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Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July
By James A. Colaiaco
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2006 James A. Colaiaco
All rights reserved.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE FOURTH OF JULY
I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, or with a greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day.
— Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"
Some five to six hundred people filed into Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. They had come to hear the oration by Frederick Douglass celebrating the Fourth of July. By this time, he had become an esteemed abolitionist and the most famous black American of his era. Douglass had been invited to speak by the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. The event had been advertised in the papers and on placards. The Fourth of July is the most important day in what has been called the American "civil religion," meaning the unifying beliefs, myths, and rituals shared by citizens of the United States from the nation's inception. This civil religion has its sacred scripture — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights; its holidays — the Fourth of July and Memorial Day; its symbols — the Liberty Bell, the American flag, and the Statue of Liberty; and its revered personages — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Susan B. Anthony. All of these elements have been incorporated in the narrative that Americans use to explain their origins and identity.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, Fourth of July ceremonials were solemn, almost religious occasions, often held in churches and modeled after a Protestant service. Prayers were intoned, hymns were sung, and the Declaration of Independence was recited with piety and fervor. On July Fourth, orators traditionally underscored the belief that America — hailed by New England Puritan John Winthrop as "a city on a hill"— had been chosen by God to fulfill a special mission in the world, to create a moral society. But America, despite its democratic and moral goals, harbored a hideous injustice, the institution of slavery. Most blacks regarded the Fourth of July as a white holiday, a day of mourning rather than celebration. With the expansion of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and 1840s, Independence Day became an occasion for abolitionists not so much to celebrate the past and preserve tradition, but to remind the nation of its betrayal. The contradiction of a nation tolerating slavery while professing the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence would eventually threaten the survival of the Union.
In the early years of the republic, celebrations of Independence Day were sporadic. But after the victory of the United States over Britain in the War of 1812, renewed patriotism inspired nationwide regular observance of the holiday. The mockery of a nation celebrating freedom while upholding slavery became increasingly obvious. In the North, free blacks and abolitionists often used the Fourth of July to lift their voices in protest, emphasizing the contradiction between the nation's promise and slavery. Because July Fourth fell on a Sunday in 1852, the celebrations in Rochester had been postponed until the next day, July 5. Douglass welcomed the postponement. For years, abolitionists and black Americans often deliberately waited until July 5 as an expression of protest. As Peter Osborne declared at the New Haven African Church in Connecticut on July 5, 1832: "On account of the misfortune of our color, our fourth of July comes on the fifth; but I hope and trust that when the Declaration of Independence is fully executed, which declared that all men, without respect to person, were born free and equal, we may then have our fourth of July on the fourth." While the nation was celebrating freedom, the southern plantations were filled with slaves. Many blacks in the North refused to partake in the festivities. Even black children from the New York African Free School, including the future black minister Alexander Crummell, vowed not to celebrate the Fourth of July until the abolition of slavery. For the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Independence Day symbolized both the promise of freedom and its denial. Her master had pledged to free her on July 4, 1826, but the day came and went without word from him. The following year, on the Fourth of July, she was freed by the State Legislature of New York. Slave rebel Nat Turner had initially intended his ill-fated slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia to occur on July 4, 1831. The Weekly Anglo-African explained on July 23, 1859: "The people generally do not understand why one should celebrate a day that ... brought freedom to whites and slavery to colored people." Mindful that the liberty and equality principles of the Declaration of Independence had not been applied to slaves, many abolitionists and black protesters chose to recognize the national holiday the day after, on July 5.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland sometime in February 1818. He was the son of Harriet Bailey, a field slave, and a white man believed to be his master, Aaron Anthony, who managed the large plantations of Colonel Edward Lloyd. Douglass was separated from his mother when he was an infant. "I never saw my mother," he related, "more than four or five times in my life, and each of those times was very short in duration, and at night." Douglass's mother, who died when he was about seven years old, had been sent to work twelve miles away. To see her son, Harriet Bailey had to walk twelve miles through the night and make sure she returned to work by dawn, if she wanted to avoid a severe beating. "She would lie down with me," he recalled, "and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone." On the plantation, the child Frederick endured great hardships. He had no clothes other than a linen shirt that reached his knees, and no bed other than a coarse blanket.
