Frederick Douglass’ Speech On Slavery And The Hypocrisy Of July Fourth Rings Out In N.H.

Jul 4, 2019

State Rep. Peter Schmidt of Dover reads from Frederick Douglass.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Granite Staters say a famous speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass about the 4th of July holiday still resonates today.

The 1852 address was read out simultaneously by hundreds of people in 10 New Hampshire communities and across the country Wednesday.

It was the first year the event, which was organized locally by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, has taken place outside the nonprofit’s home base in Portsmouth.

Douglass gave the speech less than a decade before the start of the Civil War. It’s now known as, "What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?"

"To him,” Douglass writes, “your celebration is a sham – your boasted liberty, an unholy license … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

As a former slave who freed himself, Douglass says, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.”

He vividly details the violence of slavery, and casts it as America’s central ideological hypocrisy, which had to be “exposed” for the nation to mend its collective morality.

"The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie,” Douglass said. “It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking Earth."

One reader of the speech in Dover was Jill Minot-Seabrook, who is black. She says despite the end of literal slavery in America, ongoing inequality, racism and oppression still conflict with the Independence Day celebration.

Jill Minot-Seabrook reading from Frederick Douglass in Dover, N.H.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

"It doesn't mean my freedom,” she says. “Just like the state of New Hampshire's motto is 'live free or die' – I think it depends on who you are."

The majority of the Douglass reading attendees were white, reflecting New Hampshire's demographics.

State Sen. David Watters of Dover is a Democrat who also sits on the board of the Black Heritage Trail. He participated in the reading, and says Northern white residents shouldn’t ignore their role in the racial violence and inequities of the past and present.

“Among black people, New Hampshire was often called the Mississippi of the North, because it was a tough place to be,” Watters says. “All these abolitionists knew that you had to get white people of conscience to commit to this cause, and I think that’s still true.

“The comfortable have to commit themselves to get uncomfortable to help other people that are oppressed,” Watters says.

The reading also featured Dover’s school district superintendent and school board chair. The district is still grappling with an incident late last year involving a racist parody song.

The history teacher who gave the assignment that led to the song remains on paid leave pending what’s been described as equity training. He's to return to class this fall. The district has held a series of forums to plan other possible reforms.