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Allusion in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Biblical Allusions: Douglass’s chief source of allusions in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” is the Bible. Alluding to biblical material was an intelligent strategy, since Douglass’s audience was composed largely of Christians, and even non-believers would have been familiar with the content of the Bible. Thus, when searching for a phrase to add gravity to his argument, Douglass turned to passages from the Bible, knowing such words would carry weight before a Christian crowd. Another reason the Bible served as a copious cache of allusions is that the Bible contains numerous slave narratives, and therefore has a great deal to say about the horrors of slavery. Douglass uses these narratives—the slaves following Moses out of Egypt, the Israelites imprisoned by the Babylonians—as historical precedents charged with both pathos and moral lucidity.

Allusion Examples in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? :

Text of Douglass's Speech

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""The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

By incorporating this phrase from Isaiah 59:1, Douglass creates an analogy between the strength of the Lord to deliver the exiled Israelites back to their homeland and the hope that slavery will perish. He ends the speech with renewed vigor, certain in the knowledge that as the lord is strong, so the foundation of slavery is weak.

"          "To palter with us in a double sense:               And keep the word of promise to the ear,               But break it to the heart."..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass alludes to Act V, Scene VIII of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this final act, Macduff challenges Macbeth to a duel and kills him. Before he dies, Macbeth considers committing suicide and acknowledges that the witches have deceived him with their doublespeak. Douglass empathizes with Macbeth because he feels as though, like the witches, the founding fathers employed doublespeak in the Constitution, specifically using ambiguous language in regards to slavery.

""I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;"..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass alludes to an editorial entitled “To the Public” written by William Lloyd Garrison, his friend and fellow abolitionist in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison wrote fervently about abolitionist efforts in his newspaper, The Liberator. By quoting Garrison, Douglass pays homage to his friend and the efforts of white abolitionists, many of whom constituted his audience.

""lame man leap as an hart."..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass argues that he will not celebrate Independence Day because doing so would be incompatible with his beliefs. He quotes Isaiah 35:6—which describes the mute learning to speak and the lame learning to leap—as an example of the magnitude of miracle required for Douglass, or anyone like him torn from the “chains of servitude,” to change their minds about how they feel about the 4th of July.

"          "Trust no future, however pleasant,               Let the dead past bury its dead;           Act, act in the living present,               Heart within, and God overhead."..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

From the start of this section, Douglass makes clear that he wants to speak about the present. In order to underscore his intentions, he includes the sixth verse from “A Psalm of Life,” written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). The poem encourages readers to live life to the fullest; this verse speaks specifically on the importance of living in the present, letting go of the past, and not worrying about the future.

"serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Continuing his tirade against the Christians complicit in the institution of American slavery, Douglass boldly claims that pro-slavery Christians are greater sources of infidelity—or lack of faith—than some of the leading atheist intellectuals. Among these, Douglass cites Thomas Paine (1737–1809), who published his radical views on religion in The Age of Reason; Voltaire (1694–1778), whose “Treatise on Tolerance” posited an open-ended approach to belief that rejected organized religion; and Henry Bolingbroke (1678–1751), who penned scathing attacks on the Christian church in his Letters on the Study of History. Douglass’s accusation that pro-slavery Christians “confirm[...] infidels” is a humorous oxymoron, for confirmation is the ritual reaffirmation of a Christian’s faith.

""mint, anise and cummin"..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass discusses the Christian community’s reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act. Fittingly, he quotes scripture to prove his point, drawing on a passage from Matthew 23:23. In the passage, Jesus Christ berates a group of worshippers for adhering to the details of religious law—to the point of paying taxes on their herbs, such as “mint, anise, and cummin”—while failing to appreciate the spirit of the law and to live a genuinely religious life. Douglass criticizes his contemporary Christians, suggesting that if the particulars of their religious practices were infringed on, they would be up in arms; yet the clearly unjust Fugitive Slave Act aroused no anger among them, despite their supposedly humanitarian values.

"   "Is this the land your Fathers loved,           The freedom which they toiled to win?           Is this the earth whereon they moved?           Are these the graves they slumber in?"..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass recites the opening stanza of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Stanzas for the Times,” penned in 1835. Whittier was a Quaker, a poet, and a staunch abolitionist. His “Stanzas” express the same mixture of disbelief, disappointment, and disillusionment that Douglass does throughout this speech. The poem’s central paradox is one that Douglass returns to again and again: the land on which America’s founders established a free nation is now overrun with slavery.

