Frederick Douglass Memorial in Central Park

Frederick Douglass memorial in Central Park, New York.

Versions of this essay have appeared previously at Daily Kos. It concludes with excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s famous Independence Day speech delivered in Rochester, N.Y. on July 5, 1852. I am reposting it here because of the emails and texts and comments I’ve been been receiving today when it didn’t appear. Some readers may also be interested in another July 4 piece I wrote for todayOn July 4th, we should remember that true patriots are dissidents, not bootlickers.

Douglass sometime between 1847-52
Douglass c. 1847

We do too much “heroification” in America, according to James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (one of his several books that ought to be on everybody’s shelves).

Loewen thinks the word hero has been cheapened, ending up more often a description for football quarterbacks who throw perfect last-minute passes than for, say, the passerby who risks her own life to pull a child from a flooding river.

Heroification describes what textbooks, many teachers, and the likes of Lynne Cheney have done to a multitude of other notable Americans. The process of heroification not only turns the notorious into role models, but also many people who actually deserve the praise they get are transformed into one-dimensional stereotypes without flaws. It’s as if we can’t stand to see our heroes as human beings who don’t always get things right—who, in fact, sometimes behave deplorably and hypocritically.

Despite his flaws, my No. 1 personal hero is—and has been since I was introduced at age 14 to his autobiography—Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave whose persistent eloquence was one of the leading factors persuading Abraham Lincoln to bring Black soldiers into the Union Army. Without those 180,000 men who ultimately fought, quite literally, for freedom, it is uncertain whether the Union would have survived.

Lincoln and Douglass were perfect exemplars of how to effect change, both within the government and without. The former slave could not have come near achieving his aims without a strong (though initially reluctant) ally in the White House. Lincoln might well have not changed his goals in the war from saving the Union to demolishing the “peculiar institution” without Douglass’ relentless criticism and exhortation.

Working on the outside and on the inside were both needed for that big change to happen. We should remember that when assessing the dreadful state of our politics today, and the value of critics outside the party process.

Douglass started out deeply unhappy with Lincoln in 1860, labeling him “an excellent slave hound” because of the soon-to-be-president’s support for the Fugitive Slave Act that required authorities in non-slave states to turn over runaways to their owners—or, rather, usually to bounty hunters. Once taken, the runaways were returned whence they came, or were often sold “down river” where a short, harsh life of overwork and savage brutality in the coastal cane fields or elsewhere typically awaited them.

Frederick Douglass, 1870s
Frederick Douglass, mid-1870s

After the election, Douglass and Lincoln engaged in a public and private political pas de deux right up through the president’s second election.

Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1861 sparked a ferocious critique from Douglass, who repeated the “slave hound” accusation. He was disgusted that the president had spent several paragraphs of that address argumentatively defending the practice of returning slaves, even repeating the Constitution’s “shall be delivered up” phrase in regard to the human property Southerners had enshrined as their right for being part of the Union in the first place.

In Douglass’ view, the effect of Lincoln’s trying to hang on to the border slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—to save the Union by turning over runaways was tantamount to killing them. Some owners murdered returned runaways immediately. Others tortured them and then worked them to a quick death.

Lincoln was, as Douglass said with that slave-hound label, no different than the hunting dogs sent to sniff out and corner a runaway until the master came to collect him. Pretty strong stuff to characterize the guy who would become known as The Great Emancipator.

But Douglass wanted action in 1861. This was the moment, one of those rare crises that much later politicians would say should never be wasted. The incipient rebellion shouldn’t be soothed away with concession, Douglass made clear. For him and many other abolitionists of the era, now was the time for no more delay. But delay was exactly what Lincoln was proposing on his very first day in office.

David W. Blight writes:

It is too easy to simply conclude that the black activist was out of touch with the president’s dire situation and the necessity of pragmatic overtures for peace. At this point, his was indeed a higher law than the Constitution. Without blinking, Douglass compared slavery itself, and especially any effort to return fugitive slaves to bondage, to “murder.” In the rhetoric of the lecture platform, where Douglass had few peers, he proclaimed: “Your money or your life, says the pirate; your liberty or your life, says the slaveholder. And where is the difference between the pirate and the slaveholder?”

Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Anna Murray Douglass, the abolitionist’s first wife, to whom he was married 44 years. She died in 1882.

