Analysis Pages

Historical Context in What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Slavery in America: The institution of American slavery predates the founding of the United States by more than a century. In the 17th century, the traders of the transatlantic slave trade began to sell their wares to the American colonists. The labor these slaves provided came to constitute a pillar of the economy—the largest pillar, some historians say. Slavery was particularly important in the Southern states. Cotton, a cash crop sown and harvested by slaves, became the South’s largest industry and export of the 19th century. Because the Northern states had begun to eliminate slavery in the 1770s, tensions between the North and South increased during the nation’s first century. In the 1850s, debates erupted over the place of slavery in the newly annexed western states as well as over the freedom of runaway slaves. It was in this political climate that Douglass delivered “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association in 1852.

Abolitionism in America: The American abolitionist movement had its roots in British abolitionism, just as American slavery had its roots in Britain’s slave institutions. In both Britain and the United States, abolitionists represented a unique intersection of religiously oriented reformers—many of them Quakers—who viewed slavery as a violation of Christian ethics and Enlightenment-inspired rationalists who viewed slavery as a crime against humanity. The legislative battle for abolition advanced more quickly in Britain, where slave trading was banished in 1807 and slavery itself eradicated by 1833. The process in the United States was significantly slower because of the extent to which slavery had spread. Whereas Britain had freed some 800,000 slaves, the population of American slaves was 4 million at its peak in the early 1860s. While abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison argued the evils of slavery from their Northern podiums, it became increasingly clear that the South, growing richer by the day from the work of slaves, would not budge. A decade after Douglass delivered “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” in 1852, the Civil War was underway. As it turned out, it took cannon fire and bloodshed, not ink and oratory alone, to abolish slavery from the United States.

The Life of Frederick Douglass: Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and through his childhood and adolescence, lived and worked on plantations in the Chesapeake Bay region. Two seminal events of his early years were the beginning of his education—his first owner’s wife taught him to read—and the physical and emotional abuse he experienced as a slave. At age twenty, Douglass successfully escaped to the North on a train, thus launching himself into his adult life. He settled in Boston, befriended like-minded opponents of slavery, such as William Lloyd Garrison, and soon devoted himself entirely to the cause of abolition. In 1845, he published his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which garnered a great deal of attention in both the United States and Great Britain, placing Douglass in the spotlight as a leading abolitionist. In the ensuing years, he started an abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and became a prolific essayist and sought-after orator, touring the United States and Britain. Throughout his life, he turned his attention to numerous causes, including women’s rights and reform of the political system. However, his primary concern remained abolition and civil rights for African Americans.

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

Text of Douglass's Speech

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"God speed the year of jubilee  ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Garrison’s triumphant poem served as an appropriate epilogue to Douglass’s two-hour-long speech. The poem epitomized many of Douglass’s ideas about the need to break the chains of slavery and tear down tyranny. With the repetition of the phrase “God speed,” Garrison sends good wishes to his audience in their fight to end slavery. According to John W. Blassingame, a scholar on American slavery, these words invigorated the audience, specifically the abolitionists and the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association. After Douglass finished reciting the poem and began collecting his papers, the audience broke the silence with “a universal burst of applause.”

"Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass views the interconnectedness of the industrial world as a sign of progress, one that perhaps foretells the potential for this young nation. He subtly points to some of the major technological strides of the mid-19th century: the steam engine, which made travel by steam locomotion or steamship a mere matter of days; and the telegraph, developed during the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse, which could transmit messages from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other through electrical signals.

"Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. ..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass remains impartial—as he often does—when he considers the debate over whether the Constitution supports slavery. Americans have long debated how the Constitution should be interpreted. On one hand, it can be read as an anti-slavery document because it excludes the word “slave.” On the other hand, it upholds the Three-Fifths Compromise, which neither considers slaves citizens nor grants them any human rights. Fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example claimed the document was “an agreement with Hell.” To Douglass, the matter is inconsequential. He praises the document nevertheless and believes it lays the proper groundwork for the nation to progress.

