What Fourth of July Is to the Slave: Frederick Douglass' Speech

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Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery”. In the speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” Fredrick Douglass devotedly argues that the Fourth of July means nothing to the African Americans. Through his utilization of rhetorical devices to convey his passionate emotions on the subject, Douglass forcibly argues that slavery in America should be put to an end. Douglas uses devices such as rhetorical questions, diction, emotional appeal, aporia, and imagery to convey the pain of the slaves to readers and listeners.

Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist, human rights and women's rights activist, orator, author, journalist, publisher, and social reformer. Douglass was also successful in escaping slavery. “He envisioned America as an inclusive nation strengthened by diversity and free of discrimination.” (DigitalHistory) Frederick Douglass is invited to give a speech at an anti-slavery meeting during a Fourth of July celebration enlightening the citizens what the Fourth of July meant to men and women of color. (HistoryPlace) One of the major points in Douglass’ speech is how he exposed America for all their wrong doings during this time. “What have I or those I represent have to do with your national independence” “above your joy I hear the mournful wail of millions” “Rendered more …intolerable by the jubilant shouts” Frederick Douglass begins his speech by addressing “Mr. President, Friends, and Fellow Citizens.” Douglass then begins to apologize for being nervous in front of the large crowd he is speaking to. Douglass realizes that he has come a long way since slavery as he found this to be the perfect opportunity to argue the ongoing issue about slavery in America. Through a series of rhetorical questions, “What have I or those I represent…?”, The audience acknowledges that Douglass is representing people of his race who have not yet been freed and wants the listeners to reach out and focus on what is happening in America during this time period.

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The utilization of rhetorical questions and diction is very effective. The four questions that Douglass asks in the first paragraphs helps grab the attention of his audience. These questions add emphasis on the irony of a black man, a former slave giving a speech about a holiday that represents freedom. In addition, it shows the hypocrisy of the American people because they are celebrating freedom, while there are slaves hearing about this holiday, yet they are not free. However his “fellow citizens” are celebrating July, while thousands of slaves are grieving even more “under the weight of their heavy and grievous chains,” and often reminded of this Holiday by the “jubilant shouts” that accompany the Fourth of July. Douglass also states, “The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance” He finds this the appropriate moment to discuss the issue of slavery. Coming off aggressively, Frederick Douglass let’s his audience know that the idea of Fourth of July to the slaves was irrational and meant nothing.

Through aporia, Frederick Douglass often brings up other event that have happened. He mentions abolitionists including: Spooner, Goodell, Sewall, and Smith, who he takes their side believing the founding fathers attempted to eliminate slavery. He puts the signers of the Declaration of Independence on a pedestal, because they are the ones who bought freedom, liberty, and democracy to the land, assuring that slaves are men and should be entitled to because the Constitution states that “all men are created equal.” “'What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?' Douglass knows that he does not need to argue some points, such as slaves being humans, but he points it out anyway to further his statement. This emphasizes n the subject of slavery, people know that it is wrong to a certain extent.

The emotional appeal from this paper comes from Frederick Douglass once being enslaved. Douglass is speaking from experience a slavery is talked upon the audience though his perception of it. He was able to paint a picture of slavery by the words that came out of his mouthFrederick Douglass dominantly shows pathos in his paper. An example of pathos Douglas provides is when he states that “A day that reveals to, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” Frederick Douglass has been through slavery, escaped from it, and has the fear of being returned to it. Through these appeals, Douglass is able to attack the audience’s emotions by providing a sense of feeling for the enslaved people. He goes a long way to distance himself from the people he is presenting to, putting emphasis on the words, you and yours. 'Your 4th of July is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license...your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.' This creates the feeling of guilt and causes the audience to be uncomfortable. The audience starts to think deeply about how these people were treated so cruelly, and then begin to question themselves on why their country would hit such a low point in time. Frederick Douglass, overall, gave an effective speech. Douglass uses the history of American throughout his speech. He notes how young America is, which gives hope that it still has room to grow and learn from its mistakes. The amount of growth that Douglas has experienced since he excaped slavery is humbling. He immediately gains credibility from the start. Evidently, there were people who did not understand how slavery and this day of independence truly infuriated some people. “He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression” (RacismReviews)

Douglass ends his speech with the statement that he has been working to prove all along: The Fourth of July is a disgusting reminder to him and his people of the ongoing cruelty that America attempts to ignore how evil it is and tried its best to cover it up. While the ones that are blind to these doings rejoice, the ones who are oppressed feel sympathy for the colored people as they see how they really live. The speech is calling for a change in society. Douglas argues that change is all America can hope for and obscenities of the past cannot be undone, nor can the horror of the present continue. Slavery must be put to an end, the colored people cannot continue to live in such hardships while everyone else is celebrating freedom.

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