“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

frederickdouglass01Every year someone calls our attention to Frederick Douglass’s famous sermon “What, to the American Slave, is your 4th of July.” (As they should). Douglass delivered this sermon on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

Here is a small taste:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

Over at The New Yorker, David Remnick offers a new take on the sermon in the age of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way.

Stockholm Syndrome and American Slavery

b0b9a-douglassThis post is for historians of American slavery.

I was recently teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and a student mentioned that he was surprised by this passage:

“Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others.  They think their own better than that of others.  Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the other…They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.  It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave, but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”

Does anyone know of any historical scholarship that addresses what is happening in this passage as a form of “Stockholm Syndrome?” I am not interested here in whether or not you think Stockholm syndrome was occurring here.  I am interested in whether mainstream American historical scholarship uses the category of “Stockholm Syndrome” to explain what is happening here.

Was Frederick Douglass a Refugee?

Some of you may remember Donald Trump’s reference to Frederick Douglass during last week’s remarks about Black History Month.

In case you missed it:

These comments from Trump and later his press secretary Sean Spicer have prompted many historians to wonder if they realize that Douglass passed away in 1895.

I am not sure if Trump was correct when he said that Douglass is “being recognized more and more.”  Historians can debate that point.  But I am reasonably certain that since he referenced Douglass the reputation of this former-slave and abolitionist has skyrocketed.

On the day Trump made his statement about Douglass I started the #douglassfortrump hashtag and began to tweet Douglass quotes for the purpose of educating the POTUS about the great abolitionist’s ideas.

David Blight, the author of a forthcoming biography of Douglass, decided to use the recent Douglass craze to make a statement about Trump’s executive order on immigration.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

Frederick Douglass, author, orator, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century, was a dangerous illegal immigrant. Well, in 1838 he escaped a thoroughly legal system of enslavement to the tenuous condition of fugitive resident of a northern state that had outlawed slavery, but could only protect his “freedom” outside of the law.  

Douglass’s life and work serve as a striking symbol of one of the first major refugee crises in our history. From the 1830s through the 1850s, the many thousands of runaway slaves, like Douglass, who escaped into the North, into Canada, or Mexico put enormous pressure on those places’ political systems. The presence and contested status of fugitive slaves polarized voters in elections; they were the primary subject of major legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as well as Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. They were at the heart of a politics of fear in the 1850s that led to disunion. Among the many legacies of Douglass’s life and writings alive today, one of the most potent is his role as an illegal migrant and very public abolitionist orator and journalist posing as a free black citizen in slaveholding America.  

Read the entire piece here.

#DouglassforTrump

Here is what Donald Trump said yesterday, the first day of Black History Month, about Frederick Douglass:

Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this about Trump’s comments on Douglass:

So it looks like the POTUS is a big fan of Frederick Douglass.  If this is the case, perhaps Trump might appreciate learning more about Douglass’s views.

So I went on Twitter and started the #DouglassforTrump hashtag.  Feel free to head over there and add your favorite Douglass quote.  I know the hashtag is a bit long, but please try to tack it on to your tweet so that others can easily find your quote.

We at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are encouraged that Trump wants to give Douglass the publicity he deserves.  So let’s help his speechwriters get up to speed with some of Douglass’s actual words.

Frederick Douglass in Britain

Douglass, circa 1847-52

Did you know that Frederick Douglass spent nearly two years in the British Isles delivering anti-slavery lectures?  Hannah-Rose Murray, a public historian trained at Royal Holloway, has assembled a very impressive website chronicling Douglass’s 1845-47 journey to Great Britain.  The site includes, among other things, a map of Douglass’s speaking locations, local reaction to his lectures, and some useful teaching resources.

Learn more about this project by reading Murray’s post at History@Work.  Here is a taste:

I began researching his British trip during my Masters degree, but it has now grown into a fully-fledged project! I designed some teaching resources and then a website to host them, and I’ve been adding to it ever since. Contemporary newspapers are at the heart of my research: they printed Douglass’s speeches and fascinating letters from the public praising or condemning his harsh language against slavery. Ultimately, the aim of my research is to raise awareness of Douglass’s visit to Britain, and hopefully start an international conversation about the impact of his trip.

Reviewing "The Abolitionists"

A couple of days ago I did a post at The Anxious Bench on the new PBS three-part series on abolitionism.  It focuses on the lives of five prominent nineteenth-century opponents of slavery: Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriett Beecher Stowe.

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen (with whom I had an invigorating conversation this weekend in New Orleans about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania) review the series

They are not very impressed.

Here is a taste of Wilson’s analysis:

So Part I of The Abolitionists leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m still thinking of using it in my course. Mostly, a good teacher should be able to fill in the gaps. Taken as the story of certain abolitionists rather than “the” abolitionists, this part of the film leads in some promising directions. It just doesn’t go there itself. I found the dramatizations effective; I think they will make it much easier for students to visualize life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (Tim Cragg’s cinematography is downright pretty.) And I consider that to be one of the most important — and difficult — things to get right in a history classroom.

And here is a taste of Owen’s analysis:

While the abolitionists are brought strikingly to life, 19th century society seems strangely flat. In contrast to Jonathan, I was disappointed by the portrayal of religion. The beliefs of all the key participants were mentioned, but (brief cameos from Stauffer and Gilpin aside) seemed to be skated over quickly, rather than explained in greater detail (positioning this within a wider movement of religious revival would have been helpful). The ideology of paternalism, in all its hypocrisies, was never adequately explained. Perhaps this highlights the biggest difficulty in portraying slavery to a modern audience. The complicated story to us today isn’t why Garrison, Grimke, Brown and Douglass despised slavery and campaigned so vigorously against it – it is why so many other people remained complicit with the slave system. Hopefully the next installments will go some way to creating a more vivid and dynamic world in which the institution of slavery became more strongly challenged.

In addition to these thoughtful reviews, this post also includes links to seven other reviews of the documentary. Check them out.

Frederick Douglass and the John Brown Raid at Harper’s Ferry

Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, librarian Tom Knoles tells us about the Society’s acquisition of a new Frederick Douglass letter.

The letter was written from Canada on October 28, 1859, to Charles W. Slack in Boston.  Douglass tells Slack that he is unable to fulfill a speaking engagement in Boston because 17 federal marshalls are after him due to his indirect involvement in John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry two weeks earlier.  Douglass writes:

My Dear Sir:
Seventeen Marshalls are on the look out for me in the States, and to avoid arrest I must avoid a journey to Boston…”

He then adds:

“I should have written before – but for the hope that the clouds that now overshadow me would pass away. Instead of this they grow darker every hour.”

Read the rest of Knoles’s post to learn how Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau got into the mix.  I am not a Douglass scholar, but this letter certainly sheds much light on his mindset in the wake of Harper’s Ferry.

Great stuff!