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Psalm 137: “I Hear the Mournful Wail of Millions” by Frederick Douglass


The following text is an excerpt from abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglas (1817-1895)’s 1852 speech given in New York on the occasion of the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The entire speech, “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”, can be found here. In the speech Douglass quoted Psalm 137. He went on to say…

“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 jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” 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. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Douglas use citations from Psalm 137 in this excerpt?
  2. How is the United States portrayed in this speech? Is it akin to Judea or Babylon?
  3. In concluding his speech, Douglas proclaims, “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.” What do you think allows him to hold such hope? (Read more about his life here.)