Blogs > Cliopatria > Richard S. Newman: Review of James A. Colaiaco's Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July (2007)

May 23, 2008 11:55 pm

Richard S. Newman: Review of James A. Colaiaco's Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July (2007)

James A. Colaiaco. Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 247 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 1-4039-8072-1.

Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Richard S. Newman, Department of History, Rochester Institute of Technology

In a century of great oratory, Frederick Douglass stood out. Tall and commanding with nothing less than perfect pitch (to tell from those who heard him speak), Douglass gave some of the most memorable speeches of the Civil War era. His first major address to the New England Antislavery Society, given only a few years after he escaped bondage, even had veterans of the movement hating slavery anew. Following the Civil War, Douglass captured Abraham Lincoln's place in American reform history as perhaps few other contemporaries could. And then there is his most famous speech: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"[1] Everyone, from academic specialists to grade school kids, now reads Douglass's brilliant address, which his biographer William S. McFeely has labeled "perhaps the greatest antislavery speech ever."[2] Originally delivered in Rochester's majestic Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852--and presented by the Rochester Sewing Antislavery Society--the Fourth of July speech scales the heights of American oratory in a way that only masters of the form--Edward Everett, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, and Sojourner Truth--could reach. It is a masterpiece.

Strangely, Douglass's Fourth of July speech has not been the subject of a full-length, modern study--something akin to the "speeches that changed America" genre that has become fashionable since the publication of Gary Wills's _Lincoln at Gettysburg_ (1992). We have books on nearly all of Lincoln's major addresses, not to mention studies of black orators, like David Walker and Martin Luther King Jr. We have examinations of Native American speakers, abolitionist rhetoricians, and progressive writers. But Douglass's Fourth of July speech has waited patiently for its great critic.

James A. Colaiaco, a master teacher of great books at New York University, in his _Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July_, offers the fullest and, in many ways, most compelling examination of the black orator's speech. Colaiaco, who has studied the rhetoric of Socrates and King, heaps praise on Douglass as a speaker par excellence. Though "best known for his three inspiring autobiographies," he asserts, Douglass's "greatest legacy to America is his oratory, forged in the crucible of the battle against slavery" (p. 2). For Colaiaco, Douglass was both a master rhetorician and an intuitive speaker--someone who knew exactly how to pull along an audience by conjuring memorable images, marshaling grand ideas, and bending phrases just so.

Colaiaco's book contains seven tightly woven chapters, each examining a specific part of, or theme in, Douglass's speech. After setting the immediate context that gave rise to Douglass's famous words--"some 500 to 600 people filed into Corinthian Hall" to hear him hold forth for nearly two hours--and covering his rise in abolitionists circles, Colaiaco spends three chapters on Douglass's speech itself (p. 7). As anyone who has read the entire address knows, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" is far from a short epistle about racial equality. It is a complex and often serpentine oration (and then printed text) that requires multiple hearings or readings to master. It is a measure of how far we have come from Douglass's world that most reproductions of the speech begin roughly one-third or halfway through (though Douglass excerpted the speech himself!). Colaiaco's study is all the more welcome because he takes the time to examine each main section of the essay, fleshing out its political, historical, and rhetorical meanings. For those who want to look like heroes in front of a class of undergraduates trying to grapple with the intricacies of Douglass's address, there is no better book.

"Narrating America's Revolutionary Past," the first of his chapters focusing on the oration's main themes, treats Douglass's invocation and opening paragraphs. Douglass praised the founders for undertaking a revolution based on freedom. Who would not honor the glorious Fourth, he basically stated? But, Colaiaco points out that Douglass "introduce[d] dissonant notes early, foreshadowing the blistering attack to come" (p. 33). Pronouns indicate Douglass's true mindset: the Fourth of July was actually a segregated day--"your holiday," as he informed his largely white audience, "not mine." This rhetorical technique carried into Douglass's use of "reversals" later in the speech, where he turned on his audience and noted the vast difference between white and black perceptions of this festive day, between America's grand rhetoric and its base reality of racial injustice. Yet, Douglass reversed himself again, offering hope--a plea, really--that America might change. "Like the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, to whom he is often compared," Colaiaco writes, "Douglass would vehemently condemn the nation for its injustice and hypocrisy while at the same time stressing the possibility of redemption" (p. 34).