"Senator Berrien..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Unlike Vice President Dallas, US Senator of Georgia and Attorney General to President Andrew Jackson, John M. Berrien (1781-1856), supported states’ rights above federal law. By pointing to a variety of politicians of his day, Douglass asserts that no matter one’s political associations, most believed in the supremacy of the Constitution and in an individual’s right to form an opinion on the document.

"Ex-Vice-President Dallas..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

George Mifflin Dallas (1792-1864) served as Mayor of Philadelphia and 11th Vice President to James K. Polk. As a member of the Democratic Party, specifically the “Family party” faction, Dallas advocated for an active federal government and believed in the power of the Constitution as a “plain and intelligible” document, meaning that all men, no matter their age or rank, had the capacity to read and understand it.

"Without this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Between 1852 and 1870, Napoleon III (1808–1873), nephew of Napoleon I, ruled as emperor of France. Douglass denigrates the French authoritarian government and the insecure rights of the French as subordinate. He argues that what separates Americans from the French is their right to form their own opinions on the meaning of the Constitution. This differentiation—the ability to think and speak freely—is what separates democracy from dictatorship.

"In that instrument 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...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass condemns Northerners who form a pro-slavery perspective from their reading of the Constitution. Since the Constitution does not explicitly mention the terms “slavery, slaveholding, nor slave,” Douglass denies that the document could uphold slavery. The instrument—meaning the Constitution—does not “sanction” slavery; rather, it sanctions liberty.

"Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The four men Douglas cites—Spooner (1808-1887), Goodell (1792-1878), Sewall (1799-1888), and Smith (1797-1874)—were all abolitionists. Similarly to Douglass, they wrote at length about one of the major conundrums of the Constitution: despite the greatness of the founding fathers, they nonetheless created a document that arguably harbored pro-slavery sentiments. Douglass tries to grapple with this idea and concedes that although the founding fathers were indeed honest, they were nevertheless “the veriest imposters.”

"Albert Barnes..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Albert Barnes (1798–1870) was a Presbyterian theologian, preacher, and writer. His “Notes on the New Testament” and his “Scriptural Views of Slavery” were widely distributed and read by the time of this speech. Barnes, like Douglass, wrote about the codependency between Christianity and slavery, specifically how hypocritical Christian values established and sustained slavery.

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

Here, Douglass refers to the Africa Squadron, a unit of the US Navy in operation from 1819 to 1861 which aimed to guard the Western coast of Africa in order to suppress the transatlantic slave trade. By mentioning this squadron, he highlights the hypocrisy of the US government, which prevents intercontinental slavery but still maintains the domestic slave trade.

"Ex-Senator Benton..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), a United States Senator from Missouri, was a proponent of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was predestined to expand within North America. Although early in his career Benton was pro-slavery, during the 1840s he changed his mind on the matter and fought to keep slavery within the nation’s current borders.

"make men brutes..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This phrase speaks to the longstanding stereotype during this period of the “black brute.” Blacks were often conveyed in cartoons and caricatures as bestial, barbaric, and subhuman creatures. Douglass argues that this image of the black man is a gross misconception.

"It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

As a result of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, Virginia state laws further restricted black people’s access to basic education, as well as their right to assemble and preach. The state feared that a literate black population might congregate and replicate the 1831 rebellion. Just around this time, Douglass, then a teenager, was secretly learning to read and write. He lays out this arduous process in Chapter Seven of his autobiography [Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/narrative-life/read/chapter-7#root-75209-1/92565). At first, he learns from his “tender-hearted” mistress, Mrs. Auld. However, she eventually stops because slavery, he writes, has hardened her. He then learns to read and write in miscellaneous ways, like bribing poor boys with bread in exchange for tutoring or copying words from a dictionary.

