What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

July 6, 2012

Frederick Douglass Reinstructs America

Frederick DouglassAmericans have always celebrated the Fourth of July, though in the 19th century it was held to be an occasion of greater solemnity–a day given less to cookouts and fireworks than to speeches and reflection. And yet Americans in the middle decades of the 19th century were sharply divided, with increasing numbers deeply confused, about the meaning of their nation’s birthday. Urgently needing reinstruction in the nation’s first principles, they would receive it in an unforgettably poetic manner in the great battlefield speech that their President delivered amid the unprecedented crisis to which their confusion and division finally led. But the Gettysburg Address was not the first such reinstruction that Americans in that period of crisis received. A no less remarkable effort came 11 years earlier, not from the officer charged above all with preserving, protecting, and defending the nation’s constitutional integrity but rather from a radical outsider.

When Frederick Douglass spoke to an audience of abolitionists at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852, he spoke as an outsider in a triple sense: as an abolitionist, a black American, and a man who had lived most of his life as a slave. Acutely mindful of that fact, he told his predominantly white audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” But he made clear as he proceeded that this radical outsider in fact spoke for and from the true heart and soul of America.

At a critical moment Douglass echoed John the Baptist, denouncing those latter-generation Americans who claimed “Washington to our father” while they betrayed the revolutionary faith of the fathers, much as the Scriptural prophet had called out a “generation of vipers” for falsely claiming “Abraham to our father”–and had warned them of “the wrath to come.” Douglass’s tacit warning was that the truth of the self-evident natural law principles to which the fathers had dedicated the new nation might well be demonstrated not by a reasoned argument that they did not require, but rather by the vengeance of the angry God who authored them. As faithful bearers of those truths, black Americans and all those who would speak for the enslaved were then not outsiders after all, in any proper sense, but were the true children of the Revolution.

So Douglass concluded with an expression of hopefulness, calling his fellow citizens to renew their faith in the “saving principles” of the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution as “a glorious Liberty document.” And in this greatest of all abolitionist speeches, by turns angrily prophetic and hopeful, he helped prepare them for the new birth of freedom that America’s own Father Abraham would bring forth in the succeeding decade.

Peter C. Myers, Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Read the document:

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

We the Teachers

The Ashbrook Center, with, invites you to visit our new history and government teaching resource blog, We the Teachers. Here you will find regularly updated posts highlighting not only the resources found at our own site, but many of the best resources, lesson plans, and professional development opportunities offered by leading history and civics education groups and government agencies. Find the site at

Among other links collected here, you’ll find one to Exploring Constitutional Law, which will provide resources for understanding the Supreme Court’s widely awaited recent decision on the Affordable Healthcare Act.

You’ll also find the TAH Lesson Plan of the Week, highlighting one of the lessons designed by Ashbrook’s team of university professors and secondary school teachers. This week, see the two-lesson unit on “The Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on Diversity and the Extended Republic,” which helps students understand the question facing ratifiers of the new Constitution: the extent to which it would limit individual states’ rights of free self-government.

Earn a Master of Arts in American History and Government at Ashland University

Ashland University’s Masters program in American History and Government has now been designated a Master of Arts program, a title that acknowledges the serious content study the degree entails. An intense and rewarding degree program, it is designed with the needs of secondary school social studies teachers in mind. Courses are offered during the summers and, starting in the Fall 2012 semester, as live interactive online courses duringthe school year. Each two-credit summer seminar involves advance reading and one intense week of classes at the Ashland University campus, where teachers from around the nation gather in a relaxed but focused community, with housing and meals provided. Each online course is taught in real time via a webinar program over the course of seven weeks. You may earn the degree in as little as three summers of intensive coursework, or in as few as two years with a combination of on-campus and online work.

Courses are open to both degree-seeking students, and to non-degree continuing education students interested in taking individual courses for professional development, teacher licensure, or transfer to another university.

Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government. All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents. An optional capstone project allows degree earners to apply teaching methodology to historical content (just as the weeklong courses in residence allow ample opportunity for teachers to share teaching strategies). Other options for completing the degree are a comprehensive exam or a thesis. Learn more about the program and view the schedule online.

Sample Courses in the MAHG Curriculum: The American Presidency

  • Part I: Washington to Lincoln
  • Part II: Johnson to Present

These elective courses examine the political and constitutional development of the office of president. The first, covering the Founding era through the Civil War, focuses on how the presidency shaped American political life as the country grew and struggled with rising sectional tensions. The second, beginning with Reconstruction and continuing to the present, examines changing conceptions of the presidency during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially as America became a global power. Like most MAHG courses, this seminar is team taught. The instructors are Marc Landy, Professor of Political Science at Boston College, and Jeremy Bailey, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

New Degree Program Combing Social Studies Content Studies and Teaching Methodology:
Master of Arts with a Specialization in Teaching American History and Government (MASTAHG)

Ashland University now offers a new program designed for secondary school personnel assigned to teach college-level coursework, such as dual-credit classes. The MASTAHG program blends graduate-level coursework in the best practices of curriculum and instruction with advanced content study in American history and government. Students in this program complete 12 hours of education work along with 24 hours of work in American History and Government. This program will begin accepting students in fall 2012. For more information, contact the Ashbrook Center at 419-289-5411.

Constitution Booklets Available

The Ashbrook Center offers a pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. These convenient booklets make excellent classroom resources for American history, civics, and government classes.

Copies of the booklet are available for $2.00 each. Special bulk pricing is available for quantities of 10, 25, 100 or more. Standard shipping and handling is included at no charge; rush delivery is available for an additional fee.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit

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