Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

Image: Frederick Douglass, Unidentified Artist, oil on canvas (c. 1844). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

For the last few weeks the words of Frederick Douglass have been floating in and out of our national conversation.  In the District this has been in regard to the statute in Lincoln Park.  On Saturdays, we tend to post about art.  Today being the Fourth of July we post a portrait of Douglass and recall his great speech on the occasion of the national celebration.

It is the image of Douglass photographed after the Civil War with hair and beard like an Old Testament prophet that is the predominant image in our collective imagination.  The image above in is in the National Portrait Gallery.  It is a younger Douglass and shows him a few years before he gave what is probably his most famous and greatest speech.

For the Fourth of July he had been invited to speak to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York.  His words are powerful because he rooted the cause of abolition in ideas of freedom celebrated on the Fourth of July while not holding back on how great the disparity was between the ideal and reality.  He starts by tipping his hat 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.”

He then plants reference points for where he will go, using language that resonates with particular force at this moment:

“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 that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.”

He then moves the narrative of the nation forward to his present-day, until he reaches the most cited paragraph:

“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.”

The speech goes on to discuss the legal and religious underpinnings of slavery, summarizing his points:

“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 bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union.”

Nearing the end, the speech again takes a turn from the description of the evils of slavery and its cost for the nation to leave the audience with hope and willing to work for the cause of liberty:

“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.

“I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.

“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,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions…”

Douglass embraced the idea of the Fourth of July even when our nation failed to live up to those ideas.  Two decades later the confederate states would succeed, abandoning the nation rather than living up to its ideals.  It would be more than pleasing if a statue of Frederick Douglass, who believed in the Union, replaced every confederate that betrayed the country and its great principles.

There is a tradition in the Senate that George Washington’s Farewell Address is read every February.  Perhaps they need a similar tradition for the Fourth of July.  It might help more understand why even today it is important that we have those among our citizenry who even though they “showed forbearance” know its limits.

Happy Birthday America.  Stay Safe.  Wear a Mask.  And keep in mind what Douglass has been trying to tell you for nearly two centuries:  Black Lives Matter.