This Day in History: Frederick Douglass, slavery, & the Constitution
On this day in 1838, Frederick Douglass makes his escape from slavery. He’d been a slave for about two decades, but that life was finally behind him. He would go on to become one of the most noted and respected leaders in the abolitionist movement.
Indeed, Douglass has been called “one of the most eloquent orators as well as profound thinkers of his time.” He wrote several autobiographies. He worked for abolitionist causes—and for women’s suffrage. He gave numerous speeches.
Perhaps the greatest of these was delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. Douglass had been invited to speak on July 4, but he chose to speak the next day instead. He felt it was hypocritical to participate in 4th of July celebrations while some Americans remained enslaved.
But there may have been another reason, too.
That July 5th just happened to be the 25th anniversary of a milestone: In 1827, 4,000 black New Yorkers had marched in a parade down Broadway, celebrating the end of slavery in that state.
Douglas’s July 5th speech addressed the inconsistencies between July 4th celebrations and the institution of slavery. An early portion of Douglass’s speech is often quoted in this regard:
“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. . . . 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.”
Douglass went on to detail some of the horrors of slavery, but then his speech took a surprising twist. It’s a twist that isn’t always fully reported upon.
“But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States,” Douglass told his audience. “It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe.” He named several lawyers who “have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery . . . .”
Douglass expressed his belief that too many people had come to erroneous conclusions about the Constitution and its connections to slavery. “In that instrument,” he said, “I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.”
Douglass was speaking more than a decade before slavery would finally be outlawed for good, but he remained hopeful.
“[N]otwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation,” he concluded. “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
One has to wonder what Douglass would think if he could see us now.
A Nation's Story: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (National Museum of African American History and Culture website)
Arlene Balkansky, “What, to the American Slave, Is Your 4th of July?” (Library of Congress; July 15, 2020)
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852) (reprinted HERE)
James Monroe Gregory, Frederick Douglass the Orator: Containing an Account of His Life; His Eminent Public Services; His Brilliant Career as Orator; Selections from His Speeches and Writings (1893)
Louise Mirrer et al., Happy Fifth of July, New York! (N.Y. Times, July 3, 2005)
Olivia B. Waxman, ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?': The History of Frederick Douglass' Searing Independence Day Oration (TIME; June 26, 2020)
Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato (Mitchell Cohen ed. 2018) (revised & expanded edition)