Study Guide

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery Themes

By Frederick Douglass

  • Patriotism

    It's hard to talk about the Fourth of July without addressing patriotism. After all, it's America's birthday. People wear red, white, and blue. They hang bunting and flags. They have parades. All in all, it's a rah-rah, go us, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" kind of day, and it memorializes a happy event (the signing of the Declaration of Independence).

    If you can't celebrate on your birthday, when can you celebrate, right?

    But that's just the thing, says Douglass in "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." The only people who feel like celebrating are the people America works for, not the people who, um, are enslaved and made to work for America. He's less than thrilled by this whole thing because he knows that when the party is over, slaves are on cleanup duty.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. How do you feel about Douglass' choice to talk about America's problems on America's birthday?
    2. Do you think Douglass' listeners would have expected slaves and former slaves to have patriotic feelings for the United States?
    3. How do you think Douglass' listeners might have reconciled celebrating liberty with the practice of slavery?
    4. What is the impact of giving this speech on the Fourth of July? Would it have had the same impact if he had chosen to speak on a different day or holiday?

    Chew on This

    Giving this speech in the context of a Fourth of July celebration is a demonstration of Douglass' patriotism.

    This speech would not have had the same impact given on any day other than the Fourth of July.

  • Slavery

    You saw this one coming, didn't you? The speech is called "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery," after all, so slavery is obviously going to be a theme.

    Throughout the speech, Douglass views the Fourth of July from a slave's perspective, demonstrating how totally bonkers the whole idea of celebrating freedom is while owning and otherwise oppressing slaves. He hits on many of the popular arguments against slavery, demonstrating that they're so obvious he doesn't need to really argue them, and he's not going to.

    Oh, wait—except he does argue them, precisely by saying why he's not going to. Douglass is good at rhetorical tricks like that.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What arguments against slavery does Douglass bring up? What effect does mentioning these well-known arguments have on the speech?
    2. Discuss Douglass' use of biblical references to highlight the sin of American slavery.
    3. According to Douglass, what is the meaning of the Fourth of July to slaves?
    4. Alternatively, what is the meaning of slavery to white people celebrating the Fourth of July?
    5. How might the meanings of slavery and the Fourth of July differ for white people who own slaves versus those who don't?

    Chew on This

    By refusing to argue the wrongfulness of slavery, Douglass actually succeeds in demonstrating why slavery is wrong.

    Douglass uses biblical references to illustrate the idea that American slavery is not only hypocritical but also sinful in an attempt to appeal to Americans' religious beliefs.

  • Hypocrisy

    Much like with the theme of "Slavery," you probably saw "Hypocrisy" coming a mile away.

    It's right there in the title: "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." We can't say Douglass didn't warn us. He loads up the speech with examples of how what America claims to stand for (freedom) and what America actually does (slavery) are in direct contrast. America has a serious case of "do as I say, not as I do," and Douglass lets us hear about it through the use of numerous examples of how American ideals contrast with American reality.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Can you think of any other historical or contemporary examples in which a nation claims to stand for one ideal while being false to that ideal in actual practice?
    2. For Douglass, what does "hypocrisy" mean in this context?
    3. Douglass criticizes America from start to finish in this speech. Is it possible to point out your country's flaws and still be a patriot?
    4. Is slavery a hypocritical practice on other days, or just on the Fourth of July?

    Chew on This

    Douglass defines "hypocrisy" as a disconnect between ideals and actions.

    Douglass' use of sarcasm and irony underline the theme of hypocrisy by juxtaposing the disconnect between words and meanings with a disconnect between ideals and reality.

  • Race

    To be fair, Douglass explicitly touches on the idea of race only twice. However, it's worth mentioning because race is what made American slavery different from slavery in any other historical context.

    To justify slavery, many white Americans tried to prove that Black people were not the same as white people, that they were an inferior race and not fully human, and therefore white people were actually doing them a favor by "civilizing" them. Douglass points out that that's just not true, and everyone knows it.

    Questions About Race

    1. What is the effect on listeners of mentioning race only twice? Does it force our thoughts away from race and more toward the idea of slavery in general?
    2. Douglass mentions race in the context of crime and punishment (unequal for Blacks and whites) and in the context of human action (equal for Blacks and whites). Discuss how pairing these two contexts contributes to your understanding of race in America.
    3. Not all Black people were slaves (though most of them were). How does the situation of free Black people relate to Douglass' ideas?
    4. Would you say Douglass believes the promise of America is only for white people and white culture?

    Chew on This

    Douglass claims he isn't going to argue the humanity of Black people, and then he goes on to do exactly that. His arguments personalize the abstract idea of race by demonstrating what white and Black people have in common.

    Crime and punishment in America is a different experience for Black people than for white people, as Douglass points out. His examples fit into a long history of prejudice against Black people in the American justice system.