in America," Douglass says. "Well, I guess I'm a jerk. But—oh, wait—it's because the blessings of America aren't really for people like me."
Looking at American history as a whole, what other groups of people might have felt or feel that the promise of America is not really for them?
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. (15-19)
It's easy to feel patriotic in a country that gives you good things. Feeling patriotic about a country that has enslaved you and still treats you like a second-class citizen? That's a lot harder. What specific examples does Douglass offer to support his claim that the Fourth of July does not belong to him?
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!" (25-26)
Sorry, but Douglass can't hear the music over all the suffering of the slaves, so excuse him if he doesn't dance to the popular tune. He quotes Jeremiah on the Babylonian exile of the Israelites, drawing a biblical parallel to modern-day slavery. The response of American churches to slavery was important: some argued that the Bible supported slavery, while others argued that it clearly did not. Think about how personal religious beliefs might have affected a person's stance on slavery and abolition.
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. (28-30)
The audience thinks Douglass is going to talk about how great they are…but he's going to use this opportunity not only to say how bad they are on regular days, but how much worse they look on the Fourth of July. Douglass asks his audience—white Northerners who might never have seen a slave—to see him as a slave. Putting a personal face on what was for many people an abstract idea (slavery) was always part of Douglass' strategy, from his use of photography to his autobiographies.
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! (33)
Douglass lowers the boom. Guess who's on his side? God, the Bible, the Constitution, all those things white America loves. "They're not loving you back today," says Douglass. In this passage, Douglass uses parallelism—or grammatically similar phrases—to give us the feeling that he's pounding opposing arguments into the ground, at least figuratively.
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? (38-41)
"Wow, are you guys just really dim?" asks Douglass. "Not the brightest stars in the sky? Isn't it obvious that slaves are people, and thus that slavery is wrong? Why is that so hard to understand?"
Well, it might have been hard to understand because it was actually codified into American law in the Three-Fifths Compromise. That doesn't excuse it, but remember that white people had been told over and over, by their own government and often their own churches—trusted institutions—that slaves weren't really people. To break free of those assumptions, they needed to hear a different argument—one Douglass was happy to provide.
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? (54-59)
Rochester dudes, as people who say they love liberty and independence and freedom and all that kind of thing, you know slavery is wrong. Really, don't expect Douglass to try to convince you of this. That would be a waste of his breath since you already know it's wrong, and don't pretend like you don't. This is a clever strategy: if listeners agree with Douglass, they feel good about themselves, but if they don't, they're stuck having to agree that they're kind of dumb.
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. (68-74)
"Really?" says Douglass. "We all know you don't really think God likes slavery because that goes against the whole idea that God is better than humans. Obviously, God is better than humans because God is aware that slavery is bad, while some humans clearly aren't, and can we just stop these stupid arguments already?"
But seriously, because lots of American churches did support slavery on the basis of a few verses in the Bible, getting Americans to agree that God wasn't for slavery would have been a major step forward.
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. (80-81)
If the Fourth of July is supposed to make slaves proud to be Americans, it's having the opposite effect. Can you think of other instances, in American history or today, where the celebration of the Fourth of July has ignited controversy?
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? (21-22)
"What is your deal?" asks Douglass. "It's an offense to God and humanity to ask a person you have enslaved to join you in celebrating freedom."
What do you think the organizers of the Fourth of July celebration actually expected from Douglass? Were they looking for a standard patriotic speech, or might they have intentionally given him a platform to discuss the hypocrisy of American slavery?
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. (31-32)
Americans have talked, do talk, and (Douglass can only assume) will talk a big game re: freedom. But do they actually believe in it? Not really—not for everyone, anyway. Why is this a problem for Douglass? How would his speech change if Americans were able to honestly confront the inequalities in their own society?
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. (79)
"Now," says Douglass, "it's entirely possible that you people really do need a wake-up call." Good thing he's here to give it. However, Douglass discusses abstract ideas in these lines. What concrete actions or events would be necessary to quicken, rouse, startle, expose, and denounce the nation?
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. (82-83)
Slaves can see that the emperor has no clothes. Douglass makes an important point, though: sometimes, by talking a lot about how things should be, people can cover up and ignore the problems with how things actually are. Just because you say something really loud over and over doesn't make it true, but it might make people believe it's true. By talking so much about freedom, Americans are ignoring the chance to make the nation truly free, and that's what Douglass gets at here.
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. (84)
Americans like to think they're better than other people (see: American Exceptionalism), but guess what? All that acting like you're better actually makes you worse than you would be if you just stopped fronting and acknowledged your issues. That's a common idea throughout the speech.
There are 72 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. (46)
Well, that sounds unfair. The United States (and, to be fair, everywhere else) has a long history of prosecuting crime differently depending on who commits the crime. Does this history still affect the legal system today?
For the present it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the N**** 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? (52-53)
This is just a looong list of all the things Black people do just like other people. Douglass piles on this evidence so that no one can reasonably deny the humanity of Black people and so that his listeners can see what they have in common with Black people. He says it's messed up to observe all this humanity and then ask Black people to prove that they're human.