Douglass was for some while openly contemptuous of Lincoln after that speech, in lectures and in print. Even though Lincoln had surely hoped to soothe the slavers, by the time of the inaugural in early March 1861, seven states had already seceded and the Confederacy’s opening barrage of cannon shots at Fort Sumter were less than six weeks away. Douglass desired a war speech, a war focused on ending slavery and one in which colonization—the era’s buzzword for freeing slaves but also sending them “back” to Africa or to islands of the Caribbean—was not on the agenda. Lincoln still supported colonization as late as the final months of 1864.

As James Oakes writes in The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007). Douglass wanted:

no war but an Abolition War; no peace but an Abolition Peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as the North; America his permanent home, and all Americans his fellow countrymen. Such, fellow citizens, is my idea of the mission of the war. If accomplished, our glory as a nation will be complete, our peace will flow like a river, and our foundations will be the everlasting rocks.

His inaugural response was far from Douglass’ only criticism. But over time, as recounted in Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick’s Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union (2007), the born-into-bondage ship caulker from Maryland met the free-born rail splitter from Illinois and their collision and subsequent collusion had a tremendous impact on the course of the war, on slavery and, although Lincoln was by then dead, the post-Civil War amendments. The two men were unlikely and uncomfortable partners, but without their partnership the immediate post-war landscape would most likely have been quite different.

Soon after the war ended and until his death 30 years later, Douglass had strong praise for Lincoln, although he did not fail to criticize. For example, on April 14, 1876, Douglass said in a commemoration speech delivered the day before the 11th anniversary of the president’s assassination (and is worth reading in its entirety for the full flavor):

Fellow-citizens, ours is no new-born zeal and devotion—merely a thing of this moment. The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic. We were no more ashamed of him when shrouded in clouds of darkness, of doubt, and defeat than when we saw him crowned with victory, honor, and glory.

Frederick Douglass with second wife, Helen Pitts, sitting, and her sister Eva.
Douglass with his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, seated, and her sister, Eva Pitts. He married her in 1884 to a firestorm of criticism because she was white. His response was that his first wife was the color of his mother and his second wife the color of his father.

Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed.

When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate [against] our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the days of its inaction and defeat, who was more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled.

Nor was this, even at that time, a blind and unreasoning superstition. Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.

It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.

Excerpts from Douglass’ Scathing 1852 Independence Day Speech

Frederick Douglass, c. 1870
Frederick Douglass, late 1870s.

Nearly a decade before the two men began their clash of ideas and synthesis of tactics, Douglass gave an Independence Day speech (on July 5) in Rochester, New York, that tells the grim truth of the era into which he was born and shows clearly from where all that anger shown in the early years of Lincoln’s presidency was derived. As historian Eric Foner wrote in 2004:

At an Independence Day meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, the former slave Frederick Douglass delivered one of the nineteenth century’s greatest orations. His theme was the contradiction between American slavery and American freedom.

Douglass did not mince words. He spoke of a government that mouthed the language of liberty yet committed “crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages”; of patriotism reduced to “swelling vanity”; of hypocrisy destroying the country’s “moral power abroad.” Although slavery is gone, Douglass’s critique remains as relevant as in 1852. But so too does his optimism that the days of empire are over, and that in the modern world abuses cannot permanently be hidden from the light of day. Douglass, not the leaders of a slave-holding republic, was the genuine patriot, who called on his listeners to reclaim the “great principles” of the Declaration from those who had defiled and betrayed them. That is a truly patriotic goal for our own Fourth of July.

Here are excerpts of the speech Douglass gave in Rochester, where he had founded the abolitionist newspaper The North Star. [If you prefer, you can listen to a piece of the speech delivered by James Earl Jones.] At the time the speech was given, the Fugitive Slave Act allowed owners of human beings to hunt them down or send their agents and bounty hunters into any state or U.S. territory, capture any slave (or Black person thought to be a slave) and ship them back from whence they had escaped—or to some even less pleasant place.

[To make these excerpts more readable, I have added numerous paragraph breaks that do not appear at the linked site.]

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that the dumb might eloquently speak and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.

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 today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”


Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorry this day, “may my right hand cleave to the roof of my mouth”! To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine. I do not hesitate to declare with all my soul that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July!

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. 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! “I will not equivocate, I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, shall not confess to be right and just […]

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not as astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver, and gold; that while we are reading, writing, and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants, and secretaries, having among us lawyers doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; and that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives, and children, and above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men! […]


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? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply. […]

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. […]

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and Bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans.

These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms.

See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on.

Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States. […]


Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.

You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation-a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty.

You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen, and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against the oppressor; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America.

You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain in alienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.


Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad: it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.

Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever! […]

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. 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.