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
“…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.