To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature  contact us | site guide | search 
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing, 1815-1850
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of the Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
America in 1850
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: America 1850
Text 1. John C. Calhoun
Text 2. Daniel Webster
Text 3. William Henry Seward
Text 4. Henry Clay
Text 5. Henry David Thoreau
Text 6. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Text 7. Frederick Douglass
» Reading Guide
•  Link

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
7.  Frederick Douglass, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?," July 5, 1852

A powerful, moving speech that will color your view of the Fourth of July even today. At the outset Douglass strikes a hopeful note: the country is young and may yet grow into wisdom. He then recounts the national creation saga celebrated on the Fourth, focusing special attention on the Founding Fathers. Even though the point from which he sees them "is not, certainly, the most favorable," he "cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration." When his attention turns to the present and its celebrations, he tells his audience, "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine." He then warms to his topic. For him the evil of slavery and the humanity of the slave are beyond dispute. What is needed now is "scorching irony" not "convincing argument." He depicts the reality of slavery in America in 1852 and denounces the Fugitive Slave Law. He vigorously condemns American Christianity for its toleration of and support for slavery, comparing it unfavorably with the English variety and announces that slavery represents "the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union." Could be used with students. 16 pages.

Discussion questions
  ·  How does Douglass's speech echo those of Calhoun, Webster, Clay, and Seward?
  ·  What various strategies of persuasion and rhetorical devices does he employ throughout the speech?
  ·  How does he align himself with his audience while distinguishing his point of view from theirs?
  ·  How does he use the image of the father?
  ·  How does he use the past? What of it does he embrace? What does he repudiate?
  ·  How and why does he use the Bible?
  ·  What does his speech have in common with Stowe's story?
  ·  How does he view the Constitution?
  ·  By the middle of his speech he is severely condemning his audience. How does he regain their sympathy?

Reading highlights
  ·  Note the careful way he distinguishes his point of view from that of his audience's.
  ·  Note his vivid and concrete images.
  ·  Note how in his conclusion he links freedom to the course of empire and progress.
  ·  Note the way Douglass's speech reflects sermon and commemorative oratory.

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
From the perspective of an American in 1850, either Northern or Southern (remember, you don't know what's going to happen over the next 15 years):
  ·  How volatile is America in 1850?
  ·  What holds the nation together? What is pulling it apart?
  ·  How serious is the Southern threat to leave the Union?
  ·  Is the Compromise of 1850 a triumph of nationalism or sectionalism?
  ·  Will the Union survive?

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: June 2010