Photo credit: George Frances Schreiber
Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July
On July 5, 1852, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass took the stage at the Women’s Abolition Society in Rochester, New York. The oration that followed would not only be one of Douglass’s most remembered, but also one of America’s most remembered. The speech is often quoted among academic figureheads and celebrities alike. On the surface, it is often presented as an indictment of America. How well, however, do its critics actually know the speech? Furthermore, are Americans actually being given the entire content of the speech?
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery circa 1818, in or near Cordova, Maryland. At an early age, he escaped from slavery and headed north where he eventually joined the Boston Abolition Society. Douglass later moved to Rochester, New York where he became a newspaper editor. A talented writer and orator, Douglass was later referred to as the most influential African-American of the Nineteenth Century. In his time, slavery was the greatest evil and the most controversial political subject. Throughout the first half of the Nineteenth Century, much tension surrounding the issue of slavery occurred. Various compromises were introduced in an effort to prevent secession or war. The United States gained much of its Western territory following the Mexican-American War in 1848. This further complicated the slavery question, continuing to polarize the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: HOLIDAY OF HATE?
In today’s age, the Progressive Left often asserts that celebrating the Fourth of July means to celebrate slavery and inequality. In their point of view, because slavery and racial inequality were present at the time of the American founding, it is wrong to honor a day of independence when not all people were actually free. Progressives insist America’s founding in general, with all its components - Declaration of Independence and Constitution included - were made only for White men.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech titled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? For many, this oration is both viewed and used as an anti-American speech. Take, for example, the following excerpt, often used on social media: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national Independence?...This Fourth of July is yours, not mine...There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.” On the surface, this speech may seem as if Douglass was condemning American patriotism. In actuality, a thorough reading of its entirety reveals something different. Once the speech is fully examined, the reader may be surprised to learn that Douglass was condemning the evils practiced in America during his day, while simultaneously casting support to the founders, Declaration, and Constitution.
THE NATION’S RINGBOLT
At the start of the speech, Douglass acknowledged the importance of Independence Day to Americans, and called the Declaration of Independence the ringbolt to the chain of the nation’s destiny. He stated, “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Douglass then turns his attention to the founders. Today, many progressives reject the founders and downplay their intellect. Douglass, however, held a different view of them.
He said: “Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too - great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not certainly the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. They loved their country better than their own private interests...Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests. 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 they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny...With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times. How circumspect, exact, and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour!”
ADDRESSING THE PRESENT
Following his vindication of the founders and the principles enshrined in the Declaration, Douglass turned his attention to the present. Slavery was, without dispute, the greatest moral and political issue in 1852. This is where Douglass began to stir the fiery passions among his fellow anti-slavery advocates. Since the 1830s, various politicians - notably within the Democratic Party - had embraced John C. Calhoun’s view of slavery. This belief asserted that slavery was a “positive good.” That is, good for both the master and the slave.
Douglass whole-heartedly renounced this view, stating no one would possibly declare slavery to be good for their own selves. Douglass went on to make the claim that it was time for citizens to act in order to abolish slavery. In other words, it was time to shine the spotlight on the nation’s wrongdoing. To accomplish this, Douglass returned to the country’s most celebratory day, and asked: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in a year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham…” Douglass continues to state that America is without rival when it comes to boasting about liberty, yet keeping people in bondage.
At certain points, Douglass definitely hits home. For instance, at one point, he remarked, “You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill...You can bear your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the Black laborers of your country.”
CALLING OUT THE ENABLERS
Douglass then turned his attention to those who allowed slavery to reach its current condition. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This proved a further blow to anti-slavery advocates and provided no legal safe haven for those seeking refuge from bondage. Douglass referred to this as slavery being “nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form.” He commented that all states had now become a hunting ground and that true liberty was in peril. Douglass then commented on religious liberty, as well as the fact that the church was often responsible for remaining silent on slavery.
It is an unfortunate fact that, historically, the greatest opposition to liberty occasionally came from people within the religious establishment who twisted scripture to fit their own agenda. Douglass said, “A worship that can be conducted by persons who give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as ‘scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier-matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith.’” Douglass remarked that churches that preached pro-slavery messages were even more dangerous than the infidel writings of figureheads such as Thomas Paine. A paraphrase of 2 Timothy 4:3-4 is sugar-coated preaching is dangerous to your soul.
A GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT
One thing that both pro-slavery Democrats and Radical Republicans seemed to agree on was that the spirit of the U.S. Constitution protected and condoned slavery. One prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, deemed the Constitution a “covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” How did Frederick Douglass hold up on this issue?
During his younger years, Douglass agreed with Garrison and other radical abolitionists. Like them, he viewed the Constitution as a document that encouraged property ownership of slaves. By 1852, however, his view had shifted entirely. He stated, “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Is it in the temple?
It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be by its framers and adopters a slave-holding document, why neither slavery, slaveholding, or slave can be found anywhere in it.” Douglass later said, “Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”
SEEKING JUSTICE AMID DARK DAYS
Douglass then said what is perhaps one of the most important lines in the entire oration. “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.” Douglass remarked that he believed slavery would eventually come to an end, especially if the nation stayed true to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Douglass lived to witness the end of American Slavery in 1865, and he then continued to serve his Lord and country as an impressive statesman. Perhaps his true character was most exemplified in 1877, when he met with his former master, Thomas Auld. Douglass forgave Auld for his past treatment of him and the two parted as friends.
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? is not, as Progressives have tried to sell it, a condemnation of America. Rather, it is a necessary criticism of a nation’s wrongdoing. Throughout history, all countries have experienced some form of sinful action. What makes America special is the fact that America has done more than any nation on earth to combat not only its own evils, but the evils of other nations, as well. Americans have defeated slavery, fascism, communism, and radical Islam, and saved countless individuals from tyranny. It is also important to remember that slavery still continues today in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and other locations of the world, in which Progressives remain virtually silent about. Douglass’s speech should always hold a special place in American memory, and may we never forget his iconic call to action: “I would unite with anybody to do right and nobody to do wrong.”
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