There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest.
It is possible, but seldom practiced in oratory, to press into the world a message that enlarges humanity while insisting that we grapple with our failings. It happened barely seventy-six years after the Declaration. There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest. He was speaking to an anti-slavery organization which was a former sewing club. It’s notable that its members, aggressive social reformers, were women. He drafted a singular statement recognizing a deep affection and respect for the work of those who reached for independence which he sensed to be a catalyst for freedom for everyone, even globally. But he vigorously argued where our nation’s practices fell short in providing the means of freedom for all.
The US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves.
Slavery was permitted, it was widely practiced and engrained in the economy. A former slave, an abolitionist, and a public intellectual, Frederick Douglass did nothing less than amend the Declaration of Independence in 1852 to rally for complete inclusion and insist that anything shy of that was in the least a national embarrassment and, in fact, extreme brutality. Remember, he escaped slavery in Maryland, far north of the Mason-Dixon Line. If anything should be carved in stone, its this address. It looks nearly 170 years forward to our current moment. It was later called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass had more humility, he left it untitled, or merely, “ORATION, DELIVERED IN CORINTHIAN HALL, ROCHESTER, BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS, JULY 5TH, 1852.” He gathered the facts about our already distressful history and the then contemporary state of captivity of the nation’s inhabitants. Although they would not be accredited with “citizenship” until 1868, the US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves. The numbers were still growing and by 1860 the Census counted almost 4 million slaves. But in the end, Douglass saw a hopeful new world, even as he understood the world was smaller and economic and social globalization had already commenced:
“Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable.”
The entire text is worth your time and and essential civic learning: https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2945