10 out of 10
In a subtle and varied presentation, actor Fred Morsell brings the full force of statesman and former slave Frederick Douglass’s eloquence to bear on the issue closest to him: slavery. Re-enactment at its finest, Morsell’s performance confirms both the classic status and contemporary relevance of Douglass’s legendary 5th of July speech. Yes, 5th of July. Read on!
An abridged performance of Frederick Douglass’s July 5th, 1852 speech to the Rochester (New York) Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, “The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Negro.”
Adapted and performed by: Fred Morsell.
TBM Records, 1992.
CD or audio cassette, 46:56 minutes.
Availability: In print and available from the publisher. Two other recordings of Douglass speeches, “The Lesson of the Hour” and “Why I Became a Woman’s Right’s Man” are also available. An order form can be found here.
The publisher recommends calling this number to place orders: (800) 965-3347.
Chances are good that you will talk with proprietor Tanya Bickley, who is a Douglass enthusiast with a genuine passion for his work. If you share that passion, please encourage her to record Douglass’s autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), with Mr. Morsell. It’s high time this American classic was released as an audiobook!
Try before you buy: RealAudio clips from this and other speeches by Douglass can be found at the publisher’s website here.
I discovered A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave sitting on a study hall bookshelf in junior high school. I’d read books about slavery before, but none written by former slaves. Curious, I cracked the book open and read a few pages. Soon I couldn’t put the book down. Douglass’s harrowing story of escape from bondage and rise to national prominence was compelling, but his power as a storyteller was even more so. Having fought tooth and nail for his literacy as a slave, Douglass wielded words with more fierce eloquence than I’d ever encountered. I’d been looking for history, but Douglass’s autobiography opened my mind to the beauty of language and the importance of reasoned argument to the pursuit of justice, and ultimately to the realization of self. For this I’m grateful to him, and while I’m not given to citing personal heroes, I make exception for Douglass. A few years ago I paid my respects at his stolidly prosaic grave in Rochester, New York.
Over a century and a half earlier on July 5th, 1852, Frederic Douglass appeared before the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to present “The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Negro.” That’s right, July 5th. The date was his choice, for as he explained, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Douglass’s voice, unlike his words, is sadly lost to us now, but he was accounted one of America’s greatest orators, and his performance before the abolitionist group that day is legendary. So it was with no small excitement that I learned actor Fred Morsell, who has been performing his inspirational one-man show “Presenting Mr. Frederic Douglass” before audiences in the manner of Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!” since 1988, had recorded this speech for TBM records. For those of us (like myself, to my regret) who have not been fortunate enough to see Mr. Morsell perform live, this recording offers a chance to experience one of Douglass’s most famous works as it was originally intended, in the grand tradition of 19th century oratory.
The CD begins with a banjo playing the refrain from “Acres of Clams” (Francis Henry, 1874), presumably in reference to the line “and I have been frequently sold”. Despite its apparent relevance, this post-civil war ballad of the Northwest doesn’t address slavery but the hardships of white settlers. While placing it before Douglass’s speech certainly invests the song with new significance, there’s no shortage of great anti-slavery ballads that might have been used. Admittedly, this is a minor historical quibble.
We are brought into the proceedings shortly after they’ve begun. A stately male voice thanks Reverend Raymond for his reading of the Declaration of Independence and introduces Miss Julia Griffiths, Secretary of the Anti-Slavery society. Griffiths takes the podium before the assembled crowd (the recording was conducted before a live audience), expressing her admiration for the founding fathers. This preamble contains a preponderance of words you would expect: great, magnificent, hero, patriot, heritage, freedom, sacred, genius, glorious, and of course, pride. Griffiths is so proud, in fact, that her grandiloquence nearly renders her a caricature. She proceeds to introduce Douglass with great fanfare.
Douglass, wise strategist that he is, takes the stage with humility. He is at pains to point out the weightiness of speaking about the 4th of July (“This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way for me”) and confess a nervousness that Morsell’s steady voice cleverly belies.
Douglass establishes a dual relationship to the nation he celebrates right from the beginning. Although he addresses his audience of “my fellow citizens” inclusively, he also invokes “your fathers” and “your nation” rather than “ours” with quiet firmness. Laying the groundwork for the argument to come, he persuasively frames the founding fathers as bold challengers of the status quo, champions of a radical vision who were ready to sacrifice every comfort. They were “dangerous men”, Morsell intones, lingering provocatively over the words. Morsell lends Douglass’s words increasing weight throughout this passage, audibly capitalizing key phrases and engraving them in his listeners’ minds. “The principles contained in that document are SAVING principles. STAND by those principles. Be TRUE to them.” Even though we know a counter-thrust is coming, it’s hard not to be moved by Morsell’s sonorous delivery of this tribute.
