Reading Frederick Douglass Resources

Below you will find articles, speeches, histories, teacher resources, books for kids and more that start to put Douglass’ speech in a variety of contexts. This resource makes no pretense at completeness. However, we hope you will find a tour through this page rewarding.

Event Planning



Discussion Guide

Educational Resources

Event Planning

Here you will find everything you need to create a public or private event for a shared reading of Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech: at your community center or historical society, at a public day or festival in your town or area, before the Independence Day fireworks, in your backyard, or even at the fair!

Apply for a Civil Rights Discussion Grant

To organize a Reading Frederick Douglass Together event, apply for a Civil Rights Discussion grant. For more information on the program, please contact Rose Sackey-Milligan at Mass Humanities: (413) 584-8440 x101.

Have fun, and please give us feedback if you are so inclined. If you organize an event, please send us photos.

Recipe for a Successful Communal Reading

Step one, choose a location. We suggest that you read the speech at a local event or commemoration. Any number of places would make for a good reading, such as with the lunch crowd in a public place, at the public library, during a 4th of July family barbecue, before the local fireworks display, or at two mikes set up on the steps of town hall. You could also work with a private group and use the speech as your book club’s monthly read, for example, supplementing with related content to discuss, and reading it aloud during the meeting.

Step two, come prepared. Everyone wants to read along and have a speech to take home. The speech (edited for different lengths) is available for download. Make copies for readers and audience members. Will there be a discussion afterwards? Discussion leadership is an art. Local (community) colleges are great sources of discussion leaders. Mass Humanities will fund a reasonable stipend for a discussion leader (a humanities scholar—please contact Rose Sackey-Milligan when you apply for a grant).

Food and drink are social grease. People talk more freely and happily if they can have something to eat and drink. If the event is public, oftentimes a local market (including the supermarket) is willing to donate cookies or fruit and lemonade.

Invite locally well-known persons to introduce the event or start off the reading.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: less work per organization, more audience, more resources (venues, recording, publicity). Great way to get to know each other!

Additional logistics to consider:

  • If it is a large event, you might need to arrange for amplification.
  • Don’t forget to get a permit from your town hall if you’re doing an event in a public space.
  • Depending on your audience and the location, you will need wheelchair access and seating.
  • The paragraphs of our edits are numbered. We ask readers to line up for reading—take the number from the person in line in front of them.

Step three, get your publicity going right away. Below we have poster templates, sample press release, timeline, and hints.


Tips & Hints before Getting Started

  • Email, press release, calendar image, and poster are here to download: just add your event
  • Make clear that the program is free and open to the public
  • Credit your own organization, Mass Humanities and any other people or organizations who have contributed money or services.
  • Define your audience/collaborating organizations: Who might be interested in participating in the reading? Who would you like to interest in participating? How would you best reach them? Can you get someone who is a draw?
  • Easy and effective outreach: collaborate to reach email lists, use the poster as an email, use any of it for social media.
  • Local event outreach effectiveness ratio: phone calls>emails>social media> flyers>press release

Douglass Publicity Timeline graphic

Alert Your State Reps

Find out who they are and invite them!  Find your Senator’s telephone and email. Find your Representative’s telephone and email.  Phone and fax communications are most effective.

Submit your event to online calendars:

Submit your event to your local NPR Online calendar submission form and other online community calendars. Some online calendars allow you to submit a small image for calendar listing. Here’s a Douglass image for your use. Don’t forget to submit your event to the Mass Humanities’ online events calendar.

Sample Calendar Listing:

Description: Join [your organization or a famous/prominent person/scholar here] in a communal reading of the fiery July 5, 1852, speech in which the great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass took exception to being asked to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Discussion [and refreshments] to follow.

Title: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: Reading Frederick Douglass

Web address: Your organization’s web address. If you do not have a website, or cannot list the event on your site, list it on the Mass Humanities events calendar (you’ll need to submit it), and give the Mass Humanities web address: Participants will be able to find the specifics of your event as well as the Douglass resource on our site.


Below you will find downloadable posters for you to customize and use. You will need Acrobat Reader to edit the PDFs, and image processing software of your choice to edit the JPG. For the PDF version, utilizing Acrobat Reader, just fill in the details of your event on the screen, and then print and copy.

