Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July
“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.”
Escaped slave, gifted orator, and human rights icon Frederick Douglass spoke these words in answer to the rhetorical question, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
At the time, our country was a mere 76 years old – “still in the impressible stage of her existence.” To Douglass, America’s youth was a source of hope; an older country, he suggested in the speech, might be less malleable, less able to change course: “Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages.”
Although slavery was still legal in the United States, Douglass believed fervently in the ideals of equality expressed in the US Constitution: “the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny…. 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 argued that the Constitution could be used to support the abolition of slavery – a goal that was accomplished 13 years later with the end of the Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
African Americans’ observance of the nation’s independence has changed with the times. Before the Civil War, many skipped the hoopla, not finding much to celebrate; others, like Douglass, chose to observe the nation’s birthday on July 5th, a temporal separation that spotlighted the chasm that separated the nation’s ideals from the real lives of people for whom the promise of Liberty must have felt like a cruel tease. After the war, African American communities seized upon Independence Day as an opportunity to celebrate freedom from slavery. The observance pendulum swung back again during the Jim Crow era when, as whites in the former Confederate states reestablished their power, they also removed black celebrations from public spaces.
After the acclaimed Rochester speech, Douglass was very much in demand as a 4th of July speaker, and he updated the speech to accommodate historical circumstances (the beginning of the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, for example). In 2019, reading the speech aloud on or around July 4th is a tradition in communities around the country (for example, in Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington, DC). (Those without a reading nearby can watch James Earl Jones read a shortened version.)
The speech has more than historic value. In addition to reminding us of the inequities and indignities of slavery, Douglass’s words are relevant to our lives today. Phil Darius Wallace, an actor portraying Douglass this year at the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site, noted, “There’s still injustice; there’s still racism. So that when you hear the Fourth of July speech, it resonates.”
Jason Sole, professor at Hamline University, called out criminal justice and economic issues: “…I’m constantly reminded that we feel like we’ve progressed, we feel like things have changed, but you can go through any city in America and look at who’s at the bottom…. When you look at the statistics of who’s in prison and who can’t get loans and who’s more abused by police, we haven’t progressed as much as we like to proclaim.”
Finally, in this week’s feature on “the Frederick Douglass Alternative 4th of July,” Dr. Ron Daniels ended on an inclusive note by urging listeners “to reflect on others who have been oppressed on these shores,” naming “Native Americans first” and specifying that “the brutal, genocidal dispossession of native people … should always be part of our consciousness.”
With these comments Daniels acknowledges that Douglass’s eloquence, while primarily deployed to fight slavery in 19th century America, never lost sight of our broader humanity.