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The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History

It was delivered on the fifth of July.


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Remember Frederick Douglass’ cry for freedom. Image curtesy of Everett Historical / Shutterstock.

The most remarkable Independence Day oration in American history was not given on the Fourth of July. And it is little remembered today. But it deserves to be. Independence Day is rightly a time to celebrate the nation’s history and even kick back for a little R&R. But the best orators who have marked the day have understood that our nation’s laurels are not meant to be rested on.

Fourth of July speeches tend to divide into two sorts. The predominant variety is commemorative, celebratory, and prescriptive—solemnized, as John Adams predicted in 1776, “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

But in his exuberance, Adams failed to anticipate that the Fourth, as it brought Americans together, would continually threaten to tear them apart. Over the years, celebrations of the Fourth have become a periodic tug of war between commemorations designed to affirm and even enforce the common identity of Americans—out of many, one—and subversive pushback from those obstreperous enough to insist that we are not all free, emphatically not all equal, and certainly not one.

Once the United States had gained its independence, some Americans questioned whether celebrating the Fourth was too much trouble; and it took decades for the revels to pick up steam. But by the Declaration’s 50th anniversary, celebrations commonly included the firing of artillery at sunrise, the marching of volunteer companies, the ringing of church bells, and the parading of labor associations. By the centennial in 1876, the event had reached its apogee. Flags and bunting decorated homes and streets, while Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation, stretched its celebrations across four days, beginning on July 1. In Independence Square, the poet Bayard Taylor evoked Columbia, goddess of liberty, in a newly composed National Ode that was apostrophic enough to induce a case of the vapors. “For lo! she cometh now / With hope on the lip and pride on the brow.”

Walt Whitman, who should have been tapped for the job but wasn’t, had years earlier taken the measure of such effusions:

O the orator’s joys!
To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice
     out from ribs and throat,
To make the people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,
To lead America—to quell America with a great tongue.

Lead by quelling: Such was the order of the day in 1876. As Bayard Taylor put it, “Let no iconoclast / Invade thy rising Pantheon of the Past.”

But even in self-congratulatory Philadelphia, not every iconoclast was quelled. Suffrage advocate Susan B. Anthony and several younger colleagues had managed to get into the square. After the Declaration of Independence was read to the multitudes, as the band struck up an anthem, Anthony and her followers rose and approached the speaker’s platform, carrying copies of a Declaration of Rights, including provocative “Articles of Impeachment” they had drawn up against “our rulers”—men—for denying women the right to vote or serve on juries and restricting them from full participation in the American democracy in many other ways. “The history of our country the past hundred years,” it proclaimed, “has been a series of assumptions and usurpations of power over women.”

Anthony was unsure whether her unannounced appearance would be blocked, but the men on the platform gave way with instinctive deference and she sailed right up to Thomas Ferry, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and effectively Ulysses Grant’s vice president. As she presented her document, Ferry bowed, white-faced with alarm. The ladies then retreated, handing out copies to many outstretched hands, while the military officer overseeing the event cried, “Order! Order!”

Anthony did not read her piece aloud, however, and accounts of her demonstration were buried or omitted so completely in newspaper reports that she might as well have vacationed in Omaha. The manifesto would have made a sensational oration, but that was not to be.

The speech that deserves our notice, and did truly thunder, came not at the centennial but a quarter of a century earlier, in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. Rochester was the epicenter of the so-called burned-over district, a region along the Erie Canal swept repeatedly by religious revivals and reform. There, the former slave and ardent abolitionist Frederick Douglass published his newspaper the North Star. Douglass was a good friend of Susan B. Anthony, whose family farm was located on Rochester’s outskirts. His paper had been one of the few to support the women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848.

So it was natural enough that the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester asked Douglass to provide an oration for Independence Day. Since the Fourth that year fell on a Sunday, commemorations were held a day later. That suited Douglass perfectly, as African Americans had been celebrating the Fourth a day later for over two decades. Many blacks found the idea of joining in the festivities problematic at best, so long as white Americans continued to keep millions of slaves in chains. In any case, white revelers on the Fourth had a history of disrupting black processions. Many blacks made July 5 their holiday instead.

