Frederick Douglass’s Strong Critique, and Defense, of America

July 3, 2020

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s lengthy 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” is blistering in its critique of American immorality and hypocrisy on the issue of slavery:

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? . . .

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. . . . Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America! . . .

The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

It is with the great credibility of one of America’s sternest critics, then, that Douglass offers, at the same time, ringing defenses and praise of George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the rest of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and even the free market—capitalism, if you will—for the role they all played against slavery.


Respecting the great General and President George Washington, Douglass draws a biblical parallel:

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.

(Emphasis added.)

Douglass argues that defenders and practitioners of slavery in his own time are unworthy of the Founding Father they claim and the example he set.

Wikipedia provides further details (internal citations omitted):

[George Washington] was among the few large slave-holding Virginians during the Revolutionary Era who emancipated their slaves.

[After his death in 1800,] Following George Washington’s instructions in his will, funds were used to feed and clothe the young, aged, and sickly slaves until the early 1830s.

It is a point the lawless mobs tearing down statues might perhaps pause a moment to consider.

As Jonah Goldberg and others have been arguing, historical figures are of course not immune against all judgment forevermore, but they should be judged in the context of their time and on the totality of their contributions to history.  I don’t doubt that Christopher Columbus did some very bad things.  As a friend of mine memorably puts it, Did he do anything else in his life? anything like, I don’t know, discover a continent?  I don’t doubt that Thomas Jefferson did some very bad things.  Did he do anything else in his life? anything like, I don’t know, found a country?

Or, as Goldberg puts it,

During the current riot of iconoclasm, important distinctions are being lost. One distinction in particular is very important: What did the person stand for when he or she was alive? Tearing down the statue of Hans Christian Heg—an abolitionist immigrant and Union officer who gave his life to end slavery—is an act of barbaric asininity. But even in the more complicated cases of some of the Founders or even Abraham Lincoln . . . the condemnations don’t take into account what these figures were fighting for. Say what you will about Lincoln’s racial views (when he was younger), there’s no disputing that he was at the bloody tip of the spear of social progress. Put more plainly, there’s a difference between a flawed agent of positive change and an unalloyed champion of turning back the clock.

If necessary, even more pointedly:

One cannot just look from outside the fishbowl using the scorecards of the moment and judge a society from some modern, abstract, standard. You must dive in and understand people and cultures on their own terms first. This is something the best historians do. . . .

For example, when people condemn the Founders for keeping slavery intact in slave states, they tend to ignore the context the Founders were living in. The choice they faced wasn’t a Constitution with slavery or a Constitution without it. The choice was a Constitution with slavery—or no Constitution at all.

I’m open to arguments that this isn’t true, but not from someone who doesn’t understand that this is the way the Founders—many of whom opposed slavery—understood their choice.


Douglass on the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers:

. . . there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit . . . .

. . . With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

. . .

Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.

On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it. “Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

. . .

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

If this is not yet clear enough, he goes on:

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!


Douglass on the United States Constitution:

But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.

. . . But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. . . .

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. . . .

Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

(Emphasis in original.)


On the free market and capitalism, a persistent force for freedom:

While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. . . . No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world . . . . The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. . . . Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other.

(Emphasis added.)

This too is a point that is worth taking more time to meditate on, and that may be counterintuitive to the spirit of our age.  As Goldberg puts it:

. . . the market is the most cooperative system ever created. It allows people of different faiths, lifestyles, and even nationalities to cooperate with each other over vast spaces to satisfy specific wants and needs. Its only drawback is that it doesn’t feel cooperative, because it is so good at fostering cooperation without coercion.

(Emphasis in original.)

As Goldberg puts it elsewhere, the free market is a solvent that tends to erode racism (among other -isms, for better and for worse) over time.

. . . capitalism is relentlessly and unsentimentally rational and efficient.  The free market tends to wipe away tradition and ritual in the name of profit.  This is a wonderful thing when the traditions and rituals it is corroding are based in bigotry and oppression.

Racial segregation in the states of the old South was not a monolithic feature of the regional culture; it was cultural, in part, but it was also a burdensome set of laws, enforced against dissenters, imposed by the government, and often resisted by businesses and the logic of capitalism.  When civil-rights activists sought the cooperation of railroad companies in resisting segregation and bringing the case that would become Plessy vs. Ferguson,

Railroad officials proved surprisingly cooperative. The first one approached, however, confesse[d] that his road [already] “did not enforce the law.” It provided the Jim Crow car and posted the sign required by law, but told its conductors to molest no one who ignored instructions. . . .

