Frederick Douglass’ speech titled ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’ is a passionate oration on the plight of black slaves in pre Civil War America. Delivered in 1852 the speech is elaborate and rationale but also emotionally touching. It is fair to claim that this speech is a key piece of American historical literature. Sojourner Truth’s speech (whose verbatim accounts were never recorded), on the other hand, is most remarkable for its sense of humor and its ability to pick choice historical precedents. For instance, Truth peruses the New Testament and the story of the birth of Jesus Christ through Virgin Mary as a strong proof of the capacity and superiority of women when compared to men. Though she did not claim this superiority in such exact words, her general point is that women were treated highly even in the scriptures, whereas their status in real society is much diminished. This essay will argue that what is common between the two speeches is their passionate tone, sincerity and compelling necessity; and while Douglass’ speech is marked by its detailed analysis and sobriety, Truth’s is full of wit, humor and insight.
Douglass begins his speech by highlighting the virtues of the Founding Fathers and their thrust for independence from the British Crown. He notes that the idea of attempting to establish sovereignty by breaking away from the British command was indeed very brave and revolutionary. Having identified and praised what is meritorious about the short history of the American nation, Douglass then declares how these achievements are offset by a perennial negative feature of American society – namely black slavery. Douglass’ tone is one of deliberate and measured rationality and inquiry. He punctuates his speech with numerous historical references that justify his plea of equality for blacks. Truth’s originality lies in invoking a very well known Biblical event and interpreting it in a novel way. It accounts for its immediate appeal and affect on the audience – which comprised of both men and women. The following passage shows how Truth had adopted Christian Evangelical rhetorical style in her own delivery
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Truth, 1851)