""By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this passage, Douglass recites the first six lines of Psalm 137, from the Bible. Psalm 137 is often titled “By the Rivers of Babylon” and tells of the Babylonian exile—the period in which a population of Jews from Jerusalem were held captive after being defeated by the Babylonians in 607 BCE. The psalm describes how the captors asked the exiled Jews to sing. Frederick Douglass recites this psalm in order to illustrate the similarity between his own situation—as an African American asked to give a Fourth of July speech to a white audience—and that of the Jewish captives asked to sing “in a strange land.”

"  "The evil that men do, lives after them,           The good is oft' interred with their bones."..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

These lines are drawn from Marc Antony’s famous speech in Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Douglass repurposes these lines, originally intended for the deceased Julius Caesar, in reference to George Washington. Specifically, Douglass suggests that the good deeds Washington accomplished during his life—freeing his slaves, for example—is undone by the pernicious acts of those who hypocritically align themselves with his legacy.

"Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here Douglass alludes to George Washington (1732–1799), who in his will ordered that his 123 slaves be set free upon the death of his wife Martha. One year after Washington’s death, Martha set the slaves free prematurely. Douglass uses the will to prove Washington’s virtue and, in turn, to illustrate the hypocrisy of contemporary Americans who consider Washington their father and yet continue to support the institution of slavery.

"Mammon..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The word “Mammon” derives from a number of ancient sources—the Latin mammona, the Aramaic mamona, and the Hebrew mamon—all of which mean “money.” In Douglass’s usage, Mammon refers to the demonic spirit of money. Mammon appears in the New Testament of the Bible as the pursuit of wealth in an abstract sense, but in the Middle Ages, Mammon came to be viewed as an actual devil who personifies greed. Douglass suggests that Independence Day is so pervasive that “even Mammon seems to have quitted his grasp on this day.”

"reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass makes an additional allusion to the actions of the American founders. He specifically praises how the founding fathers often “appeal[...] to heaven to attest their sincerity.” Douglass’s phrase is an interpolation of an important phrase from the Declaration of Independence, in which the founders claim their freedom while “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.”

"honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this passage, Douglass alludes to the Declaration of Independence and admires the qualities the American founders displayed therein. In particular, Douglass refers to the way the founders submitted their argument for independence “to a candid world,” allowing other nations and onlookers to observe their fight for freedom.

"since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In the biblical book of Exodus, Moses led a population of Israelite slaves out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into Canaan. The Egyptian Pharaoh and his army chased the Israelites as far as the Red Sea, where the waters, once parted, came crashing together to drown the Egyptians. Douglass chooses to allude to the Egyptian Pharaoh as a point of comparison for the tyranny of the British. The allusion is doubly apt in that the biblical tale subtly mirrors the present political situation in the United States around slavery.

"and to the signs, and to the wonders..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The phrase “signs and wonders” is a common motif in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. It surfaces repeatedly in descriptions of miraculous events. Douglass uses the phrase here in reference to the American Revolution, thereby suggesting its miraculous nature.

"This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass compares Independence Day to the annual Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression and slavery in Egypt. Douglass goes on to draw further comparisons to the story of the Jewish Exodus.

"You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you "hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal;..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass not only uses biblical scripture to illustrate American hypocrisy, but also he draws from the foundational documents of the country itself. This quote is from the Declaration of Independence, and Douglass condemns the beliefs of those who maintain “bondage,” or slavery, despite the actions and words of founders like Jefferson and Washington.

"You profess to believe "that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,"..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass again uses biblical scripture to point out the hypocrisy found among Christian Americans. Here, he quotes from the Book of Acts 17:26 to point out that, according to scripture, God made all nations of the same blood and that Christians are commanded to love one another. However, Douglass’s tone is accusatory because the social reality is that many claim to be virtuous Christians, but they “glory in [their] hatred” of those of different races.

"In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The passage that follows this line is from the biblical Book of Isaiah 1:13-17. In these lines, God condemns religious sacrifices and offerings, saying that the faithful’s “hands are full of blood.” The last line expresses a desire for the faithful to be better and purer of heart rather than simply performing perfunctory rites. Douglass uses this passage to condemn the actions of Christian hypocrites, which are “an abomination in the sight of God” and demand that they “cease to do evil, learn to do well,” and to that end abolish the institution of slavery.

""may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!"..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass employs a biblical allusion to Psalm 137 to emphasize the power of slavery’s injustice on his thoughts. This popular psalm is a regular part of many Judeo-Christian liturgies, and it emphasizes the commitment the faithful have to their God, going so far as to invoke punishment on the self should they fail to remember. For Douglass, since he cannot forget the “mournful wail of millions” of slaves, he uses the biblical allusion to make the sentiment accessible to his audience.

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