Though he was a newspaper publisher, Douglass believed that the spoken word remained the most effective way to move multitudes. As a boy he had secretly studied rhetoric and parsed the speeches of famous orators, though his first efforts at public speaking were modest. “It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect,” he recalled, “or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering.” Confidence came with time and practice.

Douglass also possessed a sense of humor—“of the driest kind,” observed one listener. “You can see it coming a long way off in a peculiar twitch of his mouth.”Occasionally he dramatized conversations to make a point, provoking laughter when he mimicked the drawl of a Southern planter.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton vividly recalled the first time she heard Douglass address a crowd. He stood over 6 feet tall, “like an African prince, majestic in his wrath. Around him sat the great antislavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor. On this occasion, all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass.”

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … ”

Your fathers. That pronoun signaled the slightest shift in the breeze. But Douglass continued cordially. “Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do.” Then another step back: “That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.”

Now the dry humor was edging into view: accompanied, no doubt, by that peculiar twist of the mouth. As a people, Americans were never shy about proclaiming “the facts which make in their favor,” Douglass noted; indeed, bragging about their reputation was often deemed a national virtue. It might equally be accounted a national vice, he continued slyly; but in deference to that habit, he pledged to leave any further praise of the Revolution to “other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended [from the Founding Fathers] will be less likely to be disputed than mine!”

Then he got to the point. It was all well and good to sing the praises of past heroes; but his business, Douglass insisted, “if I have any here to-day, is with the present.” Those who praised the hard-won deeds of the founders had no right to do so unless they too were ready to work for the cause of liberty. “You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”

Then he threw down one question after another, each white-hot as a brand from the burning: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? … This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”

Even the stoutest anti-slavery advocate must have quailed. Many in the audience, Douglass noted, would no doubt have preferred him to act less as an agitator and more as rational persuader. But what reasoned argument remained to be made? “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? … To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding.”

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? …

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

Yet for all these justly heaped coals of fire, Douglass’s peroration also offered hope. “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.” He embraced once more “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions”—no doubt because, like Whitman, he wished “to lead America”—to make the people rage, weep, and hate the injustices that to him seemed so clear; and to desire the extension of freedom to all Americans.

His task must have seemed nearly hopeless at a time when the new Fugitive Slave Act, put in place by the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern planters to pursue runaway slaves in the free states—slaves like him—and even forced Northerners to aid in that pursuit. As a devout Christian, it particularly galled Douglass that so many Northern ministers refused to join the abolitionist cause. So in reading his words, we must understand that it was not merely a facile rhetorical device when he asked listeners whether they meant to mock him, in asking him to deliver an Independence Day oration. In a sense, deep in his bones, he was truly offended.

Yet he did deliver the address, in a manner fiery and uncompromising yet patriotic and uplifting. Has there ever been another Independence Day speech to match it?

In the end, the promise of the Declaration could not be delivered without force of arms. The contradictions between freedom and slavery were etched so deeply into the nation that no orator’s tongue could resolve them. Still, Douglass called down the storm, whirlwind, and earthquake in the attempt, and his oration deserves a place of honor in the American canon. It would please the wrathful prince to receive the recognition that is his due; though he would surely be careful to accept it only through faintly pursed lips. And then, with that tight smile, he might wonder if we too would be rash enough to ask him to speak on our Fourth.

What would he say? Insist, no doubt, that we not merely enshrine the deeds of the Revolution under glass: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Celebrating the deeds of our forefathers is a hollow sham if we fail to ask how we can work to extend the Declaration’s ideals in our own time. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the riots in Baltimore, and the shooting in a Charleston sanctuary all demonstrate that true freedom and equality remain works in progress.

But along with censure Douglass might offer hope: that the deeds and principles of the past, when set beside the tragedies of the present, might inspire a way forward. The shock and revulsion brought on by the Charleston shootings, combined with the magnanimity and forbearance of the victims’ families, have pushed a wide swath of the American public to reconsider the meaning of potent political symbols that have loomed so long over the national debate on liberty, equality, and race. Douglass never gave up hope that the spoken word could turn minds and hearts—on the Fourth of July as well as on the fifth. Neither should we.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published July 2, 2015. This article is republished here with permission.

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