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Statement

Reverberations of the Fourth of July

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, July/August 2009 | Volume 30, Number 4

MASSACHUSETTS On July 5, 1852, while citizens across the country were still celebrating American freedom, Frederick Douglass, the country’s most prominent former slave, delivered arguably the century’s most powerful antislavery speech at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-slavery Society’s Independence Day celebration.

The speech at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall attracted a crowd of nearly six hundred people, each of whom paid twelve-and-a-half cents admission. The meeting opened with a prayer and a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence. Then Douglass took the stage, humbly putting the audience at ease, saying, “That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude.” Then he posed a question: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why was I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

Pleun Bouricius, program officer at Mass Humanities, says, “Douglass, in fact, had become so radicalized by the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act—which made it illegal for anyone to harbor a person who was technically a slave in states that recognized slavery—that in this speech he took to referring to the United States as ‘your’ nation and the Founding Fathers as ‘your’ fathers.”

As the speech progressed, Douglass took the audience to task: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham . . . a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

As the speech ended and Douglass took his seat, the audience rose to their feet with applause. “It was important as a galvanizing moment in the articulation of the antislavery argument,” says Bouricius.

This Fourth of July, Massachusetts citizens are invited to read Douglass’s fiery speech in their communities. The statewide project began June 2 with a public reading and discussion at the State House in Boston. Mass Humanities has developed a web resource with materials needed to organize a shared reading. The speech, discussion materials, supporting articles, public relations guidelines, templates for posters, flyers and e-mails, and teacher resources are available at masshumanities.org. There are also links to publicize readings on the Mass Humanities online event calendar and the local NPR event calendar.

“We hope that this new and widely accessible web resource will be a model for many to come,” says Bouricius. “Reading together allows us to stop, look, and listen, and perhaps realize that a black man spoke to white ladies (who were quite daring to even be there) in no uncertain terms about issues of race and citizenship in America—and that he was very much an American.”

About the Author

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in Wheaton, Illinois.