Frederick lived with his grandmother, Betsy Bailey, until the age of eight, when his master Aaron Anthony died. Ownership of the young boy passed to Anthony's son-in-law, Thomas Auld. Subsequently, Frederick was sent, by "divine providence," he later wrote, from the plantation in rural Maryland to live in Baltimore with his owner's brother, Hugh Auld, and his wife Sophia. Urban slavery was not as oppressive as that on the plantation, and in the Auld household young Douglass was relatively well treated. Hearing Sophia Auld frequently read the Bible aroused in him a desire to penetrate the "mystery of reading." Upon his request, Sophia began teaching the nine-year-old Frederick the alphabet. Literacy would open the way for Douglass to attain his personhood. When Hugh Auld realized the precocious child's considerable progress, he forbade his wife to further instruct the slave to read. It was not only unlawful, he warned his wife, but also unsafe, for it would make Douglass uncontrollable. "He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it." "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." "If you teach that nigger ... how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him." "It would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave." "If you learn him how to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself." His master's words had a profound effect upon young Douglass, who was attentively listening: "His iron sentences, cold and harsh, sunk deep into my heart, and stirred up not only my feelings into a sort of rebellion, but awakened within me a slumbering train of vital thought. It was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery, against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit: the white man's power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man. 'Very well, thought I;' 'knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.' I instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom."
The master's words were the spark that ignited the flame. The painful incident was an epiphany for Douglass. He was determined to learn how to read. He secretly taught himself. He perceived the radical difference between himself, a slave, and his master as never before: "The argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn." As long as he remained illiterate, his mind subservient to his master, his body could never be free. He would be relegated to a life of silence and invisibility. Douglass defied his master. Seeking to learn the meaning of words, he would ask for the help of any willing white playmate in the streets of Baltimore. Webster's Spelling Book became his constant companion. Acquiring literacy was for Douglass a Promethean act of rebellion necessary for the achievement of freedom. Reading gave him access to books, in which he discovered liberating ideas that would sustain him throughout his life as an abolitionist and reformer. Reading newspapers that he picked up in the streets of Baltimore informed him of southern resistance to the abolition movement and the increasing sectional conflict between the North and the South over the issue of slavery. He soon realized that learning to write would enable him to wield the power of the pen on behalf of millions of oppressed people. "With playmates for my teachers, fences and pavements for my copy books, and chalk for my pen and ink," he remembered, "I learned the art of writing." As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes: "Nowhere else among the hundred odd slave narratives published by blacks between 1760 and 1865 was the proverbial leap to freedom so inextricably intertwined with literacy."
Douglass also discovered the power of the spoken word. At age thirteen, he purchased with his meager savings a used copy of Caleb Bingham's book, The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches that opened his mind, inspiring him to become a public speaker. Within its pages, Douglass found brief impassioned speeches on human rights by William Pitt the Elder, Charles James Fox, and Richard Sheridan, speeches that Douglass read over and over, absorbing not only their message of freedom but also their rhetorical style. He also studied the oratory of Socrates, Cicero, Cato, George Washington, and Napoleon. As Douglass relates in his autobiographies, these speeches "enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance." The speeches articulated what the young Douglass had been feeling since he learned to read — the burning desire to be free. Frederick Douglass the orator was born.
While Douglass avidly studied The Columbian Orator, he underwent another life-defining moment. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, as he read the Bible with a devout free black lay preacher named Charles Lawson, Douglass experienced a spiritual awakening. "'The Lord had a great work for me to do,'" Douglass recalled "Uncle" Lawson telling him. He must preach the gospel. Lawson's "words made a deep impression on my mind, and I verily felt that some such work was before me, though I could not see how I should ever engage in its performance." But Lawson assured the young boy, "'the good Lord would bring it to pass in his own good time.'" All Douglass had to do was to continue studying the Scriptures. "The advice and the suggestions of Uncle Lawson, were not without their influence upon my character and destiny. ... He fanned my already intense love of knowledge into a flame, by assuring me that I was to be a useful man in the world. ... When I told him that 'I was a slave FOR LIFE,' he said, 'the Lord can make you free, my dear. All things are possible with him, only have faith in God. Ask, and it shall be given. If you want liberty,' said the good old man, 'ask the Lord for it, in faith, AND HE WILL GIVE IT TO YOU.'" Such faith would sustain Douglass not only in the dark days of slavery, but throughout his life. As Lawson prophesied, he would preach the gospel, but his would be the gospel of freedom.