Then Douglass leaves the glories of the past behind. We reach the turning point of the speech as Morsell levels his voice with sober calculation: “My business, if I have any here today, is with the present.” There is a new current pulsing through Douglass’s rhetoric now. “Men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own,” Morsell states, going on to parody the slave traders who lay claim to Washington’s legacy even as they defile it. As with so many of Douglass’s pointed critiques, the broad import of this statement is sadly just as relevant today as when it was written. Morsell concludes in a frank whisper, “Alas it should be so, but so it is.”
Oratory is an art of persuasion, but it is equal parts theater, and at its finest, music as well. Morsell delivers Douglass’s words with the intelligent nuance they demand, his cadences sweeping from a righteous thunder that scours the flesh from your bones to burgeoning deliberation and everything in between.
Douglass patiently built his speech like a fortress: brick by brick, word by word. After erecting these battlements, Morsell stands atop them to unleash a former slave’s hard truth like a hail of arrows. “There is not a man under heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong – FOR HIM!” As Morsell’s voice reaches furious crescendo, he calls upon the elements themselves: “At a time like this light, fire, scorching irony not convincing argument is needed. Not the gentle shower, but Thunder! Storm! Whirlwind and Earthquake!”
Then, like Zeus casting a thunderbolt, Morsell hits us with the full force of Douglass’s judgment:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I ANSWER; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers, hymns, sermons and thanksgivings are to him, mere bombast, fraud, and hypocrisy ? a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. Here in America, the home of the Declaration of Independence and a Bastion for Human Rights, you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.
It’s one of the most famous passages of the speech, and Morsell does it passionate justice. He does not, however, deliver precisely the same words that Douglass did:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy ? a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Morsell has edited Douglass’s speech, partly in the interest of time (the full text would last well over the length of a CD, Morsell’s version lasts 46 minutes), partly in the service of tempo and delivery. I can’t say I agree with all of Morsell’s choices: Douglass’s original concluding sentence to the paragraph above strikes me as more powerful, for example. But as any good actor does, Morsell makes his adaptation work. I think it fair to say that despite Morsell’s abridgments and artistic license, he remains true to the spirit of Douglass’s text.
For the remainder of the speech Morsell flays the mind with vivid imagery of the slave trade’s consequences, cracking his voice like a whip. He turns his unsparing eye on the collusion of the church, citing theologian and Presbyterian minister Albert Barnes, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.” He rakes the fugitive slave law across the coals. Finally he concludes with human exhaustion, “My spirit wearies of such blasphemy.” But his final message is one of hope. “The doom of slavery is certain,” Douglass states, due to an inevitable, expanding globalization of knowledge that resonates deeply with his own life-long struggle for access to education. This passage sounds profoundly contemporary; you’d almost think he was praising the internet.
In closing, Morsell / Douglass offers a reverent farewell to his audience that is almost a prayer.
At the time Morsell made this recording he had already been playing Douglass for four years, and the passionate, critical intelligence driving that commitment illuminates his performance. While the world of theater is in many ways the world of quick studies, you can’t achieve this kind of unity between actor and material in the short term. I listened attentively at the beginning, but by the middle of Morsell’s rendition of Douglass’s speech I was riven by every word, subsumed in the enclosed universe created between audience and performer. As I said in the beginning, reading Douglass is transformative. Hearing him performed like this gives his words new immediacy and invests them with the living, vocal power they were intended to have.
As incredible as his escape from slavery and subsequent rise to success were, it is perhaps more remarkable that Douglass did not lose heart in America. Douglass believed that the Declaration of Independence was not an antique monument at which to lay flowers, but a testament that Americans of every race and creed are called to live every day, whatever the personal cost. He proved himself the truest of patriots by his willingness to condemn his country for its iniquities in order to save it from them. If we would honor the memory of one of our greatest citizens, we should take that lesson to heart this 4th (and 5th) of July.
Next week: I’ve posted this review early because I’ll be taking a short vacation next week. Expect Malleus to resume its regular schedule on July 11.