"while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Historians Howard Allen and Jerome Chubb maintain Douglass’s claim that the court systems disproportionately harmed black people; however, they cite slightly different numbers. For example, 1850 Virginia state law condemned whites to death for only four crimes, including murder, treason, and two counts of arson. In contrast, blacks could face the death penalty for sixty-eight offenses. Nevertheless, Douglass’s argument speaks to the overwhelming disparities between black and whites in the Virginian court system.

""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.

"To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here, Douglass praises the Patriots of the American Revolution who fought for their cause despite how they were perceived. With this exclamation, he calls the audience to act as the Patriots did and to stand up for the anti-slavery cause. In its resonant phrasing, Douglass’s language in this passage alludes to a quotation from Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”

"I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Corinthian Hall, located in Rochester, NY, was built in 1849 by architect Henry Searle. The hall hosted several renowned abolitionists and women’s rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. During the 1870s and 1880s, Corinthian Hall served as the site for conventions lead by the National Liberal League and the New York State Freethinkers Association. The Hall was destroyed in 1898, rebuilt in 1904, and finally demolished in 1928.

"Mr. President..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

On July 5th, 1852, Douglass delivered his speech in Corinthian Hall before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association and a crowd of influential politicians, including President Millard Fillmore. After Zachary Taylor’s death in 1850, Vice President Millard Fillmore resumed office until 1853. Fillmore’s chief contribution to the presidency was the Compromise of 1850, which aimed to stave off an impending civil war, resolve issues regarding slavery, and settle territorial disputes after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The Compromise consisted of five Congressional bills, including an amended Fugitive Slave Act. This act, which attracted a great deal of criticism from Douglass, dictated that runaway slaves in the North must be returned to their owners.

"The LORDS of Buffalo, the SPRINGS of New York, the LATHROPS of Auburn, the COXES and SPENCERS of Brooklyn, the GANNETS and SHARPS of Boston, the DEWEYS of Washington, and other great religious lights of the land..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass redirects his anger from the Southern “doctors of divinity” who protect slavery to the prominent ministers and theologians of the North. To avoid any ambiguity, he lists them all by name: John Chase Lord (1805–1877), Gardiner Spring (1785–1873), Leonard E. Lathrop (1796–1857), Samuel Hanson Cox (1793–1880), Ichabod Spencer (1798–1854), Ezra Stiles Gannett (1801–1871), Daniel Sharp (1783–1853), and Orville Dewey (1794–1882). Douglass accuses these ministers of spreading “a fire so deadly upon our ranks.” As the paragraph reaches its conclusion, Douglass reveals the nature of their error: teaching Northerners and abolitionists that they “ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.” Such a sentiment runs counter to Douglass’s philosophy, which is to fight for what is ethically correct, regardless of the laws and dictates of the government.

"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.

"and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass denounces the Christian church in the United States for its position on slavery. As Douglass sees it, the church is worse than “indifferent to the wrongs of the slave” because it “takes sides with the oppressors.” While Douglass’s assertion that the entire Christian population supported slavery is an exaggeration, he is correct to point out the great extent to which slavery supporters used Christian values to justify their position.

"for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The abolitionist movement—the “antislavery agitation” Douglass refers to—began in the 1830s in Northern churches and among Northern politicians. They advocated for the immediate emancipation of all slaves and an end to racial segregation and discrimination. However, since slavery was still legal, those who participated in the internal slave trade often transported slaves under cover of night to avoid obviously advertising their industry for fear of repercussions.

"another Scotland would be added to the history of religious liberty..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In his discussion of the church’s neglect of the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass draws on the history of the Scottish Reformation, which took place between 1559 and 1560. Douglass argues that if American Christian groups were to acknowledge the stark immorality of the Fugitive Slave Act, they would be so moved against it that they would be willing to defect from the common parishes and establish a new church with purer values, just as John Knox and the Scottish Calvinists did in 1559.

""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.

"An American JUDGE GETS TEN DOLLARS FOR EVERY VICTIM HE CONSIGNS to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this passage, Douglass expresses his outrage over one particular stipulation set forth by the Fugitive Slave Act. Section 8 of the act offers federal commissioners monetary incentives for handing over the captured African American to the claimant:

...in all cases where the proceedings are before a commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery….

