What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July
In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited by the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society to speak at their Fourth of July celebration. As a very outspoken orator during the rise of the anti-slavery movement, he was well-known for his rousing speeches castigating the practice of slavery and had been doing so for over a decade. Douglass uses this opportunity to reveal to his audience the hypocrisy of not only their invitation but what was occurring throughout the nation as a whole in a speech that later became known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In this address, Frederick Douglass weaves and layers a multitude of rhetorical methods, including the use of biblical references and quotes, a recurring humility, compelling arguments supported by other well-known and educated rhetors, and both historical and present examples of events. With these he appeals to his audience and the nation to face the injustices present in a democracy clinging to the practice of slavery.
One of the most common tools of rhetor that Frederick Douglass’ employs in his performance is recurring displays of humility in order to disarm his audience at key points in his delivery. This is evident when he prefaces his grand depiction of the path to America’s independence by stating that, “with little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together” (197). By doing this, the audience is predisposed to forgive any perceived slights which is key to Douglass’ strategy of painting himself as a humble patriot who firmly believes in the promise of a young nation while addressing those inconsistencies which he views as a threat to its youthful promise. With their sympathies in hand, he is able to lead them through a recounting of the historic events leading up to America’s freedom and instill in them a euphoric pride which he reveals to be abhorrently misplaced and accuses them of “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony” (199). This recounting of the steps that led to the colonist’s separation from Tyrannical England allowed Douglass to successfully create a parallel between the struggles of the American revolutionist and the present day slaves. The use of such a poignant parallel as America’s independence increases Frederick Douglass’ ethos and supports his emotional appeals to the audience.
Another key strategy in Douglass’ speech is his extensive use of biblical references and scripture to support his arguments throughout the speech. This serves chiefly to help strengthen his ethos and identify him as a strong, educated Christian thus protecting his image as he lays the majority of the blame for slavery in America on the Church, claiming that “they convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty…” (207). In separating God from the institution of the Church he is able to effectively attack the Church for its behavior without alienating the Christian men and women to whom he wishes to appeal to. This delineation then becomes the foundation for one of his concluding arguments that the pro-slavery argument claiming that to be “anti-slavery” is to be “anti-church” be categorically rejected (209).
The debunking of this pro-slavery argument is part of a larger strategy employed by Douglass in which he subtly addresses popular pro-slavery arguments throughout his address and then refutes them. He utilizes different methods for accomplishing this, and in sticking with his humble delivery, aims to avoid a simple debate of pro- versus anti-slavery platforms. This method succeeded in keeping the logos of his rhetoric focused on the hypocrisy of the existence of slavery in a democratic America. He does, however, reference his opposition’s arguments by saying that, “…I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued” in order to assert that their arguments are irrelevant (201). This is a particularly effective way for Douglass to address and dismiss their arguments without entering in to the ready debate.
Addressing the inconsistencies of the Church’s actions compared with its teaching of what proper Christian behavior should be is just one of the many logically presented examples of hypocrisy Douglass uses to support his position. His thinly-veiled recriminations of such hypocrisy include the American public’s remonstrations of the foreign slave trade “denounced with burning words, from the high places of the nation, as an execrable traffic” while lauding the internal slave trade (203). His lengthy recriminations on the topic ensure that there is little room for argument regarding the duplicitous nature of the internal slave trade. He also details the inconsistencies of the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law in order to continue his dissertation on the hypocrisies present in his audience’s everyday lives. These examples from Douglass force the audience to compare the national pride he incited with the burning accusations now brought against them.
All of Frederick Douglass’ points on the inconsistencies of public opinion and his attack on the church could easily be viewed as common anti-slavery jargon through the same disregard that allowed for an “internal” slave trade. His understanding of this danger, however, is clear by the order in which he chooses to structure his appeal and supply his audience with international examples supporting his stance near the end. His sarcastic accounts of American’s outcries of injustice on behalf of the people enduring in Russia, Austria, Ireland, Hungary and France serve to significantly strengthen his cogency. For example, Douglass declares that “one is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement, and that occupied by the churches in England” to show that America is surely not the first to be faced with the decision of whether or not to endorse slavery (209). This is a particularly poignant example, given the fresh sense of persecutions Americans felt at the hands of England and Douglass’ implied assertion that America is now guilty of exponentially worse behavior.
The most successful strategy employed in this speech, however, is not the use of any singularly exceptional argument but bracketing these scathing arguments in hope and praise. In assailing his audience with a recounting of the birth of America he shares with his audience his pride and belief in the foundation of America serving to evoke positive emotions in his audience. By closing with remarks of hope, he is able to make subtle remarks on the country’s “obvious tendencies of age" in order to postulate that “there are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery” (212). This careful bracketing of such scorching accusations allows for a much more empathetic view of Frederick Douglass’s passionate plea for the abolishment of slavery. Without softening his appeal, it is likely his logical, well-founded arguments would have encountered the blind pride of an insulted audience and fallen on deaf ears.
This masterfully crafted speech will stand the test of time as one of the most effective rhetorical pieces of the anti-slavery movement and its carefully considered logos was sure to impact even the staunchest abolitionists in attendance. The true wonder of Frederick Douglass’ work is that upon close review one can see how truly capable he was of reducing the arguments to their core and compiling them back in to the complete picture. When the concerns expressed by Douglass are similarly reduced- such as equality among all mankind and the expectation that one act in accordance with their beliefs- their ability to endure is unquestionable.
Douglass, Frederick. "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July." Language Matters. 2010 ed. Southlake: Fountainhead, n.d. 192-214. Print.
Cited: Douglass, Frederick. "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July." Language Matters. 2010 ed. Southlake: Fountainhead, n.d. 192-214. Print.