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What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

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In his speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, Frederick Douglass passionately argues that to the slave, and even to the freed African American, the Fourth of July is no more than a mockery of the grossest kind. Douglas uses many rhetorical strategies to convey his powerful emotions on the subject, and the end result is a very effectively argued point.

Douglass begins by asking a series of rhetorical questions, not without the use of sarcasm. He refers to “that” Declaration of Independence, instead of “the” Declaration of Independence, to stress the separation between his people and those who are not oppressed. In the next paragraph, he continues to ask rhetorical questions. The purpose of all these questions is to give the audience the perspective that what is suggested is not truly so. He did not choose to give a speech on the holiday that his people are reminded of the injustice forced upon them in order to express gratitude and joy for the independence of America, because he does not share in any of that joy, because he does not share in any of that independence. The third paragraph is where the line is visibly drawn for the audience. No more rhetorical questions at this point. The truth is laid out; the separation is made clear.

Douglass prolifically uses the terms “you” and “me”, “us” and “them”, to stress the fact that this holiday is of a double-meaning, and for his people it is a day of mourning, while for the rest of them, it is a day of blind joy. In the text, such words are italicized, meaning that while he gave the speech, he made sure to put emphasis on these words in a way that would be comparable to squeezing the pressure points of his audience (you). An interesting point can be brought up at this moment: his immediate audience during the delivery of this speech in July of 1852 was comprised of white abolitionists.

Meaning, he was addressing the people that were technically on his side, so to speak. Douglass calls for them to “argue more and denounce less… persuade more and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed”(pg.2). He almost rubs it in their faces: that their proclaimed aspirations have not been tended to with the proper amount of effort and attention, and that all that has been put forth up to that point has failed miserably. The above quotation is comparable to saying “start trying or go home”. The fact that he speaks so harshly to this particular audience only shows how passionately he feels for his own people.

Back to the first page, Douglass makes a reference to the Bible. He applies his own situation to that of the one described by the quote. He is the one who can not forget about his people. He can not express joy, when his people express their pains. His argument is proved multiple times with the simple logic presented in his speech. It can be summed up with this: (1) This holiday is to rejoice for the sake of freedom and liberty. (2) My people have no freedom, have no liberty. (3) You rejoice. (4) My people mourn. (5) This holiday is a mockery to us. The reference to the mockery of it all is made over and over again, and with such a simply logical statement, one can not possibly argue it’s validity.

Douglass moves on to speak of the wrongs committed by America, and how they have piled sky-high to the point of no return. He states that any just man who is not prejudice shall see that his words are of truth. He speaks of the Constitution, he speaks of the Bible, and he speaks of God. With such credited references backing up his argument, it would almost make a man feel like the devil to even dare to disagree. For the last half of his speech, Douglass addresses what he should speak of, what he should argue. He goes into detail about each different aspect of why African Americans have the same natural right to freedom as do any other human beings. One by one, he suggests he argue about the slave being a man, that man be entitled to liberty, that it is wrong to make men “brutes”, and finally, that slavery is not divine. With each, he elaborates on the fact that each argument is so basic, so implicit, that it need not be argued. It all flows back to his own argument about the holiday on which he speaks. Freedom is the natural right of all men.

Arguing against it is like trying to disprove a fact of science, so arguing for it is pointless because the evidence is enough proof already. If a man is a man, then freedom is what he is entitled to, and if this can not be seen, then arguing for it will do no good. After this point is made, he makes a very powerful statement to back up this idea. “For it is not light that is needed but fire”(pg.4). The light is the obvious- the arguments for the freedom of all men, but the fire is what is missing, what is desperately needed- the drastic awakening of America to its own crimes against humanity, and the imperative of changing this, because it can not be undone, but it can only get worse. His words seem to flow with a heated fervency which could not be stopped. One could only imagine actually hearing the speech when it was given by Douglass himself. It would make sense to compare him to a preacher, up at the podium, speaking out against the devil and his ways with fire and brimstone. His point is not made, but forced, upon the audience.

Douglass ends his amazing speech with the statement that he has been working to prove all along: The Fourth of July is a disgusting reminder to him and his people of the ongoing cruelty that America attempts to put a veil over with this mockery. While the blind rejoice, the oppressed are driven further into sadness. His speech is a calling, a calling for change. Change is all that America has to hope for, Douglass argues, for the obscenities of the past can not be undone, and the horror of the present must not go on. He calls for a cease to the damage, and for the exposure of the perpetrator: America.

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