July 4 is typically a day for patriotic speeches about America’s greatness. But, as Eric Foner pointed out in The Nation two years ago, it’s also been a day for “eloquent indictments of a country whose actual practices all too frequently contradict its professed ideals.” One of the greatest of those speeches was delivered on July 4, 1852, when the former slave Frederick Douglass spoke to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. While Douglass spoke of the contradiction between slavery and American ideals, his denunciation of “crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages” is strikingly relevant today to American practices of war and torture.
“What to the American slave is your Fourth 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.
“. . . . No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. . . . A change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe…. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. . . .
“No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
The text, with commentary by Eric Foner, appeared in the July 19, 2004 issue of The Nation: Read it here.