Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Frederick Douglass: "What to a Slave is the 4th of July?"

Frederick Douglass (February 1818 - February 20, 1895) was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer. After escaping from slavery, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. In the 1840’s he argued that “Liberty and Slavery – opposite as Heaven and Hell” are both in the Constitution.[1]  However, as he distanced himself from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned the Constitution, Douglass changed his views. In 1851, “after an ongoing dialogue with New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Douglass came to agree with Smith that the Constitution actually had anti-slavery implications.”[2]

 On July 5, 1852, at age 34, Douglass spoke to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York on the subject, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”[3] Although slavery remained entrenched in the southern states and millions of his fellow men were in bondage, Douglass expresses hope in America’s promise of equality, though yet unfulfilled. Such changes are not easy and will take time, he says: 

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It 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... you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages... As with rivers so with nations. 

Next, Douglass honors the Declaration of Independence: “The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. 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 proceeds to pay tribute to the Founding Fathers: 

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. 

While he joins with the nation in its annual jubilee, he acknowledges that he and his people are not fully encompassed within it: “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.” He recounts his own experiences as a slave, and the horrors of the slave trade, having watched from the wharves as a child, “the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh.” 

Douglass goes on to argue that the glaring issue and contradiction of his time was the failure not only of the government and of politicians, but also of churches, of ministers, and of the people of America, to live up to the principles set forth by the Founders and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: 

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 cruelty 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. 

He then calls upon America’s churches: 

Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive... [Contrasting the churches in England with America, Douglass states] the church [in England], true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded, in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, and Burchells and the Knibbs, were alike famous for their piety, and for their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting that movement: and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement, when the church of this country shall assume a favorable, instead of a hostile position towards that movement. 

Douglass continues, clearly affirming his belief that the Constitution is not a pro-slavery document and that it should be an object of our devotion, meant to be read and understood by all citizens: 

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? ... the Constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted... the Constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. 

Douglass concludes his great oration with hope: 

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 [and] the great principles it contains....” 

May we as Americans follow the course of the river which our Founders charted for our young nation, upholding the truth that “all men are created equal” -- in both our words and actions, and diligently heed the call of former slave Frederick Douglass to remember the principles of Declaration of Independence, embracing his admonition that, “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.”

[1] “Oath to Support the Constitution,” The North Star, April 5, 1850, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Foner, Phillip S., ed. (WW Norton & Co, New York, 2007) 2:118. (“LWFD”). 
[2] Cohen, Robert, “Was the Constitution pro-Slavery? The Changing View of Frederick Douglass,” in Social Education 72(5) (National Council for Social Studies, 2008), p. 248. 
[3] Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, Foner, Phillip S., ed. (Lawrence Hill, Chicago, 1999), pp. 188-206.