Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, then and now

On July 1st, 1889, Frederick Douglass was appointed as the next U.S. Minister Resident and Consul General, Republic of Haiti by US Republican President Benjamin Harrison.  Douglass arrived in Port-au-Prince on this day to serve as U.S. Minister to Haiti. He was minister to Haiti until 1891.  Known for his oratory, it is said that Frederick Douglass’ experience in Haiti added clarity to his vision, and is reflected in his speeches..    Le Flambeau Foundation, Inc.

Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, then and now: A Q&A with David Harris

Harvard Law Today, Interview with David Harris, June 28, 2019

In an Independence Day address in 1852, abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass famously asked a gathering in Rochester, New York “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Answering his own question, it is a day, he said, “that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Douglass’ speech laid bare the hypocrisy of American ideals of freedom at a time when millions were living in Constitutionally-sanctioned bondage across the United States.

On July 2nd, people from across Massachusetts will gather at noon on Boston Common near the State House for the 11th annual public reading of Douglass’s historic address. Harvard Law Today recently interviewed David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, the event’s cosponsor, about the public reading and the continued relevance of Douglass’ words.

Harvard Law Today: Can you tell me a little bit about Douglass’ speech? What did he say and in what context?

David Harris: Douglass was known for his oratory and this speech is no exception. It is actually quite long—we use an abridged version for our readings—but despite its length it is at once riveting and concise. As with any great oration, Douglass builds to his point, which is to distinguish between the spirit of celebration typically surrounding the holiday and the misery suffered by enslaved people on that day and every day. He begins by praising the young nation and its origins in righteous protest against oppression by a tyrannical monarch. “It is,” he declares, “the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.”

In doing so he sets the stage to distinguish the holiday for his audience and establishes the gulf between those in his audience and those who remain in bondage.  To read the full interview click here.

To view the 2020 Virtual Reading Event interview click here.

To read the July 4th speech click here.

To read the speech presented at Haitian Pavilion Dedication Ceremonies, at Chicago World Fair, 1893 click here