. . . Indeed, the East Lousiana Railway had opposed the law prior to its passage, and there is some evidence that the railroads helped finance the case.

All of this tends to be intuitive to libertarians. Why would a railroad want to run two half-empty train cars if it can run one full car instead?


Economist Thomas Sowell cites several examples of for-profit businesses resisting segregation laws in his book Preferential Policies, An International Perspective:

Segregation into smoking and non-smoking sections is significant because it was done on the initiative of streetcar companies themselves, while some of those same companies publicly opposed the imposition of racially segregated seating by law when such legislation was first proposed. Even after such Jim Crow laws were passed, the streetcar company in Mobile initially refused to comply, and in Montgomery it was reported in the early years that blacks simply continued to sit wherever they pleased. In Jacksonville, the streetcar company delayed enforcing the segregation seating law of 1901 until 1905. Georgia’s state law of 1891 segregating the races was ignored by the streetcar companies in Augusta until 1898, in Savannah until 1899, and in the latter city was not fully enforced until 1906. In Mobile, the streetcar company publicly refused to enforce the Jim Crow laws of 1902, until its streetcar conductors began to be arrested and fined for non-compliance with the law. In Tennessee, the streetcar company opposed the state legislation imposing Jim Crow seating in 1903, delayed enforcement after the law was passed, and eventually was able to get the state courts to declare it unconstitutional.

(Citation omitted.)

Goldberg sums up the big picture:

[Howard Zinn wants to focus on America’s sins, etc.]

All of these things should be taught.  But the idea now is that knowing this story is the only story worth knowing.  That this and only this is the story of America.  By turning the Founders into nothing more than greedy white racists, by decrying Columbus as nothing more than a genocidal murderer, by arguing that slavery is a uniquely Western and American sin, by claiming that “Western civilization” and “American exceptionalism” are nothing more than euphemisms for “racism” and “imperialism,” the ressentiment-drenched intellectuals at the commanding heights of our culture seek to make the story of the Miracle into a Curse, leaving them as the only legitimate storytellers of our civilization.

. . .

Just as the spoiled children of the wealthy are often ungrateful for the opportunities provided by their parents, we as a society are ungrateful for our collective inheritance. . . .


Bloom writes that “just about all the readers of this book believe that it’s wrong to hate someone solely because of the color of his or her skin.  But this is a modern insight; for most of human history, nobody saw anything wrong with racism.” . . .


After the agricultural revolution roughly 11,000 years ago, slavery emerges almost everywhere. . . .

For understandable reasons, America’s shameful experience with slavery informs the way we talk about the institution.  That’s right and proper.  But it also distorts our understanding of it.  As Thomas Sowell has chronicled, Americans tend to believe—because it is what they are taught—that slavery is an inherently racist institution.  Some even seem to believe that slavery is a uniquely American sin.  American certainly must take ownership of its use of slaves and the central role racism played in it.  But the conventional understanding gets the causality backward.  American racism stems from slavery, not the other way around.

There are two remarkable aspects of American slavery.  The first is the hypocrisy.  Other societies relied on slavery more than we did, and some were arguably crueler to their slaves (though American slavery was plenty cruel).  But none of those societies were founded on principles of universal human rights and dignity.  The Romans, Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians were not hypocrites for keeping humans in bondage; they sincerely believed that it was natural (even Aristotle said so).  But America was born with the Declaration of Independence and the words “All men are created equal.”  That is irreconcilable with slavery, no matter the rationalization.

Which brings us to the second remarkable thing about American slavery.  Against the backdrop of the last 10,000 years, the amazing thing about American slavery is not that it existed but that we put an end to it.  In the context of the last thousand years, there were many efforts to abolish slavery.  Many failed and many more were only half measures, establishing various forms of de facto slavery, such as serfdom.  Over the next century, slavery was outlawed across much of Europe and in most northern colonies and states in America.  England abolished the slave trade in 1807.  The Dutch followed in 1814.  The Congress of Vienna, which determined the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe, condemned slavery.  Britain would abolish slavery in all of its colonies in 1834, though the Dutch would not follow suit until 1863.

American, meanwhile, though it banned the slave trade in 1808, was otherwise tardy, and the effort was bloody and painful.  But we officially ended the practice in 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The timing was not coincidental.  “The fact is that slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged,” writes economist Don Boudreaux.  “And it disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain.  This was no coincidence.  Slavery was destroyed by capitalism.”

(Emphasis in original.  Internal citations omitted.)

Douglass’s speech is tied in part to the historical specifics of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but most of the speech transcends its particular moment; it’s worth reading in its entirety: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

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