The Hypocrisy of American Slavery

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The Hypocrisy of American Slavery is a speech by Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) – a former American slave and an abolitionist leader[1][2] – delivered on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York, during the Fourth of July celebrations.[3][4]

The speech is a contemptuous attack on the hypocrisy of the American nation, celebrating freedom and independence with public events, while still legally holding nearly four million humans as slaves nationwide.[3][4]

The speech changed the way that Americans viewed and approached slavery and contributed greatly to the triumph of abolitionist movement in the USA, passing of 13th Amendment, and eventual ending of slavery in America.[5]

Background[edit]

After buying his own freedom and returning from England in 1847, Frederick Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, where he was working vigorously as an abolitionist. He published several abolitionist newspapers such as The North Star, managed an “underground railroad” that smuggled fugitive slaves to Canada, and worked to stop racial segregation in Rochester's public schools.[1][2]

In 1852, the most prominent citizens of Rochester asked Douglass to give a speech as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. Douglass accepted their invitation and delivered a speech that was a condemnation of hypocrisy of a nation celebrating its freedom, while cultivating the institution of slavery at the same time.[3][4]

Content[edit]

Different transcriptions of the speech vary slightly on its content and actual wording. However, the most significant parts are considered to be historically accurate in any instance. Arguably one of the most important lines of the speech is the following: "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."[6]

Douglass started his speech with questioning the execution of constitutional principles in regard to Afro-Americans in the USA: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us (Afro-Americans)?”[5]

He compared the United States of America to the nation of Babylon, saying: “Example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin.”[5]

The whole speech is a profoundly ironic suggestion on the significance of Independence Day for American slaves. Throughout the speech there are many examples of that. In his speech Douglass said: “The character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July.”[5]

Douglas heavily criticized the nation's policies of freedom and slavery. He put into question every American institution and individual that supported slavery, saying: “Dare to call in question and to denounce … everything that serves to perpetuate slavery.”[5]

Significance[edit]

Frederick Douglass’ “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” in various manners appealed to the political, sociological, ethical, and aesthetical interest of many generations of critics and scholars. Douglass has maintained his reputation as a great orator. His contemporary critics viewed him primarily as a talented abolitionist activist whose abilities as a speaker and writer disproved the idea of black intellectual inferiority. This view persisted until the 1930s, when some scholars started to call attention to the inherent value of Douglass' works and acknowledged him to be the most important figure in 19th century black American literature.[5]

“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” left a significant mark on American history and rhetoric. It is considered to be one of the most prominent pieces of oratory in American history as well as one of the most influential. New York Times put it on the list of top ten greatest speeches of all time.[6] It profoundly reshaped the perception of the institution of slavery in the U.S. and contributed heavily to the passing of 13th Amendment, and thus to the complete abolition of slavery in America.[5]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Douglass, Frederick. A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1845.
  • Douglass, Frederick, ed. Stauffer, John. Random House. 2003. My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I - Life as a Slave, Part II - Life as a Freeman, with an introduction by James McCune Smith. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan. 1855.
  • Gates, Jr. Henry Louis, ed. Frederick Douglass, Autobiography. New York: Library of America. 1994.
  • Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007.