In 1833, at the age of fifteen, Douglass was returned to Thomas Auld and lived in the village of St. Michael's in Maryland's Talbot County. Douglass then secretly organized a Sunday school for slaves and began teaching them to read. After the school was discovered and disbanded, Auld leased the recalcitrant Douglass to Edward Covey, a well-known "nigger-breaker" in 1834. Covey frequently beat Douglass. One day, savagely attacked by Covey, Douglass successfully resisted. The beatings on his back left permanent scars that would serve as reminders of his years in bondage. Empowered by his success against Covey, the sixteen-year-old Douglass resolved to escape slavery as soon as possible. Sent back to Thomas Auld in Baltimore in 1836, Douglass was hired out to a local shipyard and learned to be a caulker. In 1838, disguised as a free black sailor whose identification papers he had acquired, Douglass escaped from slavery and made his way by train and steamship to the North. Arriving in the streets of New York City, he was assisted by the black abolitionist David Ruggles, who hid Douglass in his boarding house. That same year, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman who had been a domestic worker in Baltimore, who assisted him in his escape and later became the mother of their five children, three boys and two girls. Attaining his freedom, Frederick Bailey became "Frederick Douglass," inspired by the name of a heroic Scottish lord in Sir Walter Scott's poem, Lady of the Lake. Douglass and his wife first settled in the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he frequently denounced slavery as a lay preacher from the pulpit of the Zion Methodist Church. In 1839, he met the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who became instrumental in launching his career as the foremost black spokesperson for the abolition of slavery. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass relates how as a young fugitive from slavery living in New Bedford, Garrison inspired him. Garrison's Liberator, with its moral denunciations of slavery, "took its place with me next to the Bible." Douglass "loved" both the paper and its editor. Garrison became Douglass's surrogate father: "His words were few, full of holy fire, and straight to the heart. Something of a hero worshiper, by nature, here was one, on first sight, to excite my love and reverence." Though their relationship eventually ended in bitter estrangement, Douglass never forgot his first impression of Garrison. Sitting in the back of a hall listening to Garrison's inspiring words, Douglass thought of Garrison: "'You are the man, the Moses raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage,' was the spontaneous feeling of my heart."
In 1841, Douglass joined Garrison's Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Within a short time, he became a popular anti-slavery speaker for the society, preaching abolition to mostly white audiences throughout New England, New York, and the Ohio Valley, often traveling with the brilliant orator Wendell Phillips, hailed as the abolition movement's "golden trumpet." Douglass had found his calling. As much as he appreciated the contributions of the white abolitionists, he knew that he could bring to the movement what they could not. Addressing an audience in 1841 in Lynn, Massachusetts, before moving his family there the following year, Douglass declared that although northern white abolitionists can denounce slavery, they "cannot speak as I can from experience; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt the wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yet, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh."
Douglass did not initially realize his own oratorical brilliance. His autobiographies reveal a lack of confidence the first time he spoke before a mostly white audience at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention on Nantucket Island in 1841, just three years after his escape from slavery. He was asked to testify at this convention, which, like countless others, took on the characteristics of a religious revival meeting. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, published in 1845, he related that he had "felt strongly moved to speak." Yet he regarded the task as "a severe cross" which he took up "reluctantly." He explains: "The truth was, I felt myself a slave." In 1855, Douglass elaborated upon these sentiments in My Bondage and My Freedom: "My speech on this occasion is about the only one I ever made, of which I do not remember a single connected sentence. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb." The Nantucket speech marked Douglass's formal entrance into the public arena, where he would achieve his reputation as one of the nation's greatest advocates of racial justice. Douglass captured the minds and hearts of his listeners. He made an indelible impression upon Garrison, who testified: "I shall never forget his first speech at the convention — the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind. ... I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment. ... There stood one, in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact — in intellect richly endowed — in natural eloquence a prodigy. As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive. So I believed at that time — such is my belief now."
Excerpted from Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July by James A. Colaiaco. Copyright © 2006 James A. Colaiaco. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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