These cash incentives swayed the decisions of the commissioners, who sent 96.8% of the tried African Americans to the claimant.

"Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment's warning, hurried away in chains, and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here Douglass refers to the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act dictated that slaves who fled to the North were still considered captive by law and thus were to be returned to their owners. Douglass cites an estimation that forty African Americans were captured in the North and sent to slavery between 1850 and 1852. Modern studies indicate that between 1850 and 1860, 343 African Americans were caught and tried by commissioners, of whom 332 were sent to slavery in the South.

"By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Here Douglass refers to the Compromise of 1850. The compromise infuriated abolitionists because it violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which, as Douglass notes, established the Mason-Dixon line along the 36th parallel, prohibiting slavery in the North and legalizing it in the South. The 1850 Compromise allowed slavery in newly annexed states, even those—like California—north of the Mason-Dixon line. Millard Fillmore, the president who had backed the compromise, was in attendance at Douglass’s speech and likely felt this recrimination.

"Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass was correct in his assertion about the thriving nature of the slave trade. Though the volume of the transatlantic slave trade from Africa dwindled in the 1850s, the internal slave trade flourished and the price of slaves doubled in the decade following Douglass’s speech. In 1852, the average price of a slave was $450; by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, that number was close to $1000.

"It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year, by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass addresses the economic enormity of American slavery. While Douglass gestures at the scale of the institution with the mention of the “millions[...] pocketed every year,” he does not cite statistics. According to contemporary Civil War scholar David W. Blight, by 1860 there were more millionaires in the lower Mississippi Valley—all of them slaveholders—than in the rest of the United States. The four-million slaves in the South were worth a combined $3.5 billion, collectively making them the largest financial asset in the US economy. Slaves were more valuable than all of the nation’s industrial manufacturing and railroads put together. In retrospect, slavery was an economic issue, not a theological one, and Douglass suspected this truth as early as 1852, though he lacked the figures to illustrate it.

"that our doctors of divinity are mistaken?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Many of slavery’s staunchest supporters in the South used religious arguments to defend the institution. Here Douglass alludes to these religiously trained defenders, many of whom were “doctors of divinity” who used biblical scholarship to argue for the sanctity of slavery. These scholars used textual evidence, including Abraham’s ownership of slaves and the commandment that “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s[...] male or female servant.” One of the best-known Biblical defenses of slavery was “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery,” published in 1857 by George Armstrong, a doctor of divinity. Douglass saw no validity in such argumentation.

"Is that a question for Republicans?..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

At the time of Douglass’s speech, and throughout the 19th century, the Republican party was the progressive force in United States politics. On the most basic level, Republicans valued strong centralized governance and consistent rights and regulations for all Americans. The more progressive Republicans, known as the “Radical Republicans” from the 1850s through the 1870s, valued social change. Many members of Douglass’s audience were such progressives, pushing for abolition and equal rights for women and African Americans at a time when those causes were largely ignored in Washington. Douglass, speaking of the evils of slavery, asks, “Is that a question for Republicans?” The question is rhetorical—Republicans know the answer.

"  "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.

"for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham to our father," when they had long lost Abraham's faith and spirit...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The “children of Jacob” refers broadly to the Jewish people. According to the biblical Book of Genesis, Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Douglass makes the point here that Jewish people proudly wear their relation to Abraham—Jacob’s grandfather and the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. Douglass uses these claims as a comparison to the behavior of his contemporaries in the United States who boast of their relations to the nation’s fathers without properly living up to the ideals they set forth.

"Sydney Smith..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Sydney Smith (1771–1845) was an English preacher, activist, and moral philosopher. He became well known in London society during the first half of the 19th century for his rousing orations and sermons. His politics were highly progressive and similar to those of Douglass; Smith advocated for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery at a time when those causes were considered radical. Douglass cites Smith for an observation the preacher once made about how people often praise their ancestors in order to excuse their own faults.

