Lesson Title: Analysis of argument: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
By: Linda Dursteler and Vivian Easton, Teacher Consultants, Wasatch Range Writing Project
Burning Question: Can students appreciate rhetorical strategies through a close analysis of an excerpt from one of Douglass’s most famous speeches?
Objectives: After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
· Understand rhetorical devices used in the passage, i.e., appeals, syntax, diction, tone, imagery.
· Recognize the power of the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery in America.
Context: A high school class reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave or studying rhetorical techniques.
Excerpt from Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech delivered in Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852.
Time Span: One day plus follow up as needed.
1. Step One: prior to class, distribute copies of the passage to the students to read and annotate before class discussion.
2. Step Two: Conduct guided discussion of the passage, using the following questions.
· How does Douglass use rhetorical questions to underline the contradiction of liberty as espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the legal practice of slavery?
· Examine Douglass’s use of the personal pronouns “I” and “you”. When does he use each one and to what effect?
· What is the tone of the excerpt? Read words, phrases, and sentences that create that tone?
3. Step Three: Culminating writing activity: In a one- to two-page pager students respond to the discussion of the questions in Step Two.
Rationale: Frederick Douglass was a powerful abolitionist speaker. Through studying his speeches and writings, students will become aware of his use of rhetorical strategies to raise questions about American ideals of consent of the governed, democracy, and inalienable rights. These are questions with which we continue to struggle.
· Students could explore further the ideals declared by the Second Continental Congress in 1776 by considering the petitions by slaves prior to that year as they used the argument of inalienable rights and Christian brotherhood to ask for an end to laws allowing slavery in Massachusetts.
· Students could explore the issues of racism in America after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery was ratified in 1865. Douglass’ 1875 speech, anticipating the centennial of 1876 continues his concerns about the struggles to realize America’s ideals might be used in this regard.
- The Declaration of Independence is available online: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/declare.asp
- Fordham University Online has a book review of Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July by James Colaiaco: http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/fordham_magazine/book_reviews/frederick_douglass_a_23868.asp
- From All Business is a textual analysis of the speech: http://www.allbusiness.com/specialty-businesses/1015310-1.html
- The National Park Service maintains a virtual museum about Frederick Douglass: http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/douglass/
- The Frederick Douglass Project at the University of Rochester has a number of resources including lesson plans and documents: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=2494.
- The 1774 slaves’ petition to Gage, the governor of Massachusetts colony is available online: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1774slavesappeal.html. It is advisable to read the petition aloud since it is not written in standard English.
- The Library of Congress has a number of resources about Douglass, including a digitized version of his 1875 speech “The Color Question” http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/douglass/
- Historian David Blight , as part of Yale University Open Classroom, discusses Douglass’ 1875 speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWnPCrq_oNQ&feature=PlayList&p=5DD220D6A1282057&playnext=1&index=23
In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. With the revelation that he was an escaped slave, Douglass became fearful of possible re-enslavement and fled to Great Britain and stayed there for two years, giving lectures in support of the antislavery movement in America. With the assistance of English Quakers, Douglass raised enough money to buy his own his freedom and in 1847 he returned to America as a free man.
He settled in Rochester, New York, where he published The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper. He directed the local underground railroad which smuggled escaped slaves into Canada and also worked to end racial segregation in Rochester's public schools.
In 1852, the leading citizens of Rochester asked Douglass to give a speech as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. Douglass accepted their invitation.
In his speech, however, Douglass delivered a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence with speeches, parades and platitudes, while, within its borders, nearly four million humans were being kept as slave
Excerpts from “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass
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. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue 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 4th 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, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
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? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
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 bum 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 employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly 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 denunciations 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 on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
(The entire speech is available from the History Teaching Center: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=162)