Posts Tagged ‘primary source’

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.

4th of July   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.

DOI l  Start from the beginning

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.

Declaration of Independence Text

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.

Detail and Supporting Details Graphic organizer


douglassFrederick Douglass’s Fourth of July Speech

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:

Full Text of the Speech

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.

Click for a Google document with portions of the speech and student friendly versions of those portions.


making connectionsMaking connections between the speech and the Declaration of Independence

“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.

Other ideas

  • 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?”



Independence Daze: A History of the 4th of July Pod Cast from Backstory.org

(Backstory with the American History Guys is an excellent podcast resource.)

Edusitement lesson plan : Launchpad: Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

Reading Frederick Douglass from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities


Comment and share more ideas on the speech

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gestures to the crowd during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 1963

AFP/Getty images

     August brings us to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which included the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr. This event and speech, of course,  is regarded by many as a pivotal moment in not only the Civil Rights movement, but also American History. The speech has been used by History ,English, and even Speech teachers to emphasize the points made and the style as well.

 Not Your Typical Memorial Day Speech

 Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. wasn’t in Gettysburg in 1963, but Vice President Lyndon Johnson was  on Memorial Day. He will give a speech that year at the Memorial Day event at the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg. On the surface you would think that his speech would  focus on honoring the sacrifices of those soldiers buried there and he certainly does that, but after asking us to remember their sacrifice and understanding that having a military helps keep peace (i.e. Cold War Era) , he took a different approach.

“As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too–a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people–so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain. One hundred years ago, the slave was freed, One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

The New York Times recently did an article on the 1963 speech and it caught my attention. The words of this speech reveal some



of LBJ’s thinking and just a few months later he will become president where his “Great Society” plans will be put into action. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 will be passed roughly a year later. Some might say these were a part of the “vigil of justice”.

We incorporated this speech in our end of the year unit called Active Citizenship. In that unit, we focus on four methods that citizens can make change in our nation: education, litigation, legislation, and innovation.  Our unit pulls examples from the Civil Rights Movement for each method.  This speech served as an attempt to educate, just as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” will a few months later.

Lesson Plan Ideas

1. Compare the text of LBJ’s speech to that of the Gettysburg Address. What questions can be raised? What was the status, in 1963,  of  the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln talked of in his speech in 1863 ?

2.For a Civics lesson use the fact that  Johnson will reference the “Law” in his speech. That reference can lead to a discussion of the Constitution as “higher law”. What do laws mean if they are not enforced? The question of States’ Rights can be brought into discussion as well. Those issues were still there in 1963, 100 years after the war ended (and even today to an extent).

“The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed–and is not failing.”

3. If you teach a unit on the 1960’s , this speech could give students a glimpse into the thinking of LBJ. Have students research what may have made a man from Texas come to these views on freedom and equality.

The moment you start to think that Gettysburg is about a three day battle or one speech given by Lincoln, you start to realize the connections between 1863 , 1963 , and 2013 are many .


Shribman, David. “L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 May 2013. Web.

Link to the article  - which includes a recording of the speech

Link to text of the speech from the LBJ Presidential library

Link to Newsreel footage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed

Comment here or email with your thoughts, ideas , questions or resource ideas


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