The slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass answered this question which serves as the title of the speech he gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. The Fourth of July is
“A day that reveals to [the slave], 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 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.”
Throughout this speech Douglass appeals to his audience’s belief in the principles of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, and calls out the hypocrisy of anyone who would also support slavery.
This speech sends my students to their dictionaries and down to the extensive footnotes on Scriptural passages and historical references. It lends itself to a discussion of elegant prose style and employment of just about all the rhetorical strategies described by Aristotle.
I also like to teach Douglass’s autobiography, especially those chapters that describe his intellectual awakening as a child. He learned early on that oppressors are threatened by intellectual freedom. When his mistress started to teach him to read, his master immediately put a stop to it, correctly noting that the ability to read would make him unfit for slavery. Douglass then used his wits to learn how to read, exchanging food with poor white boys for reading lessons; observing ship-carpenters mark pieces of wood with letters, and then practicing writing in his master’s discarded copybook.
And he read, including Richard Sheridan’s “mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation.” These, Douglass writes, “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” Douglass continues that such reading “enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.” Yet, a drawback to such newfound wisdom was being “led to abhor and detest my enslavers” (at least for a while).
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