This article was originally published in the July 19, 2004 issue of The Nation.
The Fourth of July is traditionally a time for reading the Declaration of Independence and listening to patriotic speeches. But the nation’s birthday has also been the occasion for eloquent indictments of a country whose actual practices all too frequently contradict its professed ideals. At an Independence Day meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, the former slave Frederick Douglass delivered one of the nineteenth century’s greatest orations. His theme was the contradiction between American slavery and American freedom.
Douglass did not mince words. He spoke of a government that mouthed the language of liberty yet committed “crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages”; of patriotism reduced to “swelling vanity”; of hypocrisy destroying the country’s “moral power abroad.” Although slavery is gone, Douglass’s critique remains as relevant as in 1852. But so too does his optimism that the days of empire are over, and that in the modern world abuses cannot permanently be hidden from the light of day. Douglass, not the leaders of a slaveholding republic, was the genuine patriot, who called on his listeners to reclaim the “great principles” of the Declaration from those who had defiled and betrayed them. That is a truly patriotic goal for our own Fourth of July.
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
This…is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom…. 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…. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance…. The principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost….
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?… Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!… 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…. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine….