Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become one of the leading men of his time. Forbidden from formal education, he taught himself to give powerful speeches that helped change the minds of his countrymen.

Most of us have a tendency to take our rights and freedoms for granted. We believe we deserve them by default, just because we were born into them. This wouldn’t be the case if we lived in another time.

It’s crazy to think that less than 160 years ago, millions of people didn’t have the right to one of the most important things in life – freedom. Slavery was a plague in America and other parts of the world, and equality was a fantasy for many.

A few courageous people spoke out, and helped turn the tide of public opinion against it, but it took a civil war to end slavery in the United States. 

Frederick Douglass was one of those few brave people. Against all odds, he went on to become a very influential person in American history. His impact helped shape a future of freedom and equality for all people, regardless of such things as sex and race.

What did Douglass’ journey to freedom look like? We’ll have to first take a closer look at his life and work.

Who Was Frederick Douglass?

Like most black people in 19th century America, Douglass was born into slavery. As was the case with most slaves, Douglass’ didn’t know his date of birth or his age, which speaks volumes about the dehumanisation he faced. Regardless of all that, he later decided to celebrate his birthday on February 14. 

He was of mixed race, with a black father and Native/African American mother. Life in Maryland at that time was rough for him and those like him. They worked on plantations, with masters who used them like beasts of burden.

As an infant, Douglass was separated from his mother, whom he barely saw until she died when he was seven. After living with his grandmother for a while, he went from one master to another.

Since childhood, Douglass had had an inkling that there was more to life than his little world. First, he was passionate about education, which was out of reach for slaves. But when he was 12, his master’s wife started teaching him the alphabet. Douglass described her as a kind woman who treated him like a human being, unlike many others at the time.

Unfortunately, her husband disapproved and forbade her from giving Douglass any more education. In his autobiography, Douglass described his continued learning from the neighbourhood white kids, along with any writings he could get his hands on.

He was obsessed with learning. As he put it: “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

And he was right. After a few failed attempts, he managed to escape for the first time in 1838. With the help of his lover, a free woman, he took a train that started his journey to freedom.

Within 24 hours, he was in a safe house in New York City. He was free.

In his words:

“A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.”

From this point on, Douglass proceeded to change the world through his work. He spoke to everyone who would listen, and more and more people felt compelled to. He even talked to slave owners in his quest to achieve his goal of freedom for all. In addition, he published an abolitionist newspaper and campaigned for women’s rights.

His popularity rose to such a level that he became the first African-American nominee for the vice president of the United States. He didn’t seek the office. Somebody nominated him without his knowledge. Douglass never actually hit the campaign trail, but this was a monumental moment in American history. 

During this time, he even worked with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, supporting black people across the country. His influence resulted in many significant changes that brought additional and meaningful freedoms to black people in the US.

Listing all of Douglass’ achievements would take forever. He did more in his lifetime than most people can dream of. Through it all, one of his speeches made history and put the whole country to shame.

What Did He Do to Influence Others?

In 1852, Douglass received an invitation to give a 4th of July speech. He delivered it on the 5th and it was nothing like anyone expected.

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” was a three-part speech that shook the USA from coast to coast. Especially impactful was the second part of the speech – “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery.” Let’s break it down.

1. Rhetorical Questions

Douglass began his speech with a series of rhetorical questions. They highlighted the hypocrisy of calling on a black man – a former slave – to speak about freedom and independence. From the first moment, he wanted people to see that he wasn’t going to praise the opportunity, but shame it. 

“What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

He went on to say that he’d have loved to answer these questions in the positive. However, he’d never been that free, and neither had the other 4 million black slaves in the country.

His points truly resonated with the audience. He made it very clear that the 4th of July wasn’t for everyone, and therefore asking him to speak highly of it was immensely hypocritical.

2. Use of Strong Words

After the introduction, Douglass dove into life’s inequality as experienced by all the black slaves. He had two main goals in this part of his speech.

The first was to use highly negative and dark metaphors to describe the division between white and black people in the US.

“The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

He also used many words describing universal values everyone should share. This again highlighted the exclusion and deprivation of freedom.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.”

Such language evoked strong feelings in the audience. Douglass wanted to describe the pain and unfairness he and his people suffered.

3. Open and Strong Criticism

Throughout most of the speech, Douglass criticised the American society of the time. He spoke of the evils of the time and shamed those who participated. He wasn’t afraid to talk straight and unfiltered, including the use of harsh and offensive words. He wanted to shake the ground and shock listeners, which he certainly did.

As mentioned before, this was not the speech they had expected of him, especially not on that cherished date. Those who heard it felt any number of emotions – everything except indifference.

Most of all, he criticised those who could bring themselves to celebrate Independence Day. Over and over, he emphasised the absence of freedom for the millions of people who suffered, while they celebrated. It affected the audience and made them think about the inequality.

4. Call for Change

The purpose of Douglass’ speech wasn’t to highlight the hypocrisy, but to implore society to change.

For this, he put hyperbole to use many times. 

“For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

Douglass wanted his audience to understand that they needed to take action. Drastic changes were due, because the USA couldn’t be truly free if it continued to exclude certain classes of people. 

Finally, he called on his listeners to try and find a country where more “shameless hypocrisy” existed. But if they failed, they’d have to agree with him that the US “reigns without a rival.” This was the final punch that sealed the points he’d made throughout the speech.

A New World

Douglass’ speech has an incredible impact, even today. It was carefully crafted to shock a nation and to help initiate momentous changes. What’s more, it was an act of tremendous courage. Saying the things he did, in the way he did, at the time he did, could have gotten him killed. But he was brave enough to see it through, and so secured his place in history.

Even though he was born a slave, his determination and skill led him to become one of the leaders of the Abolitionist movement and one of the most influential black men in US history. From consulting Lincoln to advocating for women’s rights, Douglass has had a great positive impact on the world. 

You probably won’t risk death if you speak your truth, but it might feel that way sometimes. Is there anything you need to say, but fear is holding you back?

Speakers Institute can help you leverage Frederick Douglass and other famous speakers to create your own unique speaking style that gets results. Here’s where you can learn more:

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