Thursday, July 02, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

The Meaning of the Fourth of July: Abolition in Massachusetts.

posted by Pleun Clara Bouricius

In case you managed to miss it, for a couple of months now, I have been immersed in Frederick Douglass’ celebrated Fourth of July speech, the one in which he famously asked, “do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?"

This all because Mass Humanities is sponsoring a push to encourage groups around the state to read the speech aloud this summer, emphasis on this coming weekend, of course. So I have been putting together a “portable program,” for anyone who might want to do such a thing – the speech in various lengths, context articles, web links, PR, you name it. If you want to take a look at it, it’s all there, together with a whole bunch of my spouting forth on the topic.

So what could I possibly have left to say? I am pretty Douglassed-out, you could say, been there, done that, as have many others with this speech (my fave Douglass rendition). But with my dying Douglass breath, I want to spit out just a few personal observations. Emphasis on personal. Well, professional, too, but professional-as-a-historian, not professional-as-Mass-Humanities-program-officer.

First: what’s with abolition and Massachusetts? It’s all over the place. Every other town has an Underground Railroad historic something. I realize that, yes, Garrison was HQ in Boston, Douglass lived in New Bedford for a while, but when I go ‘round the state, you’d think that it was crawling with abolitionists around here in the 1850s.

Nothing could be further from the historic reality, as our own Senator Webster’s words attest. And yes, some people in Concord got upset when Webster worked to pass the Fugitive Slave Act to save the Union, but that is pretty minor to the wealth that flowed over the backs of slaves into New England coffers. Massachusetts was to the South during the antebellum period as England was to its American colonies during the Revolutionary period: make the big bucks by locking up the added value (manufacturing, in ordinary language).

This disparity has been a huge puzzle to me. The interesting thing is, I am finding, that we’re not all in the same place. Some people are just finding out that, yes, Matilda, there was opposition to slavery Massachusetts, more specifically, there was opposition from African Americans, both escaped slaves and “free” Northerners. Moreover, a lot of that African-American opposition has hitherto been hidden or unknown (not the Douglass speech, but still…). It brings back that tired joke: Q “Who was the first American abolitionist?” A: “The first American slave.” Writing the history of abolition is, in many ways, writing African American history, the Garrisons and Thoreaus of this world notwithstanding.

So, yes, I understand that. But still: for a town to take pride in its Underground Railroad should be to also recognize that there were reasons it had to be underground. Those independent Yankees either didn’t care, or were not quite so opposed to slavery as we’d like to believe they were. They may have depended on it, as were hundreds if not thousands of rural palm leaf hat weavers – women all – who made millions of hats from palm leaves that came with slave-created Molasses from the Islands, and left to cover the heads of slaves on Southern plantations. For example.

Oh, stop banging your drum, Bouricius, let’s at least be happy that people care enough to care… What I really wanted to say was this: I have lately come to understand a little better how hard it was to be an abolitionist in the 1850s. How discouraging to work for a cause that went entirely against the tenor of the times.

The 1850s are best compared, perhaps, to the tumultuous 1960s – with one major exception: the legal and even social tide wasn’t with the abolitionists. The 1960s Civil Rights Movement built upon Supreme Court Decisions (Brown v. Board of Ed., 1954,), and saw, in the middle of the decade, legislation rolling from LBJ’s War on Poverty (1964), and the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as another major Supreme Court Civil Rights decision (Loving v. Virginia, 1967), that struck down prohibitions of interracial marriage and signaled a general gaining of momentum and social acceptance of civil rights during the decade.

The abolitionists were struggling against the tide in the 1850s. The Mexican War and the extended failure of the Wilmot Proviso (no slavery in new territories) to become law, various parts of the Compromise of 1850 (especially the Fugitive Slave Act), the divisive Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, the more or less culminating Supreme Court Dred Scott decision (1857) – they were all “defeats” if you will, for the abolition movement.

It must have been an unbelievably wearying fight. And, lest it ever seems that Presidential sanction doesn’t count, Martin Luther King King went to the White House in 1966. Douglass and Garrison, however, were social pariahs outside abolitionist circles until, perhaps, Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House in 1864.

So, if you think of the riots that happened at the end of the 1960s, the political assassinations, the enormous upheaval, at a moment when the movement was actually gaining victories in society, then you can imagine what the 1850s looked like. Especially since public and political speech then was, in general, far more raucous than ours (read about this on the E Pluribus Unum Project). Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serialized 1850-1852 and published as a book Boston in March of 1852, caused a great stir, while Anthony Burns’ capture had Boston on its feet in June of 1854. I could go on and on.

So, much as I wonder about the current attention to abolition in Massachusetts, I have come to feel great empathy with the unpopular abolitionists, and feel they deserve that attention. Douglass’ 1852 speech was a blip on the screen of the larger war, but as David Blight has argued, it was important as a galvanizing “moment” in the articulation of the antislavery argument.

And galvanizing it is. Very. It is a miracle of oratory that carries you away. I abridged it for our kick-off event on June 2, and David Tebaldi and I read my version, switching off, paragraph after paragraph, to each other across his desk. David’s a pro at reading aloud and at quiet emphasis. But I, with my half-Dutch brain, stumbled and stumbled until I got into the rhythm and started shouting Douglass' words, louder and louder

What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue?...
Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?...
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? ...

I will never forget hearing Horace Seldon ring out a paragraph of Douglass’ speech on June 2, 2009, in Boston. A little man with a big voice: a voice used to speaking out loud about what he believes in. A Douglass kind of voice.

Do yourself a favor and get some folks together and read the 43 parts round-robin style. You'll not regret it.

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