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 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…are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
…Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?… There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
…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.
—Frederick Douglass, excerpt from his ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ speech, delivered July 5, 1852
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, it becomes more important than ever to take a deeper look at this titan of American history. His name sits in the pantheon of Black History month figures, but too often, we are served up just the celebratory highlights of their lives, minus the messy parts. In Douglass’s case, the escaped slave became one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage—arguably the most influential civil- and human-rights advocate of the 19th century.
But perhaps his greatest legacy? He never shied away from those messy parts.
Because even as he wowed 19th-century audiences in the U.S. and England with his soaring eloquence and patrician demeanor, even as he riveted readers with his published autobiographies, Douglass kept them focused on the horrors he and millions of others endured as American slaves: the relentless indignities, the physical violence, the families ripped apart. And he blasted the hypocrisy of a slave-holding nation touting liberty and justice for all.
In an era when the institutions of an open and inclusive democracy are under attack, when intolerance has risen over peaceful protests against patriotic symbols, Douglass’s voluminous writings and speeches carry an important lesson for Americans: They remind us to never turn away from the hard truths and to never stop believing in a better future. They reveal a man who believed fiercely in the ideals on which America was founded, but understood—with the scars to prove it—that democracy would never be a destination of comfort and repose, but a journey of ongoing self-criticism and struggle. He knew it when he lobbied relentlessly to abolish slavery. And he knew it after Emancipation, when he continued to battle for equal rights under the law.
Indeed, Douglass knew, as he argued so ardently in his famed July Fourth speech, that for democracy to thrive, the nation’s conscience must be roused, its propriety startled and its hypocrisy exposed. Not once, but continually and for the good of the nation, he argued, we must bring the “thunder.”
Douglass’s legacy is one best read and savored—a challenge in this nation where Americans increasingly consume information through video clips and sound bites. President Trump—who last year praised Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,”—isn’t the only one who finds himself light on the details (and chronology) of Douglass’s life. Jackie Robinson is widely known as the first African-American to break the color barrier in baseball, but how many people are aware that Douglass, an escaped slave, was the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States during roll call at the 1888 Republican National Convention?
For African Americans of a certain generation, the distinguished, silver-haired Douglass was a staple of long-forgotten Black History month quizzes, along with Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Dubois. To answer questions, young people were invited to search through musty library books looking for answers that inevitably reacquainted them with heroic figures; they accessed Douglass’s life and legacy, through his autobiographies and countless articles and speeches. If they dug in deep, they learned that he published an abolitionist newspaper for 16 years, that he supported the Underground Railroad by which slaves escaped north—and maybe even that he liked to play America’s national anthem on the violin.
Most children like me encountered small chunks of history mixed into our Saturday morning cartoons with Schoolhouse Rock. I also had the advantage of afternoons spent poring over speeches like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in my African Guides classes at the local recreational center. Such organizations created a pathway to learning black history. They provided a pathway meant to enlighten and empower by underscoring the value of education—a theme that Douglass’s own story neatly illustrates.
Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass, like many enslaved children was separated from his mother at birth; he resided with his loving maternal grandmother until he turned seven.
At the age of eight, he became a servant in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. In defiance of the slave codes that explicitly forbade teaching slaves how to read, Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet, unlocking the gateway to education—which he would extol the rest of his life. Over time Douglass surreptitiously continued to teach himself to read and write, all the while strengthening his resolve to escape the confines of slavery. He defied the law in not only learning to read and write, but in teaching other enslaved people to do so. As he observed: “Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”
In the early 1830s, Douglass was shipped to the plantation of Hugh’s brother Thomas. In an effort to break his spirit, Thomas loaned Douglass to Edward Covey, a sadistic local slave master with a reputation for cruelty. Covey mercilessly beat and abused the teenager until one day Douglass decided to fight back, knocking Covey to the ground. Covey, tempered, never mentioned the encounter, but he also never laid hands on him again.
As for Douglass, he called the battle with Covey “the turning point” in his life as a slave: “It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me my own sense of manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
In September of 1838 Douglass, disguised as a sailor and with borrowed free papers, managed to board a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He continued on to New York and ultimately, New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he settled, a free man. He married Anna Murray, a free woman of color who he had met and fallen in love with while in bondage in Baltimore. The couple had five children. The Douglasses made a commitment to eradicating the evil of slavery.
After speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading proponents calling for an immediate end to slavery. The two became friends and with Garrison’s support, Douglass became one of the most sought-after speakers on the abolitionist circuit, not only for his searing testimony but his powerful oratory. In time, he lent his voice to the emerging women’s-rights movement as well. He once reflected: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
In 1845, Douglass committed his story to print, publishing the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, with the support of Garrison and other abolitionists. The book gained international acclaim, confounding critics who argued that such fluid writing and penetrating thought could not be the product of a black mind. Nevertheless, the Narrative catapulted Douglass to success outside the ranks of reformers, stoking fears that his celebrity might result in attempts by Auld to reclaim his former slave. To avoid this fate, Douglass traveled to England, where he remained for two years until a group of supporters there successfully negotiated payment for his freedom.
Back in the United States, Douglass navigated the tumultuous decade of the 1850s, steering a course between extremists like John Brown, who believed the only way to abolish slavery was through armed insurrection, and old friends like Garrison. Douglass published his own newspaper, The North Star. On the masthead, he inserted the motto “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren,” incorporating both Douglass’s anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights views.
On the eve of the Civil War, Douglass used his fame and influence to petition the Lincoln Administration to press for emancipation. As he remarked: “The thing worse than the rebellion is the thing that causes the rebellion.” He further demanded that the Union allow black men to enlist and aided the war effort by promoting recruitment.
Despite the hope engendered by the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery following the war, Douglass remained cautious, observing: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” Over the course of the next few years, he remained a strong voice advocating for the passage of additional legislation to ensure absolute equality for black people. By the end of the decade, however, he was also painfully aware of the mounting efforts to suspend Reconstruction and return black people to a state of quasi-slavery—measures he continued to fight. His experience had taught him: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
Douglass died on February 20, 1895. While his life mapped the triumphant journey from slavery to freedom, the seeds of division had already been sown on the eve of his death. Three years earlier, Homer Plessy challenged Louisiana’s law that required “all railway companies [to] provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races,” leading to the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upholding racial segregation. In spite of the failure of Reconstruction and the assault on black equality, Douglass had still remained hopeful of a different outcome.
Of all the inspiring things to be recovered in Douglass life, his trajectory in pursuit of social justice remains the most compelling. An uncompromising critic of American hypocrisy rather than American democracy, his critique was anchored much more in what could be.
Douglass’s own remonstrance about the Fourth of July applies to the way his life and history should be remembered. As he noted in the 1852 speech, “I remember also that as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap will be found by Americans.”
Far from “slandering Americans” as he called it, Douglass appealed to them to remember the oppression that led to revolution, the desire for liberty that fueled its leaders and the vigilance necessary to maintain freedom. He warned against the denial of the most basic of human rights and the betrayal of revolutionary values in thoughts and actions.
That, today, is perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from Douglass’s life. We would do well to acknowledge his daring escape from slavery, powerful oratory, leadership on civil and women’s rights—but not separate from his ultimate message. In honoring him, we should not only celebrate what will “make” in our “own favor” but compel us to be better—and more vocal—in the messy, ongoing process of pursuing social justice and perfecting our democracy. That, he believed, is what would make America great.
History Reads is an occasional series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.