Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

In a searing indictment of the nation’s contradictory Revolutionary origins in slavery and freedom, Frederick Douglass called attention to the limits (and promise) of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in a Fourth of July speech delivered on 5 July 1852 in Rochester, New York, before a racially mixed audience of approximately 600 people. The best known and most influential African American leader of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, and in 1841 was appointed a lecturing agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. His widely read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass appeared in 1845. Following a British tour, during which his freedom was purchased, Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and commenced a career in journalism and abolitionism. He was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and during the 1850s sought to develop ways to help the free blacks to elevate themselves in America. Whitfield admired Douglass, wrote letters to his newspapers, and attended his 1853 Rochester convention. Although he broke with Douglass later that year and supported Delany’s emigrationism, Whitfield shared Douglass’s belief that slavery in the U.S. contradicted the nation’s founding ideals. In that respect, there is much in common with Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, which Whitfield surely knew and admired, and Whitfield’s America.

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