As we continue preparations for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Conference for Educators at the end of the month, Teacher Ranger Rob Finkill begins a series for teachers who cannot attend the conference, but that focuses on the same types of primary source document comparisons… this one between the Declaration of Independence, and a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass on the meaning of the Fourth of July to the enslaved population.
Recently on July 4th, Americans celebrated our nation’s birthday. Fireworks, picnics, and hot dogs of course played a major part in those celebrations. It has also been a time for citizens to celebrate the ideas and principles of the Declaration of Independence. Americans, throughout our history, have interpreted our founding documents in different ways. The Fourth of the July is a great chance to look at the Declaration of Independence and how Americans have interpreted its meaning.
The Declaration of Independence is, obviously, a great primary source for students to analyze. Another interesting primary source activity would be to look at how its meaning has been interpreted and used over the years by citizens of the United States across multiple generations.
Making a connection
The debate over slavery in the United States led to specific uses of the meaning of the Declaration (and the Constitution for that matter ) by both African-American and white abolitionists. No where is that demonstrated more clearly than in a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.
This speech and the Declaration can help students site specific evidence of how the principles and beliefs contained in the Declaration of Independence helped give hope to African Americans in Antebellum America and the movement to end slavery.
Before looking at the Frederick Douglass speech, students should understand the principles found in the Declaration of Independence that focus on the rights that African Americans and abolitionists were fighting for.
Have students look at the first section of the Declaration of Independence and support a simple claim statement:
Here is an example:
The Declaration of Independence states that people have the right to freedom and a government that protects their rights.
Students can use the Google Document below which contains a portion of the first section of the Declaration along with a student friendly version for lower level readers.
Have students use the graphic organizer below to organize their thoughts. The organizer has a section to include a “concrete detail” (specific fact) and space for students to make their own supporting details about the text they select.
Many experts consider this the greatest American abolition speech ever. Douglass himself stated that he worked as hard on this speech as any he ever did. The speech was given on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY. Interestingly enough, some abolition groups and some African American communities in New York had taken to holding Fourth of July ceremonies on the 5th of July as a protest. In 1852, the debate over slavery was growing. The Fugitive Slave Act, as a part of the Compromise of 1850, had caused much resentment in the North and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe had recently been published, bringing the reality of slavery to parlors all over the country.
The speech itself is very long (it took over 90 minutes to deliver), so having students look at the entire speech may not be practical. The speech can divided into three parts:
Part 1 : History of the Declaration and the Founding Fathers
Douglass summarizes and praises the Founding Fathers and the Declaration.
Part 2: Slavery in America
After almost soothing the audience, he delivers his own feelings on the 4th of July and how a slave might view it, using irony and symbolism in many cases.
Here is a well known portion of the speech found in Part 2:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, 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 denunciation 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Part 3: Hope for the Future
It is easy to focus on the words of Part 2, and forget that Douglass shares in Part 3 that there is hope for our nation based on the principles found in the Declaration of Independence.
I have taken portions of the speech that relate to the Declaration and included student friendly versions for lower level readers and placed them on a Google Doc whose link is found below. This may help make the speech more manageable in a class period or two. You may want to create questions for students to answer from each section; just have them read it and discuss, or even make a wordle word cloud (click to see one) for a quick summary.
“No one used the principles of the Declaration so forcefully as the abolitionists, particularly black abolitionists. Without those principles at the founding (of our nation) blacks would have had no where to look for a future in America.”
-Historian and Author David Blight
Students start the activity by examining the principles of the Declaration, so after reading the speech students can be asked to:
- Support the statement by the historian David Blight by siting specific examples where Douglass references the principles in the Declaration.
Here are a few examples: belief in natural rights, equality, liberty, right of revolution
This question could relate directly to a Common Core goal for Social Studies (grades 6-8):
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
- Look for examples of irony and symbolism in the speech and explain.
- Put yourself in the crowd that day, how would you have reacted?
- Why does Douglass use pronouns of “you” and “yours” extensively? What message is he trying to send the audience?
- Use Douglass’s argument for a modern issue “What to the _______ is the 4th of the July?”
(Backstory with the American History Guys is an excellent podcast resource.)
Comment and share more ideas on the speech