"We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this sentence, Douglass clarifies the purpose of his broad interest in historical events. By his own word, he discusses history solely to “make it useful to the present.” As the subject of his speech becomes increasingly clear, so do Douglass’s references to the past take on an increasingly focused role—to elucidate the problem of American slavery.

"guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass acknowledges a counterargument in this section, claiming that his opposition believes that slavery is “guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution.” While Article I of the Constitution does contain the three-fifths compromise regarding taxation and representation for the states, Douglass is correct to note that there is no explicit sanction of slavery within the “glorious liberty document.”

"lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass describes the founding American principles of justice and freedom using the metaphor of a “corner-stone” upon which the superstructure—the part of a building or organization that rises above its foundation—of the American nation is built. In a twist of either irony or coincidence, the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens would deliver the famous “Cornerstone Speech” nine years later in 1861, just weeks before the start of the Civil War. Stephens uses the cornerstone as a metaphor but to an opposite end, claiming that slavery is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. These similar but opposing uses of the word reveal the clashing values of the Union and Confederacy.

"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.

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

The noun “vociferations” refers to loud utterances and outcries. It comes from the Latin root vox, which means “voice.” Douglass uses the word to describe the pleas of the American tories to give up all thought of revolution and remain with the crown.

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

During the American Revolution, the “tories” were the American loyalists to the British Crown who resisted the revolutionary actions of the patriots. Douglass cites tories as one notable example of the variety of conservatively minded people who, in any historical era or event, will align themselves with the reigning authority or status quo. In British politics, the Tory party has been the active conservative party since the 17th century.

"Oppression makes a wise man mad...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass makes the bold statement that “oppression makes a wise man mad.” This statement means two things. First, oppression and despotism can aggravate even the most prudent and rational individuals. Second, the forces of oppression motivate the wisest people into action, for the wise recognize when an authority or government needs to be fought against or replaced. In such a case, “mad[ness]” is righteous. Douglass cites the American founders as examples of wise men in whose state of madness “the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born.”

"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.

"the distance between this platform and the slave plantation..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Frederick Douglass wrote of his experiences as a slave and of his escape to freedom in his 1845 memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass’s memoir became a key text in the abolitionist movement and launched Douglass into his role as an orator, reformer, and intellectual.

"William Lloyd Garrison..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Abolitionist and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) created and managed The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, from 1831 to 1865. In addition to his newspaper, Garrison wrote and published essays, poetry, and the preface to the 1845 version of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass. Garrison’s poem that follows is titled “Triumph of Freedom.”

"the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In 1852, Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855) ruled the Russian Empire; Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg (1800–1852), the Austrian Empire. These men are named “crowned headed tyrants” because both suppressed revolutionary movements in their respective empires in the middle of the 19th century. As a nation built on revolution, many Americans would have condemned the actions of such foreign governments.

"(as embodied in the two great political parties)..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The 19th century saw multiple political parties control Congress and the presidency. In 1852, the two main political parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. However, President Millard Fillmore, the last Whig to hold that office, lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce. Interestingly, Douglass presciently notes that the country has embodied its politics in “two great political parties,” a convention that became the norm with the election of Abraham Lincoln and the establishment of the Republican party to rival the Democrats.

"your republican politics..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

When Douglass says “republican,” he is not referring to a political party; rather, he is referring to the qualities of a republic, a government marked by the power its citizens have to vote. In continuing to point out hypocrisy, Douglass turns to the “flagrantly inconsistent” policies of the mid-19th century. He continued to challenge inconsistencies in legislation, and in his 1866 essay “Reconstruction,” he expressed his belief that consistency in law and application thereof is necessary for a liberated nation.

"my esteemed friend..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

This unnamed “esteemed friend” is white Baptist minister R. R. Raymond, an active abolitionist, who supported calls to protest the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850.

"Austin Woldfolk..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

As Douglass notes, this American slave trader maintained an office in Baltimore. In addition to buying and selling slaves, he gained notoriety for selling Douglass’s aunt.

