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….
I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future….
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.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every-day practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….
Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice….
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…. 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. 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.