The Promise of Liberty: Frederick Douglass’s Passover

Discover how the Exodus and the Jewish celebration of Passover inspired Frederick Douglass's quest for liberty

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey ascended to the podium at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. The source of his moral argument for liberty that day would be drawn from the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins this year on the evening of April 22.

Frederick’s Path to Deliverance

Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in February of 1818, Bailey had never known his father. His mother had died when he was a boy. Fourteen years before that speech in Rochester, Bailey, aided by a young free black woman named Anna Murray, had dressed as a sailor and tucked a false ID into his pocket. He nervously boarded a train out of Baltimore, the site of his enslavement, and soon found employment as a free laborer in New York.

Showing a knack for public speaking, Bailey quickly became a popular lecturer for the growing abolitionist movement, though the specter of capture by human traffickers and re-enslavement loomed. He and Anna married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He published an autobiography in 1845 and soon left on a speaking tour of Ireland and England, away from danger. In 1846, his supporters in England arranged to finally, officially, purchase his freedom from brothers Hugh and Thomas Auld, whose family had held Bailey in slavery those years earlier.

In the meantime, Frederick and Anna had adopted a new last name: Douglass.

Two Stories of Exodus

So it was that summer day, seventy-six years after the Founders had signed the Declaration of Independence, that Frederick Douglass stood before an audience of 600, including President Millard Fillmore, and delivered a seminal speech against slavery threaded with references to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.

Douglass began, as Moses had when called by God to appear before Pharaoh, by humbly lamenting a lack of natural rhetorical gifts:

I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech.

Expressing “astonishment” and “gratitude” for being invited to address the assembly, he admitted that “the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight.”

Douglass then pivoted to the purpose of his talk. He had come, like the most skillful of sermonizers, to afflict the comfortable. He delivered a jeremiad, a sermon of rebuke like those delivered by the biblical prophet Jeremiah.

The Fourth of July, to Americans, “is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.” It is “what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God.”

Using language familiar to readers of Exodus and the story’s retelling in the Passover Haggadah used in the Seder service, Douglass noted how the significance of the occasion “carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.”

Just as biblical Israel had achieved a miraculous liberation from the machinations of a tyrannical monarch and his seemingly overwhelming military might, the United States had, through divine providence, been gifted a similar victory in its Revolutionary War. The foes had borne a resemblance. The British crown had, “with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea,” persisted in oppressing the colonies. But America, like its biblical forebears, had prevailed.

As the Children of Israel had turned from the miraculously split sea toward what would become a forty-year desert trek, however, Americans had only begun the march towards fulfillment of their own destiny.

Preaching Emancipation

In framing the country’s nascency, Douglass cited Psalm 90: “Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men,” he noted, drawing from the psalm’s tenth verse, “but nations number their years by thousands.”

America still had more maturing to do. The beginning of freedom was but the “first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.”

Mirroring the text of the Haggadah, which documents the initial failings of Israel in achieving the immediate fulfillment of its promise, Douglass reminded the assembly of their own collective covenantal shortcomings in maintaining the institution of slavery. “It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have ‘Abraham to our father,’ when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit,” he said. And now, “The traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout—‘We have Washington to our father.’—Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.”

Douglass then asked, what, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July? Attempting to mark liberation while so many remain shackled showed that:

your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts 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 …

Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had rebuked Israel on God’s behalf: “Bring no more vain sacrifices; incense is an abomination unto me” when “your hands are full of blood.” Instead, God called Israel to “cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” Douglass was now echoing Isaiah’s call. To fulfill its potential and reap the rewards promised when we follow God’s law, the country must rectify its social and moral shortcomings by abolishing slavery.

Less than a decade before the Civil War, Douglass emphasized that the American path forward, might, like that earlier arduous trek through decades in the desert, seem a nearly insurmountable challenge. Yet the forward momentum must be maintained, step by determined step. “I do not despair of this country,” the former slave assured his audience. Echoing the Israelites’ Song of the Sea in Exodus’s 15th chapter, in a reference to God’s right hand being girded with strength and smashing his enemy, Douglass predicted, “The arm of the Lord is not shortened, and the doom of slavery is certain.” He would, of course, prove prophetic.

The March toward True Liberty

As in Passover’s concluding wish for “next year, in Jerusalem,” Douglass finished his address by envisioning a brighter future for the United States, building off the salvation, albeit incomplete, that had founded a nation:

I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

Pivoting from Exodus to the book of Genesis, he reassured his audience: “The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force.”

The tale of the Exodus that lies at the center of the Jewish celebration of Passover, Douglass understood, had become the prism through which America could view its own story. An account of the unexpected unshackling of righteous freedom-seekers was not to be a simple excuse for self-congratulatory celebration. It was, undoubtedly, a reason to be grateful. But, more crucially, it was an impetus towards continued national and moral growth. The march would have to persevere to ensure the light of liberty continued to shine.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern, MBA, is editor most recently of The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada (Koren Publishers, 2024).

Discover More

  • Read Psalm 90. This psalm is attributed to Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. How does this background affect your reading of the psalm? What connections to Israel’s exodus do you see in the psalm?
  • Read Isaiah 1, which contains God’s condemnation of Judah (part of the original nation of Israel) for its wickedness. What are the sins listed? What does God call Judah to do instead? How can passages of Scripture like this be a warning to nations today, and to us as individuals?
  • Read Exodus 15:1–19. How does praising God help us remember his mighty works on our behalf?
  • Read the full text of Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” What other connections to Scripture do you see?
  • Part of the Passover practice is remembering God’s promises and his faithfulness through all generations. Spend some time today reflecting on God’s faithfulness in your own life. How has he blessed you? What promises have you seen fulfilled in your life? How can you live today in thanksgiving for God’s goodness to you?

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Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern, MBA

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern, MBA, a member of the Scholar Advisory Council of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, is Senior Advisor to the Provost and Deputy Director, Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. He is editor most recently of The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada (Koren Publishers, 2024).

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