Frederick Douglass On Independence Day

Many of my friends are struggling these days, as they deal with the consequences of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. One declared that the ruling would make the Fourth of July just another Monday, and not a cause for celebration. I’m confident she is not alone in her feelings.

It is, perhaps, interesting that what many people consider to be the greatest speech about America’s Independence Day was given by a man who also had every cause to be angered by and bitterly disappointed in this country: Frederick Douglass. Douglass gave his brilliant speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. You can read an abridged transcript of the speech here. Douglass’ thoughts about the holiday are worth pondering and remembering, on this Independence Day and on every Independence Day.

Douglass began, as orators about the Fourth of July often do, by tracing the origins of the American Revolution and acknowledging the merits of the founders of our country. But the underlying concepts he celebrated were decidedly pointed. Douglass famously observed:

“Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go
mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of
grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is
always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies
from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance
of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of
course, shocked and alarmed by it.”

And when Douglass celebrated the qualities of the founders, he focused on their revolutionary activities and unwillingness to accept what they believed to be wrong:

“They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.
They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They
showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the
order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them,
justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well
cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid
manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times…”

With the reference to the “degenerate” present, Douglass pivoted to addressing the then-current state of affairs in America, and he did not hold back, using language that must have shocked many of the people in his audience:

“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day?
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great
principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of
Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble
offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for
the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

“Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be
truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy
and delightful…

“…But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between
us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high
independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which
you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty,
prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.
The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.
This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man
in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in
joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to
mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …”

Douglass declared that “the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July” and that the conduct of America was “equally hideous and revolting.” He contended that “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” Douglass then issued a call to arms and gave voice to obvious truths that must have shamed every person in attendance that day:

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the
ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of
biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light
that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the
whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the
conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the
hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be
proclaimed and denounced.

“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 cruelly 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 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 – 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 these United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass was not done. He turned to the internal slave trade in America and the Fugitive Slave Act, highlighting its brutality and reprehensible immorality. He noted that American churches were responsible for not speaking out and advocating for changes in the laws and the end of slavery and that their failure to do so was a betrayal of the principles on which Christianity is founded. Douglass argued that the reality of human slavery in the heart of the American continent refuted every pretentious claim of liberty and freedom that Americans might voice.

And yet, as he neared the conclusion of his remarks, Douglass found hope in the Constitution, proclaiming it a “glorious liberty document” that not only did not institutionalize slavery, as some in that day claimed, but in fact was antithetical and entirely hostile to it. He held that “every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one.” He added:

“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day
presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in
operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.

“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. 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. Nations do not now stand
in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago.”

America is not now, and never has been, a perfect country. It is forever a work in progress, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution providing the tools for American citizens to protest and advocate and work for whatever changes they believe are necessary. Frederick Douglass recognized that fact, even during the bleakest point in American history when the country was bitterly divided by the intolerable stain of slavery and on the precipice of the bloody conflict that would bring about the very change that Douglass foresaw.

Fireworks Over The Harbor

For a small town at the tip of an island in Downeast Maine, Stonington puts on a great Independence Day fireworks display. The fireworks are launched over the harbor, and the lobstermen rake their boats out on the water to get a close look at the show. You can see the boats in some of the photos below.

Happy Fourth of July!

Pickett’s Charge

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge.  It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.

913-004-2f9debccExcept, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett.  His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance.  Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg.  Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders.  But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.

Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces.  The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers.  It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated.  The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War.  It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement.  It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive.  Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.

The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.

Thanks Be To The Essential Man

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of histories and biographies dealing with the American Revolutionary War period and its aftermath.  It’s a fascinating story — and a lot more interesting than the tale of the inevitability of American greatness that we learned in grade school, junior high and high school, long ago.

b4477220555e36e85915d487ac63b5c8One point that has struck me repeatedly as I’ve read is that American independence, and the later welding of the different colonies into a single nation, was a very close call.  There were many instances, during the Revolutionary War, during the Articles of Confederation period, and then as the new nation started to function under the Constitution, when the whole American idea easily could have foundered and the 13 colonies and states could have fractured forever.  The war itself, against the greatest power on earth and fought with a fifth column of Tories opposing the overthrow of British rule, could easily have been lost.  And after the war, as the country stumbled forward into a new, post-colonial world, it became clear that the “Founding Fathers” held to a lot of different notions of what a country should look like, the colonies were wracked by debt that irresponsible politicians were unwilling to pay, and always the scourge of slavery threatened to drive a wedge between the colonies and break them apart.