"New Orleans..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In 1808, the United States banned international slave trading. However, as Douglass notes, the institution of internal slave trading continued to be profitable. As a popular shipping port for cotton, the city of New Orleans also served as one of the main locations where slaves were bought and sold, and families divided.

"and establish themselves on the western coast of Africa!..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass refers to a movement in the 19th century that many–mostly whites–saw as a solution to the issues presented by freed slaves: job competition, housing, and miscegenation. This was known as the Back-to-Africa movement, and support for it grew after Charles Mercer founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, whose members included philanthropists, abolitionists, and slave owners. James Monroe was a notable member, and the capital of Liberia, a nation that began as a settlement for the ACS’s efforts, is named after him: Monrovia.

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

The noun “despotism” refers to the rule of an absolute monarch or authority. In such systems, the despot possesses complete power over the citizenry and abuses the power of the state for personal gain. In his 1866 speech “Reconstruction,” Douglass uses this term extensively. He advocates for a consistent federal doctrine but cautions against the abuses of power that come with despotic governments.

"THE PRESENT...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this version of the speech, section titles are included for thematic breaks in subject matter. Douglass did not speak these titles aloud to his audience; they were added in later publications.

"Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In his 1866 essay “Reconstruction,” Douglass condemns the political skirmishing taking place in Washington and declares that “the occasion demands statesmanship.” Here, Douglass praises the founders’ statesmanship because they were able to look beyond their own concerns and envision best course for the country in the long term. In Douglass’s view, effective politicians and policies are long-term, consistent, and serve the interests of the entire citizenry.

"Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

In this paragraph, Douglass recalls the simple beginnings of the American nation: a small, scattered population with a limited military. By ordering and disciplining “steam nor lightning,” Douglass refers to the advent of industrialization in the early 19th century, which brought about new technologies such as steam locomotives and electrical lighting.

"The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Regarding the Declaration of Independence, Douglass calls on his audience to support its principles in any and all situations. This is a calculated rhetorical move. In invoking the declaration, Douglass subtly reminds his audience of its key phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In so doing, he makes a logos appeal to provide a logical foundation for the his criticism of the hypocrisy facing the nation.

""Resolved, That these united colonies are,..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass quotes from the Lee Resolution, which was written a few days prior to the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson includes most of this passage in the conclusion of the declaration, as it states in the clearest terms the severing of ties between the American colonies and Great Britain.

"You were under the British Crown...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Great Britain maintained colonies in North America for nearly two-hundred years. The predominant culture of the American colonies was British, and the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies convivial for much of the time. Douglass’s choice of the nation being “under” the rule of Great Britain emphasizes Britain’s subjugation of the colonies—an imbalance in power that led to the colonies’ declaring independence.

"that she..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Douglass refers to America as a “she”—a feminine pronoun—rather than an “it,” which is more conventional for the names of countries today. Douglass’s pronoun use reflects conventions at the time, when many people referred to their nations as their “motherland.”

"The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times;..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

While advising optimism in America’s youth, Douglass notes that “the eye of the reformer” sees anger and injustice. The mid-19th century was notable not only for the Abolition movement, of which Douglass was a part, but also the Women’s Rights movement, which many consider to have begun at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered her “Declaration of Sentiments.” Douglass was also in attendance and a fervent supporter who signed Stanton’s declaration after it was delivered.

"There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon...."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

Despite the hope that the young country has, Douglass notes that problems still affect the nation, which he addresses thoroughly later in the speech. While slavery had been a contentious issue since the country’s founding, the visual imagery of “dark clouds which lower above the horizon” speaks to the growing political instability between the free and slave-owning states, which would culminate in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War.

"the Republic of America is now 76 years old..."   (Text of Douglass's Speech)

The United States of America formally declared itself a nation on July 4, 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass reminds his audience of the age of the nation, which he considers not only young but also fortunate, as young nations can more easily grow and change.

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