From the outset, Colaiaco claims, Douglass was interested in creating a usable history for fellow abolitionists. He "invoked the rhetoric of the American Revolution for the antislavery movement," noting the "dangerousness" of being a patriot in the 1770s and an abolitionist in the 1850s (p. 38). Douglass also skillfully appropriated the Declaration of Independence as an "abolitionist manifesto" (p. 40). Here, Colaiaco goes deeper into Douglass's appreciation of natural law--the belief in a higher moral order that guides the construction and interpretation of common law, constitutions, and broader political discourses--than most scholars, arguing that Douglass, like John Quincy Adams before him and Lincoln after him, believed that the Declaration of Independence undergirded the entire experiment in Republican liberty. For Colaiaco, Douglass used the insights of natural law to turn Corinthian Hall into a courtroom where America would be put on trial for betraying its bold moral foundation. In other words, Douglass praised America to then bury and resurrect it.

"Denouncing America's Present" takes the reader into the heart of Douglass's speech. After prattling on about the virtues of the founders, Douglass whirled around to confront his listeners. "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?" With these "hammer-like rhetorical questions," in Colaiaco's nice phrasing, Douglass shifted his critique into high gear and put his white audience on the defensive. From this moment onward, Colaiaco comments, "scathing criticism dominate[d] ... his oration" (p. 52). Seeking not to conciliate either slaveholders or Northern reformers (who might have felt ennobled by asking the black abolitionist to speak), Douglass expressed incredulity that he must argue for black humanity and equality. According to Colaiaco, Douglass relied on a rhetorical technique known as "_prosopopoeia_," or "speaking in the voice of someone not present" (in this case, enslaved people), to express his frustration with the slaveholding United States (p. 57). His accusatory language emphasized over and over white hypocrisy for tolerating bondage. And Douglass did not let up. "O! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's year," he stated in a famous rhetorical flourish, "I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire, it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need a storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake ... the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and announced" (p. 57).

The context for Douglass's bombastic language was the deteriorating racial climate of the early 1850s, particularly the new fugitive slave law that threatened to nationalize slavery by making white Northerners accomplices in the rendition of runaway slaves. "Despite the indignation it aroused, the fugitive slave law was generally enforced," Colaiaco asserts (p. 69). Worse, leading American institutions--the federal government and the Christian church--continued to support property rights-in-man. Finally, the internal slave trade still funneled thousands of blacks (some of whom were kidnapped from free communities in the North) to slave markets in the Deep South. Where was Americans' vaunted moral courage and love of freedom, Douglass wondered? To stir American outrage, Douglass "reviled the nation for tolerating the systematic dehumanization of its black people" (p. 57).

In "Converting to the United States Constitution," Colaiaco skillfully situates Douglass's speech among broader abolitionist debates over the Constitution's antislavery status. Because the speech revolves largely around the broader meaning of the Fourth of July (and because it is often excerpted), contemporary readers may not know that Douglass used his famous address to flesh out his newfound conversion to antislavery constitutionalism. Formerly a Garrisonian advocate of the notion that the Constitution was a slaveholding document, Douglass by 1851 had come under the influence of more dynamic and nuanced abolitionist thinkers, such as Gerrit Smith. Viewing the Constitution as an abolitionist document, Douglass read it in "moral, aspirational" terms, in Colaiaco's words (p. 85). Indeed, for Douglass, the Constitution's natural law foundation was best reflected in the preamble's dedication to "a more perfect union." Douglass's conversion to antislavery constitutionalism (as well as his embrace of party politics) further distanced him from Garrisonians. But, he did not look back. Douglass believed that Americans did not even need a constitutional amendment to ban bondage. In fact, because the founders did not mention slavery, Douglass later surmised that they had hoped for slavery's death. In Rochester, Colaiaco emphasizes, "Douglass contended [that] the original, unamended Constitution guaranteed liberty and equality for all" (p. 102).

Douglass finished his speech exhausted but surprisingly upbeat. He quickly published the oration in _Frederick Douglass's Paper_, then printed the address in pamphlet form before finally inserting a condensed version of it in his second autobiography, _My Bondage and My Freedom_ (1855). "He was hopeful," Colaiaco observes, "that if the federal government could be compelled by moral argument and political necessity to fulfill the libertarian principles of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution, slavery would be abolished everywhere in the United States" (p. 107).

As his exegesis of antislavery constitutionalism illustrates, Colaiaco's book nicely balances intense study of Douglass's speech with analysis of the myriad of issues swirling around Douglass during the 1850s. Two concerns proved most important in the latter years of the decade: the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Spending one chapter on each, Colaiaco shows that Douglass remained conflicted about abolitionist tactics and strategies, about America's ability to change, and about his ability to change America. Though he extended his antislavery constitutionalism to combat the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision--which rejected blacks' inclusion in the body politic--Douglass began wondering about the utility of both moral critique and party politics in the struggle for racial justice. "Although Douglass rejected the plan to raid Harpers Ferry ... as a strategic blunder, he never disavowed Brown" (p. 136). In fact, Colaiaco argues that Douglass believed that "the point of no return had been reached [by 1860]: slavery in the South would be destroyed not by moral argument or party politics, but by war" (pp. 136-137).

