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David Blight: Frederick Douglass's Great 4th of July Oration

David W. Blight is Class of '54 Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale University. He is the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Race and"Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" (2001) and the forthcoming"What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Frederick Douglass's Greatest Speech."

In March 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in Boston. By June, 14 steam presses ran day and night to produce enough copies to meet the unprecedented demand for the antislavery novel that changed the imaginative landscape of America's struggle over slavery. It is in this context of the astonishing popularity of Stowe's great novel that Frederick Douglass, the 34-year-old black reformer and the country's most conspicuous former slave, delivered his speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" If Uncle Tom's Cabin is the fictional masterpiece of American abolitionism, a book Abraham Lincoln would later acknowledge as powerful enough to" cause this big war," then Douglass's Fourth of July address is abolition's rhetorical masterpiece. In style and substance, no 19th century American ever offered a more poignant critique of America's racial condition than Douglass did on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in his adopted hometown, Rochester, N.Y.

The summer of 1852 was a time of great tension in the nation and in Douglass's own life. For nearly two years, free blacks had defied the hated Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. Massive protest meetings condemned a law that denied the right of habeas corpus and trial by jury to alleged fugitive slaves, as well as threatened the kidnapping of free people of color into slavery. Now, under the American flag, said Douglass, blacks could feel"no protection," only"danger, trials, bitter mockery." So deep was the fear in northern black communities that hundreds fled to Canada, causing what Douglass described as"a dark train going out of the land, as if fleeing from death."

By 1852, Douglass had converted from the moral suasionist strategies of abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to political abolitionism and the possible uses of violence to overthrow slavery. Douglass was struggling financially; his newspaper, Frederick Douglass' Paper, survived only on philanthropy, and he could hardly support his growing family on meager lecturers' fees. At the time, the place of a radical black abolitionist in America's future was altogether uncertain.

In these circumstances Douglass crafted a speech in response to the invitation of the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. As was the tradition in black communities of New York state, Douglass insisted on speaking on the 5th and not the 4th of July. Before nearly 600 people who paid the 121/2c admission, Douglass rose as orator of the day after a reading of the Declaration of Independence by a local minister. ...

Read entire article at Time