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Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July Hardcover – February 7, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at a meeting sponsored by the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. The speech, and indeed the meeting itself, were contrived to provide a counter-celebration to Independence Day. Speaker after speaker, Douglass among them, took aim at the cherished pieties of the nation: the memory of the Revolution, the elusive ideal of liberty for all, and the country's moral and religious foundation. As NYU professor Colaiaco (Socrates Against Athens) makes clear, Douglass's biting oratory on that occasion resonated loudly across a startled country. "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine," he told his white listeners. "You may rejoice, I must mourn." Douglass's remarks dove to the heart of the hypocrisy upon which the American nation had been founded. With incisive analysis and elegant prose, Colaiaco explains the rhetorical atmosphere in which Douglass crafted and delivered his speech. More than one abolitionist by then was rising up to call for a "second American Revolution," to fulfill the spirit of 1776's fine words. Douglass's eloquence added to the sharpness of this clarion call, while also drawing a firm line between the romantic folklore and grim reality of American liberty. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Antebellum audiences enjoyed patriotic speeches on Independence Day, but a white Rochester, New York, crowd in 1852 was about to be surprised. At the rostrum was their neighbor, Frederick Douglass, who, instead of the expected encomium to the founding of the U.S., delivered a scorching denunciation of the preservation of slavery. A New York University teacher, Colaiaco analyzes this and other speeches, including Douglass' famously ambivalent 1876 commemoration of Abraham Lincoln, via several avenues: paraphrasing and quoting (this work does not reprint the speeches verbatim), rhetorical technique, and constitutional interpretation. The most memorable element in the Rochester speech was Douglass' deployment of the second person to illustrate the chasm between your freedoms as whites under the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and slavery. But as Colaiaco stresses, Douglass held out a redemptive hope, his belief that the Constitution did not in its heart permit slavery. Extending the trend for "biographies" of speeches, Colaiaco's careful study recaptures Douglass' reputation as one of America's greatest orators. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade; First Edition edition (February 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1403970335
  • ISBN-13: 978-1403970336
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By MNR on June 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
James Colaiaco, also author of an important book on Martin Luther King, Jr. has now written an outstanding study of Frederick Douglass.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, delivered an extraordinary speech in Rochester, N.Y., entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Douglass' July 4th oration is the greatest abolition speech of the 19th century. With rhetorical brilliance, Douglass compelled the nation to confront what has been called the "American dilemma," the contradiction between slavery and the ideals of liberty and equal rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. This contradiction between ideals and practice tore the nation apart, leading to the Civil War.

James Colaiaco does a masterful job in weaving together a comprehensive analysis of Douglass' speech and important historical context. This book brings to life a brilliant cast of characters, including William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and John Brown. Colaiaco's penetrating analysis shows that while Douglass praised America for its liberal ideals, he devoted most of his thirty-page speech to attacking the nation for continuing to allow more than three million black people to live in slavery.

Not only does Colaiaco provide a comprehensive and insightful analysis of Douglass' speech, he also demonstrates how Douglass continued to pursue its major themes in many speeches delivered prior to the Civil War.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I read this book by James Colaiaco, a Master Teacher of Great Books at New York University, to help me think about the United States's upcoming Independence Day holiday of July 4, 2006. The book did both less than that and more.

Colaiaco's "Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July Oration" has as its named subject a speech that Douglass (1818 -- 1895) gave in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852, generally known as "What, to the American Slave, is your 4th of July?" In his speech, Douglass paid tribute to the vision and courage of America's founders in their fight for freedom and for independence from Britian. But equally importantly, he excoriated the America of his day for its toleration of the institution of slavery. Using his great oratorical powers, Douglass lashed out at the hypocrisy that would proclaim that "all men are created equal" with self-evident rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" while enslaving 4,000,000 African Americans. Yet Douglass found a reason for hope as he was convinced that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offered the path to eliminate slavery.

Colaiaco's book is similar in format to books published in recent years analyzing the speeches of Abraham Lincoln in detail. There have been notable books, for example, devoted to Lincoln's Cooper Union Address, the Second Inaugural Address, and, of course, the Gettysburg Address. Douglass was a grand and learned speaker who had escaped from slavery as a young man and who, as was Lincoln, was largely self-taught. His speeches, together with his three autobiographies, richly reward reading.

Although Colaiaco gives a good account of Douglass's celebrated Fourth of July oration, the book is rather broader in scope than that single speech.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By M. Lucia on July 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Colaiaco's Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July will undoubtedly attract many readers. Its elegant prose and masterful interweaving of Douglass' powerful July 4th oration (1852) with the events that brought him to the forefront in the fight against slavery make this book a must read for anyone interested in understanding the issues that led to the tragic Civil War.

Colaiaco demonstrates Douglass' consummate rhetorical ability and illuminates the careful thought he gave to arrive at an anti-slavery interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. This book goes beyond Douglass' July 4th oration to illuminate other important speeches of Douglass, including his attack upon the infamous Dred Scott decision (1857) as well as his brilliant 1860 speech on the Constitution as an abolition document.

Having read this book, I can better understand how Douglass compelled America to confront the shameful contradiction of slavery in a nation whose founding documents-- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution-- professed liberty, justice, and equal rights for all.

Colaiaco's writing talent lies in his ability to make difficult matters accessible even to those who are not American history scholars. Readers will comprehend the power of the spoken word to affect a nation. This book, more than any other I have read, demonstrates the prominence of Frederick Douglass' oratory in arousing the conscience of many against slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. This is the only book I know that analyzes Douglass' July 4th speech, placing it among the greatest speeches in American history.

Kudos to James Colaiaco for writing an excellent book on an important historical period that combines elegant prose and incisive analysis. This book deserves a place among the celebrated works on American history.
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