Frederick Douglass: The Distance Between the Platform and the Plantation
By Christopher Fannon
The general image of antebellum America comes in very clear contrasts. In theory, the country could be divided into twos: black and white, North and South, industrial and agrarian, liberal and conservative, abolitionist and pro-slavery. The North was sympathetic and understanding to slaves, while the South was cruel and heartless. Such is the neat and tidy picture of America leading up to the Civil War held by most people. At first glance, Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? fits this viewpoint. “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie” (Douglass, Fourth of July 472). While this sounds harsh, it is fairly expected. Similar condemnations of slavery are found throughout the abolitionist movement. Once the reader realizes, however, that this speech was directed at an abolitionist audience in Rochester, New York, the idea of dividing Americans into these simple categories is proven wrong.
Like most abolitionists, Douglass’ speech is an unsympathetic criticism of a country that hypocritically praises the values of freedom while allowing the enslavement of a significant portion of its population. Keeping in mind both his audience and his time of delivery (The speech was given in honor of Independence Day, 1852), Douglass pushes this criticism into a very uncomfortable place for the white abolitionists. They give Douglass the opportunity to praise all the glorious accomplishments of the American system, but he turns around and rebukes them for their “national inconsistencies” (471).
When one considers how Douglass tears apart his audience, one starts to wonder, “What were they thinking?” Was his audience aware of the insult they were placing upon him and his race? Douglass wonders as much himself, asking “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?” (468). Odds are good that the audience simply did not think this through. They did sympathize with the abolitionist movement, some being abolitionists themselves, and likely thought it would be perfect to have a former slave talk about independence. They likely did not consider that bringing up the still dire situation of slavery in America on a day of celebration against oppression would be disrespectful to a former slave. They certainly did not expect the kind of condemnation they received.
Though perhaps not intentional, Douglass’ speech evokes the long-standing African-American literary trope of literacy asserting humanity. While Douglass does not need to prove his humanity to this audience per se, he does need to remind them that they cannot forget the ongoing plight of his race in the country. He uses a number of techniques within his speech to prove his mastery of the language. This much is evident from his sarcastic opening, “I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium” (462). Not only does he demonstrate his eloquence, but he acknowledges and rejects the cliché of a humble opening to a speech.
Throughout this speech, Douglass creates phrases with double meanings, particularly in the beginning, before he makes his point clear. The most notable occasion occurs very early, “The distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable” (462). At its face value, this statement is what his audience wants to hear. To them, it as if this former slave says, “Look at the dire situation I was in and where I have come to be today. America is great because it makes that possible.” Douglass knows that is the way his audience wants him to think, and rejects it. He cleverly chooses the word “platform,” with the double meaning of both a stage and a proposed set of ideas. His “platform” is not one of praising the freedoms that exist in America, but in seeking freedom for those who have been left out.
Beyond double meanings, Douglass’ speech uses, as he puts it, “biting ridicule” and “withering sarcasm” (470) to transmit its message. Considering Douglass’ intention to expose the blatant contradictions of most white Americans’ values, sarcasm is a good choice. While the entire speech is sarcastic, Douglass focuses in particular on American self-love. When he ends his introduction, briefly recounting the history of the Revolution, he admits that his audience already knows what he has said, “As a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor” (466). In other words, nobody can sing the praises of America better than an American. Douglass cleverly criticizes his audience for always looking to congratulate themselves for their fathers’ actions, rather than accomplishing something revolutionary now.
The most consistent technique Douglass uses is a subtle shift in pronoun antecedents. His audience is never “we” or “us” but always “you.” Douglass does not separate his audience into North and South or pro and anti-slavery. Rather he separates those who are enjoying freedom with those who are actively fighting so that black Americans can enjoy that freedom as well. Early in the speech, this is constant but cleverly subtle: “It is the birthday of your National Independence and of your political freedom” (462). By the end, Douglass ensures that anyone who may have missed this distinction before fully understands, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine” (468).
Though his criticisms are harsh, Douglass clearly is “not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic” (465). He knows that they fought hard for their principles, and draws upon their example in his own battle for freedom. However, he is not about to give a speech honoring the freedoms he does not have. Even after the emancipation, Douglass separates the white and black American experiences. While both fully American, the two races have had very different histories. That difference cannot and should not be forgotten. While giving a speech in honor of the late Abraham Lincoln he noted, “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children” (Douglass, Oration). Why should African-Americans honor the aspects of the American experience they were excluded from?
The speech begins with subtle insinuations and works its way up to a crescendo. This structure ultimately creates a more effective delivery for Douglass. After his introduction, Douglass recounts some of the history of the country so far. Though he separates himself with the rest of those celebrating Independence Day, he agrees that those who began this country deserve the praise of the day: “I will unite with you to honor their memory” (Douglass, Fourth of July 465). Not only does Douglass demonstrate his love of the ideals of America, even as he is criticizing the system, but he portrays role models for fighting oppression by appealing to the memory of the founding fathers. Having created this set-up, Douglass can then ask why the people of this age praise the founding fathers, yet do not follow their example, and continue to fight against what is known to be wrong. “With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right” (465). By the end, Douglass exposes the hypocrisy of the enlightened minds of Americans, declaring, “You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the though of liberty for the enslaved of America” (471). Despite Douglass’ apparent self-deprecating introduction, this speech was masterfully crafted for maximum effectiveness. As much as the white abolitionists would not have wanted to hear this, this argument, building from politeness to rage, would have been nearly impossible to refute.
Douglass consistently clever use of language not only establishes mastery of formal speaking, but mastery over his audience. When put into terms of “mastery,” it is easy to how the power of language fits into the greater themes of African-American literature. Even if one looks only at Douglass’ works, this theme is apparent. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he recounts the first time he considered language as a tool for freedom. At age twelve, as he sneaks readings from the “Columbian Orator,” he gains the moral of “the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” (Douglass, Narrative 412). Even from such a young age, Douglass knows that the most effective tools to combat slavery are the truth, and the means to convey that truth. By taking control of language, the slave can gain mastery over his owner. Considering that we are a nation founded by rebellion, this theme is not only relevant African-American literature, but American literature as a whole.
Through every turn of his life, from his escape from slavery to splits in the direction of the abolitionist party, Douglass never lost sight of his principles. He would no sooner accept the way an abolitionist was supposed to think than he would the way a slave was supposed to think. He was in every sense of the term a self-made man, both in his liberation from the bounds of slavery and his loyalty to his ethics afterwards.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Second Edition. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nelly Y. McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 387-473
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Second Edition. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nelly Y. McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 462-473
Douglass, Frederick. “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” http://www.ashbrook.org/library/19/douglass/lincolnoration.html. October 11, 2005. Ashbrook Center.
© Christopher Fannon