What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

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Frederick Douglass

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (or What to the Slave is the 4th of July?) was an hour-long speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 in Rochester New York.[1] According to historian James A. Colaiaco, "Douglass's oration would be the greatest abolition speech of the nineteenth century."[2]

The speech is widely taught in High school and college classes across the country.[3] Andrew S. Bibby, a professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University, argues that the true meaning of the speech has been lost over time with parts of the speech being left out.[3]

The speech has been partially given under the title The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro by some very well known Hollywood actors, such as James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover.

Glorious Liberty Document

One of the most frequently omitted parts of the speech is Douglass' assertion that the United States Constitution is a "GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT".(Douglass capitalized this himself)[4]

About this "Glorious Liberty Document", Douglass argued that:

Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.


Douglass had a somewhat well-known break with the Garrisonian wing of the Abolitionist movement, which included among other topics the Constitution.[5] William Lloyd Garrison was widely known to have believed that the Constitution was a "covenant with death" in regard to slavery.[6] Douglass, being an avid lifelong reader, decided that he would take the time to go back and read the original sources.

Once he read the original sources, there was no way Douglass could stand by the Garrisonians any longer. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote:

When I escaped from slavery, into contact with a class of abolitionists regarding the constitution as a slaveholding instrument, and finding their views supported by the united and entire history of every department of the government, it is not strange that I assumed the constitution to be just what their interpretation made it. I was bound, not only by their superior knowledge, to take their opinions as the true ones, in respect to the subject, but also because I had no means of showing their unsoundness. But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal, and the necessity imposed upon me of meeting opposite views from abolitionists in this state, I should in all probability have remained as firm in my disunion views as any other disciple of William Lloyd Garrison.
My new circumstances compelled me to re-think the whole subject, and to study, with some care, not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers, and duties of civil government, and also the relations which human beings sustain to it. By such a course of thought and reading, I was conducted to the conclusion that the constitution of the United States - inaugurated "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty" - could not well have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder, like slavery; especially, as not one word can be found in the constitution to authorize such a belief.[7]

Once Douglass read the actual history of the Constitution on his own, through his own original research and not limited to what others wanted him to read, he became a defender of the Constitution.[8]

See also


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