Happy 244th birthday to the United States, and happy 147th birthday to Calvin Coolidge!
As Independence Day drew near this year, I saw more mentions than usual of Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This is unsurprising given the national mood, especially in the wake of Juneteenth receiving more attention than ever before. It is a masterpiece of righteous indignation, worth studying in its entirety.
The Better Douglas/s of that age gave this speech in 1852. It was… harsh. Here’s the short version: “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie.”
He blasted those who favored slavery and those who weren’t doing enough to end it. He excoriated pro-slavers for ignoring the “all men are created equal” part of the Declaration. He called those who argued that the Constitution protected slavery “imposters.”* The preachers who defended slavery were so wretched that “I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines!” He goes on in this strident vein for about an hour, according to the timestamp on the online full reading.
And yet, he closes on a note of great hope in the moral progress of our nation and the world. He’ll explain it better than I can, so here’s Douglass in closing, followed by William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Triumph of Freedom.”
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, 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. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But 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. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. 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. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:
God speed the year of jubilee The wide world o′er! When from their galling chains set free, Th′ oppress′d shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny Like brutes no more. That year will come, and freedom′s reign, To man his plundered rights again Restore. God speed the day when human blood Shall cease to flow! In every clime be understood, The claims of human brotherhood, And each return for evil, good, Not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end And change into a faithful friend Each foe. God speed the hour, the glorious hour, When none on earth Shall exercise a lordly power, Nor in a tyrant's presence cower; But all to manhood′s stature tower, By equal birth! That hour will come, to each, to all, And from his prison-house, the thrall Go forth. Until that year, day, hour, arrive, With head, and heart, and hand I′ll strive, To break the rod, and rend the gyve, The spoiler of his prey deprive— So witness Heaven! And never from my chosen post, Whate′er the peril or the cost, Be driven.
We live in interesting (which is a generous way of saying difficult) times. But if such a man as Frederick Douglass– born a slave, hunted and targeted for much of his adult life, watching the house divide for exactly the reasons that made Jefferson tremble– could be optimistic about this country, then so should we.
*Douglass called the Constitution “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” but acknowledged he was in the minority of abolitionist sentiment on that matter, and that “There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length.”