Frederick Douglass on the Economics of Human Stock and “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Frederick Douglass

The following post comes from Cynthia Nielsen who is a PhD candidate at the University of Dallas and blogs at
By the shedding of whose blood have we become one of the wealthiest nations in the world?  To begin an answer, why not turn to one whose back bore many a bloody lash for the sake of the so-called “American dream.”  In his 1852 oration, “The Internal Slave Trade,” Frederick Douglass offers his own analysis and stringent condemnation of America’s participation in the trafficking of human beings for economic gain.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave trade—the American slave trade sustained by American politics and American religion!  Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.  You know what is a swine-drover?  I will show you a man-drover.  They inhabit all our southern states.  They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation with droves of human stock.  You will see one of these human-flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans.  These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers.  They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill.  Mark the sad procession as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them.  Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives.  There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray.  Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms.  See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes, weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.  The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength.  Suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul.  The crack you heard was the sound of the slave whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe.  Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains; that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on.  Follow this drove to New Orleans.  Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers.  See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.[1]

This is simply one among many scenes depicting the hardships African American slaves endured on a daily basis as a result of the institution of chattel slavery.  Enslaved by the love of money, the master’s vision becomes distorted.  Not only does he see human beings as things, but the sounds of suffering fall silent to his ears.  Deafened to the wailing of mothers’ torn from their children, he transposes the dissonance of clanking chains into gold-en keys, which like the dual cut of a double-edged sword open the door to his future and secure the bonds of his brother. 

To add to their humiliation and degraded status as mere property of the white man, slaves were subjected to public auctions where they were ordered to stand, often naked or nearly so, and allow the potential buyers to examine their bodies to ensure their suitability for long-term servitude.  If a slave’s body showed signs of illness, disease, or possible weaknesses, they were passed over as bad investments, unprofitable for the master’s business.  Scar tissue on a slave’s back—the number of scars, whether the scar was old or relatively fresh—became the subject of a mythology employed to determine a slave’s character.   Too many scars indicated a rebellious spirit, whereas having few scars meant that the slave possessed a docile, obedient spirit.  “As they worked their way from inflicted scars to essential character, buyers fixed slaves in a typology of character according to the frequency, intensity, and chronology of the whipping apparent on their backs.”[2] While the slaves stood humiliated, exposed and wondering what kind of master might purchase them on that particular day, the slave buyers paraded themselves before the crowds as augurs who “could read slaves’ backs as encodings of their histories.”[3] 


Slaves on the Auction Block Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism. Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a largely white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth” [Psalm 137]. Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them. […] To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.[4]

Although chattel slavery and slave auctions are no longer part of America’s daily routine, in what ways do we continue to act as augurs de-coding and constructing the Other?  What kinds of actions can we, as Christians, take to change, subvert, or expose such practices?

[1] Douglass, “The Internal Slave Trade,” 436–7. 

[2] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul, 145. 

[3] Ibid., 145. 

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 431-2.  

  • Merobinaa

    This is typical Douglass – piercing, sobering rhetoric that has a way of foisting reality to the forefront of one’s consideration. Thanks for re-animating his concerns for my 21st century mind and soul.
    In answer to your last question, I would answer felony disenfranchisement and how that has created a whole lot of black/brown 3rd class citizens. Check out Michelle Alexander on this as well as Glenn Loury. The disproportionately adverse impact that the US prison complex has had on black/brown men is truly horrifying.

  • Cynthia Nielsen

    Dear Merobinaa,
    Thanks for your comment, well-put. Thanks as well for the suggestion to read Alexander and Loury. Are their specific books/essays with which I should begin?
    Best wishes,

  • Pingback: look at this()

  • Pingback: See you()