Inevitably, these near-misses were resolved in significant part through one man:  George Washington.  During the Revolutionary War he was the general who was selected by acclaim and whose reputation for leadership and integrity helped to keep the colonial forces together through repeated disasters.  After the War ended, his willing support of a constitutional convention, and his service as the President of the convention — elected unanimously, of course — gave crucial credibility to the effort to reinvent the government.  And when the new Constitution was finally written, and the new government was ready to start, Washington’s reluctant agreement to serve as the first President — where he deftly mediated between the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson, Adams, Madison,  Hamilton, and others, steered a middle course between the agrarian dreamers and the hard-headed mercantilists, and kept the country functioning, credit-worthy, and out of a war with the British or entanglement with the French Revolution — permitted his thoughtful, deliberate, and typically selfless judgment to set the course for the new nation and establish the many precedents and protocols that have guided the leaders of our country down to the present day,

170px-stuart-george-washington-constable-1797Read biographies of any of the other leaders of early America and you will always see George Washington as a key part of the story, as the figure who had to be persuaded to lend crucial credibility to the cause, as the ultimate decisionmaker, and as the one person who enjoyed heartfelt support from the rock-bound coast of New England, through the mid-Atlantic states, all the way south to the red clay of Georgia.  These days it’s fashionable to poke fun at Washington for his teeth and his careful ways, and to characterize him as a plodder in comparison to the brilliance of the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, but in reality, in the early days of the American experiment, George Washington was the essential man.  The description of Washington as the “Father of His Country” is apt, but it actually may not go far enough in capturing the importance of his central role in holding the early republic together, time and again.  He was the key figure who helped turn 13 squabbling colonies into the United States of America.

This Independence Day, I’m going to reflect for a bit on how very fortunate our country was to have George Washington when and where it did.

Happy Independence Day!

The Fireworks Perspective

I love fireworks.  Who doesn’t?  They’re magical.  On the other hand, Red, White & Boom, Columbus’ titanic Fourth of July fireworks show, is an absolute zoo.  Hundreds of thousands of people cram into downtown to watch the blasts and hear the booms, and then the city is gridlocked forever by a colossal, once-a-year traffic jam.

IMG_5957I hate massive, milling crowds of sweaty, messily drunken people, and I despise unending, exhaust-laden traffic jams.  So, as much as I like fireworks, I have let my disdain for getting caught in a crush of humanity keep me from ever watching a Red, White & Boom show.

Until this year — potentially.  The accompanying photo is taken from one of the chairs at the table in our backyard.  It shows the tops of two of the buildings in the southern part of downtown Columbus.  On Friday night, when Red, White & Boom begins, I’ll be out in my backyard, drinking an ice-cold adult beverage and waiting to see whether the fireworks are visible from my backyard perch.  If so, I’ll quaff my frosty tonic and enjoy the show.  If the fireworks unfortunately don’t show above the rooftops, I guess I’ve just have to guzzle my brew nevertheless.

In The Nick Of Timing

Every job has its own rhythms, peaks and valleys.  In the retail industry, the holiday season is the crunch time.  Lifeguards are swamped between Memorial Day and Labor Day, accountants get killed in the weeks leading up to April 15, and ski instructors are snowed under when January and February roll around.

In the law business, too, different practices have different busy and slack periods.  The fine folks in the transactional and tax areas get crushed at the end of the year, as clients rush to complete deals or restructurings before their accounting period closes.  For litigators, there seems to be no set peaks and valleys during the practice year.  It’s more of a crap shoot. Sometimes the new year starts with a rush, sometimes the spring is when all of the work forces seem to come together, and sometimes judges will schedule things between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in hopes of strongly encouraging parties to voluntarily resolve their disputes.

Whatever your job, when you are really busting it you look forward to the next three-day weekend as if it were your own personal road to salvation.  And if the Fourth of July is the holiday that might break up that period where you are buried, you hope like hell that this isn’t one of those years when Independence Day falls on a freaking Wednesday.  Because while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a day off in the middle of the work week, we know that a sterile, non-working Wednesday just doesn’t play the same sweet personal music as the full, complete, party-Thursday-night/sleep-in-on-Friday three-day weekend.

I’m happy to report that this year the Fourth of July falls on a Saturday, which means that we’ve got one of those official three-day weekends just around the corner.  It’s darned good timing in my book.

