The Great Frederick Douglass
Reflections on Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Fourth of July Speech
At their 4th of July celebration in 1852, the good white citizens of Rochester New York invited the distinguished editor of a national newspaper who resided in their city to give the keynote speech at their Independence Day celebration. It proved not have been the wisest move and they surely began to regret it from the first paragraph of what was arguably the most powerful critique of American civilization in our history. And Frederick Douglass was uniquely qualified to critique it. As an escaped slave from Maryland, Douglass was acutely aware of the demented masquerade the 4th of July represented.
Here was a nation celebrating an occasion in which they committed treason against the King of England, took up arms to defend the largest land grab in history, and justified it as a fight for liberty against the oppression of their British cousins. Yet these self-proclaimed lovers of liberty were practicing the worst form of tyranny in the world: race based chattel slavery. There had been slavery in the world before, but as Douglass would point out, American slavery was among the worse examples of this ancient form of oppression past or present.
Hence when he took the podium to speak Douglass was acutely aware of the contradictions between the professed ideals of his Euro-American countrymen, and the realities of their use of the power they gained from the triumph of the American Revolution with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and the ratification of the US Constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. As was his fashion, Frederick Douglass pulled no punches. When we consider the fact that he was speaking to an audience that was overwhelmingly white we can only marvel at his courage.
After all this was at a time when four million of Douglass’ black brethren were enslaved in the southern states, and as Professor Leon Litwack has shown in his seminal book “North of Slavery,” the few hundred thousands of “free” Afro-Americans mostly concentrated in the north were subjected to a host of racially discriminatory laws that resembled the “Jim Crow” laws black folks would face in the South after the Confederacy lost the war, but triumphed during the intersectional “peace” that prevailed after the sell-out of “Radical Reconstruction” – that brief period after the Civil War when it looked like democracy might actually triumph in America. Hence we should keep these realities in mind as we read this remarkably candid speech; delivered amid the fireworks and whisky fueled Jubilation of the occasion.
Looking out over the joyous crowd, Douglass began to piss on their parade with unparalleled eloquence. “Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?” Douglass said. “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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
“Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that the dumb might eloquently speak and the “lame man leap as an hart.”
After duly noting the supreme irony of his role in the Independence celebration, Douglass smacked them in the face with their shameless hypocrisy. And his passionate Jeremiad was given added power by his reference to the biblical parables the crowd held dear and from which they derived their moral principles.
“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. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Then Douglas, a man who had suffered under the lash of slavery, became the voice of the enslaved.
“Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorry this day, “may my right hand cleave to the roof of my mouth”! To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. 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.
Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate, I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, shall not confess to be right and just.”
Although pseudo-scientific racist theories purporting to show that the white race had been ordained by God to rule the earth, and white Americans used these theories to excuse the fact that they were in gross violation of the universal humanist principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence – which was the object of veneration on this occasion – by arguing that since black people were not human beings these principles don’t apply, Douglass refused to engage the argument and contemptuously dismissed it as a vulgar self-evident absurdity.
“For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not as astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, and secretaries, having among us lawyers doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; and that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives, and children, and above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!…
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.”
Having pointed out their lies, self-deceptions, blasphemy, hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy, Fredrick Douglass delivered his condemnation of America in powerful scathing rhetoric whose eloquence was exceeded only by its just and utter contempt for the obscene pretense of the self-congratulatory crowd and the nation they had assembled to praise.
“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, and unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation 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 the 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 everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
Although much has changed in America since that speech was made over a century and a half ago – in fact it would be fair to say that the world has turned upside down – the speech remains of critical importance in understanding just how far the USA has come in regard to race relations and the legal status of black people in America. And there are parts of the speech that remain relevant to our times. For one thing, it lays waste to the grandiose but bogus claims of the American Exceptionalist crowd on the Republican right that America is unique among the nations of the world because it has always been a land of freedom, justice and equality for all. It attacks this master narrative of American society and exposes this pretentious claim for the goddam lie that it is!
Douglass’ speech also reveals the long provenance of the Jeremiads of the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright that so disturbed the official myth-makers and vulgar amoral apologists for the crimes of this nation past and present – black and white alike. It is important to remember that Douglass had many white allies and supporters, so that the vital lessons of this speech – for my money the most powerful statement about America’s crimes and hypocritical posturing ever uttered on this soil – from degenerating into a simpleminded racial recrimination. That would do a disservice to the deeper message about the real meaning of Christian civilization and sense of justice it implies; what it means to be part of the brotherhood of man.
This speech is also a profound counter-statement to the American Exceptionalists narrative – those who now pledge to take away medical care for the poor and starve the hungry – that cannot be denied. These soulless evil charlatans even have the unmitigated gall to wrap themselves in the bible as they carry out their perfidious deeds and deny the charge of Jesus Christ to “heal the sick and feed the hungry!” Frederick Douglass correctly viewed American racial oppression and the racist ideology that justified it as “Barbarism.”
Since the barbarism of the legal racial caste system that subjected Afro-Americans to a reign of terror persisted until the great Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s – 190 years since the Delcaration was issued – a time when many on the Republican right believe the country was lasping into decadence – “Slouching Toward Gamorrah” as the right wing Jurist Thomas Bork put it – the great Irish playwright George Bernard spelled out the exact nature of American Exceptionalism when he observed “America is the only society in the history of the world that went from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization.”
That’s what black Americans should remember as we listen to the extravagant claims of the official mythmakers on this Fourth of July…and we must never forget that the author of the document we clebrating was written by Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Slaveholder, child molester, supreme hypocite who embodies the grand contradiction of American civilization in his life and personality!
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
July 4, 2012