Poster Choices:
PDF and JPG options below.

download pdf

PDF blue version

download pdf poster

PDF green version

download jpg poster

JPG blue version

download jpg poster

JPG green version


David Blight called Douglass’ Fourth of July address “abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.” Here’s an excerpt from that famous Douglass’ speech:

Download various lengths of Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July Speech:

In English:

abridged – short
(4,526 words = approximately 30 minutes)
abridged – medium
(5,370 words = approximately 35 minutes)
unabridged – full
(10, 387 words)

In Haitian Kreyol:

abridged – medium
(5,370 words = approximately 35 minutes)

In Spanish:

abridged – medium
(5,370 words = approximately 35 minutes)

HISTORY: In his fiery July 5, 1852 speech, the great orator famously took exception to being asked to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. What brought him to this moment? What did he try to achieve? Was he un-patriotic or ultra-American? Did he actually dissociate himself from American citizenship or embrace it with this speech? It behooves us to read the speech and learn.


Frederick Bailey escapes from slavery and settles in New Bedford, MA, where he takes the name Douglass.


A radicalized Frederick Douglass publishes his Narrative, announcing to the world he is an escaped slave. He then leaves New England to avoid capture by slave catchers while he travels and lectures in England, supporters buy his freedom.


Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act—it is now a federal offense to harbor a person who is “legally” a slave.


In his Independence Day speech, Douglass, who clearly feels like an American (why else return?), goes so far as to refer to your United States and your Founding Fathers.

Discussion Guide

Here are some discussion guidelines you may find helpful. We have a more in-depth discussion guide as a pdf download. In general, you may find it helpful to frame your questions a certain way. Our advice is to:

  • Be specific, ask how something works, rather than why it works For example: What does Douglass try to achieve when he says, “__”? or How does Douglass convince his audience of ___?
  • Also ask who, what, where, and when questions. For example: Who is comparable to Douglass as an orator? or What does this speech tell us about today’s United States?

Topic Questions

  • What is the rhetorical question in his speech?
  • What did the audience expect of Douglass?
  • Why was it essential for Douglass to argue that he was a man?
    • What is a “man” in Douglass’ speech?
    • How does Douglass argue that he is a man?
    • Does he need to?
  • What are the implications of his words today?
  • How did the war advance in the 1850s?
  • Have we moved forward as a country?
  • What is citizenship?
  • Why this speech and why now?

Other Discussion Suggestions

  • What parts of the speech do you find particularly powerful, and why?
  • If Douglass were alive today, what might he be working on?
  • Who was Douglass’ audience?
  • Did the audience expect this speech?
  • Are speeches important in society? What do they do? How do they work?

Framing Topics

These concepts and definitions may need explanation before your discussion. Our Educational Resources page has materials that address these and other topics.

  • The Fugitive Slave Law
  • The Constitution used as a defense of slavery (while the Declaration of Independence was used as a defense of freedom)
  • The meaning of “jubilee.”
  • Arguments that were made for and against slavery.
  • Attacks (both verbal and physical) made against abolitionists. (In many ways, Douglass is trying to steady the abolitionists so they don’t succumb to pressure from the other side. People need to know what those pressures were.) It is particularly useful to give people samples of arguments in favor of slavery. Usually they don’t know those arguments, and as a result, they don’t understand why abolitionists are making particular counterarguments.

Tips for Touchy Topics

  • Maintain a clear role as facilitator and guide the conversation when needed.
  • Think about the speech beforehand, and choose 2 or 3 topics you want to cover. Steer the discussion with these selections and prompt attendees to respond.
  • Ask people react to the previous speaker when you think the topic is fruitful. Get the group to help you with this by shutting down the first person who violates the rule. Once done with a topic, call upon someone who had a hand up previously
  • Put up a sheet of paper in the back of the room where people can write down their unmet issues, so you can dip into it. Clearly, this does not work outside.
  • Some statements lead to discussion, and some close off discussion. You need to solicit the former and discourage the latter.
  • Set an allotted time per speaker—we suggest 45 seconds—and stick to it.