In Colaiaco's fine rendering, Douglass is certainly a master orator and rhetorician. Yet, Colaiaco also risks drawing a portrait that is a bit too studious--Douglass as a policy wonk expounding on the finer points of natural law. In other treatments of the Fourth of July address, Douglass appears to be a prophet, a poet, and a preacher risking his life for a cause, not a libertarian refining his ideology further and further. For instance, David W. Blight argues in his _Frederick Douglass's Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee_ (1989) that already by 1852, Douglass was on the verge of apocalyptic thinking, the belief that only through a violent rending (or breaking from the racist American past) would the United States be resurrected as an egalitarian society. Similarly, in his introduction to Douglass's autobiography, John Stauffer sees Douglass at this time as a romantic visionary who imbibed Lord Byron, Robert Burns, and the Bible every bit as much as he mastered the Constitution; the Fourth of July address, Stauffer argues, was a "lament" for a nation gone wrong.[3]

There is also the matter of race. Where John Ernest (in _Liberation Historiography: African-American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794 -1861_ [2004]) and Robert S. Levine (in _Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity_ [1997]) see Douglass struggling to put race--and not merely abolition--squarely before white audiences in the Fourth of July address, Colaiaco says little about this aspect of Douglass's thought. To be sure, Douglass did not see himself primarily as a race thinker. Nevertheless, his life and thought--including key parts of the Fourth of July speech--flowed from black protest traditions and leaders dating back to the nation's founding. Like too many other commentators, Colaiaco paints Douglass in largely white shades. There is no mention of black intellectual roots, such as Douglass's heroes James Forten or Richard Allen (earlier generations of black activists--from slave rebels to Walker--are cast as revolutionaries, not thinkers). Yet, Douglass saluted both men for shaping a vision of black civic equality and loyal opposition.[4] Forten, Allen, and other black founders had long since argued that America was a black homeland and the Declaration of Independence was the abolitionists' gold. In virtually every decade since the founding, some black leader gave a major address shaming American slaveholders and highlighting black claims to equal citizenship.

Similarly, Colaiaco might have done more with black intellectuals around Douglass, particularly James McCune Smith. Douglass's great friend and literary compatriot rates only a brief mention for writing the preface to his colleague's second autobiography. According to Stauffer, however, McCune Smith exerted an intellectual and emotional influence on the maturing Douglass second only to Gerrit Smith (the apostle of antislavery politics).[5] McCune Smith helped Douglass grapple with the tricky subject of racial identity, its perils and promises. From McCune Smith, Douglass also learned race pride. This allowed Douglass to stand before his Rochester audience as both an outraged American and a self-consciously black activist wondering--but not really caring--if white America could handle his blistering claims and qualms. In one sense, the Fourth of July speech offered Douglass at his blackest.

In this sense, it is interesting to think about where Douglass fits in the recent contretemps over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's relationship to presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Many commentators have looked to the 1960s for historical perspective on the matter. It is clear that Douglass's Fourth of July speech makes as much sense as a historical backdrop. Like Wright, Douglass brought parts of the black Jeremiad tradition of moral critique painfully before white Americans' eyes. What could be more damning than Douglass's blast that "the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed" and "its crimes against God and man ... proclaimed and announced" (p. 57)? Yet, like Obama, Douglass did not underestimate Americans' need--his need too--for inspiration. "This nation can change," Obama stated. "I end with hope," Douglass concluded in 1852.

None of these critiques or contemporary digressions undermines Colaiaco's impressive book, which details more fully than any other text the mainstream traditions from which Douglass crafted his transcendent speech. The point is merely that Douglass's Fourth of July address, like his broader political faith, is capacious and deserving of as wide-ranging analysis as possible. Indeed, his famous speech deserves our fullest attention even today. Having read it, we can ask if Douglass's words can still inspire us to perfect American liberty.


[1]. The speech is available at <a href=""></a>

[2]. William S. McFeely, _Frederick Douglass_ (New York: Norton, 1991), 172-173.

[3]. John Stauffer, introduction to _My Bondage and My Freedom_, by Frederick Douglass (New York: Modern Library, 2003). I am indebted to Stauffer for letting me preview his forthcoming dual biography of Lincoln and Douglass, which promises perhaps the most insightful and exciting treatment of these two giants in some years.

[4]. I treat black founders' influence on Douglass in the introduction and conclusion to _Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers_ (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[5]. On McCune Smith's relationship to Douglass in the late 1840s and early 1850s, see John Stauffer, _The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), esp. 160-161.

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