The Hypocrisy of American Slavery
The Hypocrisy of American Slavery is a speech by Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) – a former American slave and an abolitionist leader – delivered on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York, during the Fourth of July celebrations.
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.
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.
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 the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating its freedom, while cultivating the institution of slavery at the same time.
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."
Douglass started his speech with questioning the execution of constitutional principles in regard to African-Americans in the U.S.: "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?"[a]
He compared the United States of America to the nation of Babylon: "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."
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."
Douglass 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."
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.
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. TIME Magazine put it on the list of top ten greatest speeches of all time.
Notes and references
- Douglass' use of us refers, in this instance, to African-Americans "Analysis of The Hypocrisy of American Slavery". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "Frederick Douglass Biography - Facts, Birthday, Life Story - Biography.com". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "Frederick Douglass – Biography and Works. Search Texts, Read Online. Discuss". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "Internet History Sourcebooks". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "The History Place - Great Speeches Collection: Frederick Douglass Speech – The Hypocrisy of American Slavery". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "Frederick Douglass – Top 10 Greatest Speeches". Time. 17 September 2008. Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- "Analysis of The Hypocrisy of American Slavery". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- 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.