Two Steps to an Active Group Discussion

  • Start the discussion by going around the room asking for one-word reactions to the reading of the speech. Keep track of some of them, and then return to the people whose “one word” seems interesting or provocative, and ask them to explain.
  • When an interesting question or issue comes up, agree with the group to discuss that particular angle for a set amount of time, say 5 minutes, so that people can participate in that topic.

In-Depth Discussion Tips (Usually for Small Groups)

  • Look at the opening. How does Douglass characterize himself and his relationship with the audience? Why do you think he describes himself in those terms?
  • Does Douglass stick to that (apologetic) tone, or does he change at some point? How would explain how and why he changes?
  • Does Douglass use “we” and “us” or “you”? If he changes, when does he address the audience as “you” and when does he talk about “us” and “we”? How would you explain this?
  • If you were a member of the group of female abolitionists who had invited Douglass to give the speech, how might you feel about his criticism of the founders and other parts of American history and life? Would you feel personally attacked, or would you agree with his attacks—or both?
  • Why does Douglass attack the church, especially given the fact that many abolitionist groups were affiliated with churches? Was this dangerous, and if so, why did he do it?
  • What parts of the speech do you find particularly powerful, and why? What would they made you feel or think about if you were a member of his audience when Douglass delivered this speech?
  • In the 19th century, oratory was considered both a form of entertainment and a crucial element in public life. To be effective, oratory was expected to address the mind (presumably with information and logical arguments) as well as the imagination and heart (presumably with images and ideas that made you feel a particular way) in order to convince the will (to take a particular action). What parts of this speech might have appealed to the mind and what parts to the heart? If most of his listeners were already abolitionists, what do you think he was trying to accomplish with respect to persuading them to take action?
  • What kinds of things does Douglass quote? What impression does this, and his speaking style, give you of what kind of person he was. Would you have found him impressive? Do you find him impressive? If so, does this contribute to the effectiveness of his argument in any way?
  • If you were a member of the audience listening to this speech, at what points in the speech might your mood change? How and why? And how would you feel at the conclusion of the speech, and why? Does it matter that he ends with the hymn?

Discussion Guide (pdf)

Educational Resources

Below you will find articles, speeches, histories, teacher resources, books for kids and more that start to put Douglass’ speech in a variety of contexts. This resource makes no pretense at completeness. However, we hope you will find a tour through this page rewarding.

By Frederick Douglass

About Frederick Douglass or his work

Frederick Douglass in Massachusetts


Primary Materials

A Selection of Relevant Web Resources

An Interesting Take:

Teacher Resources

Lesson Plans – Curriculum for teaching on Slavery, Abolition Movement and Frederick Douglass

Forward March: Continuing Frederick Douglass’ Footsteps
This National Park Service “Teaching with Museum Collections” Lesson Plan includes a curriculum guide to accompany a visit to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at Cedar Hill, Douglass’ home in Washington, D.C., from 1877-1895. Suitable for Multiple grades.

The Ongoing Struggle for Freedom: Frederick Douglass Video Lesson Plan
This is provided by C-SPAN to educate teachers how to introduce topics such as Freedom, Race, and Language in American History. Intended for 8th Grade and up.

The Great Debate Lesson Plan: Slavery in the U.S. Constitution 
Discusses Constitutional Racism and the Afro-American experience during the Reconstruction. Intended for Middle School students grades 6-8.

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
The National Humanities Center provides a close reading and lesson plan for Frederick Douglass Fourth of July Speech.

Interesting Texts/News Articles/Videos that could be incorporated into lesson plan

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Historians on Record Podcasts
Provides lectures from numerous credible historians and scholars on historical documents, people, and events (Not an actual lesson plan, just teaching material). Intended for High School Students and up.

For Slavery and Abolition teaching resources

Books for Children

A Picture Book of Frederick Douglass (Picture Book Biography)
by David Adler (Author) and Samuel Byrd (Illustrator)
Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship
by Russell Freedman (Author)
Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist Hero (Childhood of Famous Americans)
by George E. Stanley (Author) and Meryl Henderson (Illustrator)
Frederick Douglass for Kids: His Life and Times, with 21 Activities (For Kids series)
by Nancy I. Sanders (Author)