This 4th of July, we are digging into Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the slave is the fourth of July.” And we start by considering Douglass himself. Who better to help us understand than David Blight, the Sterling Professor of History, of African American Studies, and of American Studies and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University? Now that’s a title! He has won many awards for his scholarship, and his biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize. Prof. Blight is also a Scholar Trustee at New-York Historical, and we are very excited to talk to him about Frederick Douglass and his 4th of July speech.
Join us online on July 4 at 1pm to hear excerpts from the speech and then discuss it with educators and other families.
When young people learn about Frederick Douglass, they often only learn of his escape from enslavement, but there is so much more to his story. What do you wish our young readers understood about Douglass’s life?
It is true that the younger Douglass is often more interesting because of his heroic escape from slavery and his early career as a young, dynamic orator. But I want young people to understand that Douglass was a great prose poet of American democracy throughout his life. He wielded words against slavery and racism, as a personal matter and as a systemic one, throughout his long career. He never gave up the fight and as an aging man in his 70s, ill with heart disease, he delivered the last great speech of his life in 1893-94, “Lessons of the Hour,” a brilliant analysis of lynching, the ritual killing of black men in the South.
For your biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, you studied a newly discovered set of primary sources. As a historian, what was the most surprising thing you learned while examining the documents? How did they impact your understanding of Douglass?
Approximately 13 years ago, I was fortunate to meet Walter Evans and encounter his extraordinary collection of Douglass manuscripts, scrapbooks, and family letters. I spent many weeks in Savannah, where Walter lives, doing research on his dining room table. That collection covers the final third of Douglass’s life, 1865–1895, and it opened a window on to that stage of the aging man’s life as never before. For example, I learned a great deal about the complex nature of Douglass’s extended family of four surviving adult children and 21 grandchildren. They were a fascinating and conflicted group of kinfolk, just like many modern families.
Frederick Douglass was a skilled and gifted orator. In his speech “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” Douglass both gathers in and criticizes his white audience— “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? 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?” Why is it important this fourth of July to listen to Douglass’s words from this speech?
Douglass’s 4th of July speech of 1852 is the rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism. In a three-part structure, Douglass delivered a brilliant, Biblically inspired attack on American hypocrisy about slavery. He warned the country that if Americans did not face and solve the problem of slavery, as a system and an issue, it would destroy the nation. He wove this warning into unforgettable language. It is more than worth reading out loud today because the claims he makes about American hypocrisy still face us today in different if no less challenging forms.
Do you think Frederick Douglass was a patriot? How would Douglass describe patriotism?
Yes indeed, Douglass was a patriot. In my book, I call him a radical patriot. He deeply believed in the first principles of the Declaration of Independence—equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and the right of revolution. He believed in the creeds and principles; it was the practices that he fought against. Douglass believed the preserved and re-invented U.S. that emerged out of the Civil War and emancipation had given the nation and all of its people the opportunity to create a multi-racial, multi-religious country. He saw America as an idea—a nation made up of all the peoples of the earth, living under equality before the law.
Describe Frederick Douglass in three words.
Genius with words.
Thank you, Prof. Blight!
By Alice Stevenson