Things I Like About Independence Day

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday, and when it falls on a Friday and makes for a three-day weekend, like this year, it’s extra special.  Call it corny, call it nationalistic, but there are lots of things about Independence Day that I really like:

*  Bunting

*  John Philip Sousa marches played on the radio

IMG_6266*  Little flags that people stick along the sides of their front walkways

*  Parades that feature both grizzled war veterans wearing their uniforms and little kids riding bicycles they’ve decorated from the wheel spokes to the handlebars

*  Somber readings of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address by gravelly-voiced actors

*  Flag-themed freebies, like hand fans, distributed by local businesses

*  Evening cookouts with friends where people wear red, white, and blue clothing

*  Driving home at night and seeing distant suburban fireworks shows on the horizon

The Fourth of July is a fun, festive holiday.  I’m sure some people think the patriotic displays and red, white, and blue saturation are over the top, but I think they serve an important purpose:  they remind us of why our country was formed in the first place and should make us thing about why we are so lucky to live here.  If seeing the Stars and Stripes everywhere we look causes even a tiny fraction of Americans to reflect on the Founders, the interests in liberty and freedom that led to the Revolutionary War, and the principles on which our government was founded, that is a good thing.

Happy Fourth Of July!

IMG_0368Happy Independence Day to all of our friends!

May you enjoy the pageantry of a parade, the strains of a John Philip Sousa march, and the happy faces of children as the bands and floats pass by.  May your fireworks be bright, and your hot dogs succulent, and your family cookouts fun-filled.

And, at some point today, may you pause to consider a veteran’s sacrifice, reflect on what has made this country great, and consider what we all can do to make this country even greater.  We’ve still got work to do.

Happy Fourth Of July!

Amidst the hot dogs, and fireworks, and beer, and heat, let’s all take a moment to really feel that proud patriotic surge as we celebrate our freedoms and our independence — and let’s also remember that, although we may disagree on some things, Americans remain Americans, and what unites us far outweighs what divides us.

Happy Fourth of July!

The March King, Independence Day, And The Stars And Stripes Forever

As America prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July with parades, floats, bunting, and marching bands, the music of one composer — and indeed one song he composed — undoubtedly will be played more than any other, from sea to shining sea.  The composer is John Philip Sousa and the song, of course, is The Stars and Stripes Forever.  For more than 100 years the music of Sousa and the rousing patriotic notes of The Stars and Stripes Forever have been an integral part of America’s celebration of Independence Day.

Appropriately, Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. in 1854.  His father played in the U.S. Marine Band, and Sousa seemed to come to music naturally.  He became an apprentice musician in the Marine Band at 13, studied musical composition, and wrote music and performed on the violin.  In 1880, at the age of 26, he became the conductor of the Marine Band — a band which he molded to his exacting standards and then led to new heights of glory.

As the 1880s progressed Sousa received increasing acclaim for the marches he composed.  In 1888, he wrote Semper Fidelis, the official march of the United States Marine Corps.  In 1889 he wrote the Washington Post march, which for a time became the most popular song in the United States and Europe.  At about the same time the Columbia Phonograph Company selected Sousa and the Marine Band to be one of the first ensembles to make phonographic recordings for sale to the general public.  Sousa was so successful he was called “The March King,” just as Johann Strauss, Jr. was called “The Waltz King.”  In 1892, Sousa’s friend and manager, David Blakely, convinced him to leave the Marine Band and form his own concert band, which Sousa did to great success.

Sousa and the Marine Band

Blakely also plays an offstage role in Sousa’s composition of The Stars and Stripes Forever.  In 1896, while Sousa and his wife were vacationing in Europe, Sousa received word that Blakely had died.  Sousa immediately boarded a ship, the S.S. Teutonic, for the voyage back to New York.  As he paced the deck of the ship, the rhythm and melody of The Stars and Stripes Forever began to form in his head.  In his autobiography, Sousa wrote that he did not transcribe the melody until he reached New York — at which point he wrote it down and it has remained unchanged ever since.  Sousa’s band performed the song often until Sousa’s death in 1932, and in 1987 The Stars and Stripes Forever was officially designated by Congress as the National March of the United States.

How to describe the familiar yet stirring strains of The Stars and Stripes Forever, other than to say it makes you want to march?  We thrill to the clash of cymbals, the music rising to a crescendo, and above it all the piccolo, sounding like a brightly colored bird darting and diving through a clear blue sky on a warm Independence Day morning.  In any case, there is no better way to experience the song than to see it performed by the Marine Band:

Happy Independence Day to all!