Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and How We Need to Think About the Past

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?Last week, I wrote about a small section of this speech, and today I want to expand that discussion some more, looking at what Douglass says about what we should do, or shouldn’t do, with the past. The entire speech, of course, focuses on America’s history, specifically the promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers proclaimed back in 1776. Seventy-six years later, in 1852, Douglass noted that America was not old, and that seventy six was “but a mere speck in the life of a nation.”

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISMBefore Douglass took to the stage in front of the Rochester Ladies’ Antislavery League, Rev. Robert R. Raymond read the Declaration of Independence. This recitation called upon the audience to think in historical terms, and Douglass’ speech does this as well. Douglass begins by humbly relaying his nervousness to the audience before turning to a history of America’s Independence from Britain. Here, Douglass rhetorically separates himself from the audience through the continual use of “you” and “your”: “your National Independence,” “your political freedom,” “your national life,” etc. This maneuver points out that America, for all of its lofty, egalitarian rhetoric, did not see Douglass, and African American, and others as citizens and equals with whites. Thus, the history being celebrated placed Douglass on the outside even though he, and others, helped to build America.

Douglass concludes his lengthy section on the Revolution and its aftermath by stating that others, who care more about that part of the nation’s history, have told the stories again and again, and the topic “form[s] the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.” Here, Douglass shifts the temporal focus away from the past to the present circumstances of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Northern church’s lack of condemnation regarding slavery, the internal slave trade, and other national atrocities related to the “peculiar institution.” Douglass calls for action in the present, and in so doing, makes us question what to do with the past.

The paragraph where Douglass makes the shift is worth quoting in full.

My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout — “We have Washington to our father.” — Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.

The evil that men do, lives after them,
The good is oft-interred with their bones.

Douglass begins with a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” (1838), a poem that calls upon the listener to live righteously for the present while not thinking about what will occur in the future or what happened in the past. The stanza that Douglass quotes specifically tells the listener to concern him or herself with the present, nothing more. Douglass continues with this sentiment by telling his audience that their “fathers have lived, died, and have done their work,” and that the audience must now do their own work.

America’s Founding Fathers did the work of creating a nation that condoned slavery, now the audience gathered in Rochester in 1852, and citizens across the nation, must work to deconstruct the system they erected in 1776. While Douglass tells his audience to forget the past, and to let it bury itself, he acknowledges that the prospect of that actually happening is not as easy as it sounds. He concludes the paragraph by talking about the reverence given to George Washington, a man who freed his slaves only right before he died. Like Burch in Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), “the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout–‘We have Washington to our father.'”  The identification becomes one of acceptance with slavery and institutions that maintain racial oppression.

5748-004-d905ed51Douglass challenges this identification noting that Washington’s “monument is built up by the price of human blood” that those traders bought and sold. He then concludes with two lines from Marc Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Eulogies, as Douglass notes earlier in the paragraph, are reserved for the living, thus the present. They may invoke the past, but their main focus is to comment on the current moment. Following Brutus’ oration, Marc Antony tells his audience that the evil deeds that men commit in their lives outlive them, while the good becomes buried with them in the tomb. Then, he proceeds to call into question two very important words that call for reverence: honor and ambition. Marc Antony calls Brutus honorable five times in the first part of the speech and forms of the word ambition appear seven times in relation to Caesar.

Marc Antony calls upon his audience to question the meaning of these words and whether or not the individuals he discusses actually embody them or not. Does Brutus embody the ideals conveyed by the word honorable? He conspired against Caesar and killed him. Does Caesar embody ambition? He refused the crown three times.  Taken in relation to Douglass’ speech, we need to question what is “honorable.” Is it honorable that Washington didn’t free his slaves until he was close to death? Was Washington ambitious for refusing to serve a second term?  Do the deeds of Washington and the other Founding Fathers live on in 1852? Do they continue to this day?

Douglass is not calling upon us to completely ignore the past and not contemplate the future. Rather, he is pointing out that the reverence we give to the past, as I have written about countless times over the past few months, needs to be questioned and examined. We need to question why we honor what we do and why we ignore what we ignore. History is a messy landscape full of vile and honorable things, and both affect us long after the perpetrators and revered cease to exist.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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One thought on “Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and How We Need to Think About the Past

  1. Pingback: African American Literature and the American Dream Syllabus | Interminable Rambling

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