Paradox and Patriotism: What to the Slave is The Fourth of July?

On July 5, 1852, runaway slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a stinging speech on celebrations of American patriotism in the midst of slavery, declaring “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He gave the speech in Rochester, NY at a holiday celebration that is now forgotten in much of popular American memory–July Fifth, the day free blacks in New York celebrated the abolition of slavery in the state, first set in motion in 1799. Disallowed from marching and participating on July 4th with fellow whites (singly because they were black), African-Americans in New York seized July 5th as the “Black Man’s Independence Day” (‘man’ here should have also included women of course, but… 19th century) and celebrated with speeches, processions and other rituals throughout the day. Douglass used his speech that July 5th in Rochester, some two years after the passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act that made the lives of free blacks precarious and dangerous, to lambast the United States for what he saw as its profound hypocrisy–a nation that declared itself a bastion of freedom while owning and heavily profiting (both North and South) from the institution of slavery. It was a paradox that had existed since the dawn of the nation’s founding and was enshrined in some of its most sacred documents–including the Declaration of Independence. The Fourth of July and slavery, as do black Americans and the United States, share a complex and entangled history.

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