Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro

Frederick Douglass is one of the great figures in American history. This ex-slave became one of the leading voices of the abolitionist movement before the Civil War.

On July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That speech, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, is now famous for its biting commentary about the state of freedom and the races in antebellum America.

Frederick Douglass

Douglass says, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He goes on to say among many other comments that day:

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 sound of rejoicing empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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.

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.

You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation-a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty.

You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own.

You declare before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain in alienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

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. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.

Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

His speech is required reading, even today. I encourage you to read the full version.

Links of Interest 7/4/08

Daily Kos has a post about Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day, 1852 speech. This is the speech in which Douglass declared,

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 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.

The Washington Post has an editorial, which I urge you to read in full, about an integrated militia that fought in the War of 1812:

Andrew Jackson won with a somewhat motley, outnumbered army that Mr. Howe describes in detail: “There were Tennessee militia . . ., Louisiana militia, mostly French-speaking, and mounted Mississippi dragoons. There was an Irish American regiment called the Louisiana Blues and two battalions of black men, one made up of African Americans and the other of Haitian immigrants. . . . . Up from their hideout at Barataria came the notorious pirate band of Jean and Pierre Lafitte. . . . Jackson’s orders to this heterogeneous army had to be translated not only into French but also into Spanish.”

The aftermath in 1815 was not all that inspirational. Jackson never gave the black soldiers the fair rewards he had promised them. The various factions, faiths and ethnic groupings that had jostled and contended since the beginning of the Republic did not achieve mutual peace and understanding forevermore, as the nation’s subsequent history testifies. But this much can be said: that this was a wildly disparate army with a surprisingly common outlook. It was made up of people who thought themselves worth something even if others didn’t agree, or at least never had in Europe or the colonies. Some dreamed simply of being freemen. Just about all wanted, more than anything, land of their own and the opportunity to till it themselves, free of ancient ties and obligations, and to make of themselves what they could.

It was the 1776 dream of liberty and independence made personal, and although for some it was to be deferred for generations, it has remained the country’s greatest motivational force. When word of the victory in New Orleans reached Washington, D.C., four weeks later, citizens lit up the town with all the fire they could safely muster. Tonight we will continue the tradition.

The Texas Liberal blog has a nice post about Black Americans Celebrating Independence Day in 1930’s South Carolina which includes some thoughtful commentary. He also has some comments on Crispus Attucks.

Eugene Robinson talks about African American patriotism, from the Revolutionary War through to the Tuskeegee Airmen to now in A Special Brand Of Patriotism. Robinson starts off with the mega-question:

Anyone who took U.S. history in high school ought to know that one of the five men killed in the Boston Massacre, the atrocity that helped ignite the American Revolution, was a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks. The question the history books rarely consider is: Why?

Think about it for a moment. For well over a century, British colonists in North America had practiced a particularly cruel brand of slavery, a system of bondage intended not just to exploit the labor of Africans but to crush their spirit as well. Backs were whipped and broken, families systematically separated, traditions erased, ancient languages silenced. Yet a black man — to many, nothing more than a piece of property — chose to stand and die with the patriots of Boston.

I, Too, Sing America – Langston Hughes

Anderson @ Large talks about African American voting issues in her post Election Day. Of note: “While no one knows the number of unregistered black voters in the target states, the Sentencing Project estimates that 5.3 million Americans, including more than 2 million African Americans, have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction. Thirteen percent of all black men are unable to vote.”

And while we’re on the subject: As mentioned in an earlier post, the Black Electorate site focuses extensively on news about ex-offenders’ rights and rehabilitation.

I was touched by this blog entry from Blog Fabulous on Black Grandmothers. It talks about older black women who have issues with Obama becoming president. The post was poignant to me in that my mother – a black grandmother – has problems with Obama too. The issues that these black women have echo my own mother’s concerns. It’s not necessarily a feel good story, but it’s must reading.

Brooklyn Ron talks about the scandal over the death of a patient in Kings County Hospital.

Do your white friends a service, and turn them on to the Rent-a-Negro site. And thanks to Abagond for that link.

I thought this bit from Christian comedian Rich Praytor was funny, although the ending was a little flat:

Meanwhile, this is just wrong…

In my preceding post, I spoke about Walter White, the civil rights activist and NAACP leader. White was able to pass for white, and he did so often, to investigate lynchings and race riots in the South in the early twentieth century. It turns out that Vertigo, which produces comics and graphic novels for grown-ups, published the book Incognegro in February. From the book’s description:

In the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities. They were African-American men who, due to their light skin color, could pass among the white folks. They called this dangerous assignment going incognegro. Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, barely escapes with his life after his latest incognegro story goes bad. But when he returns to the sanctuary of Harlem, hes sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay incognegro long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brotherand himself. He finds that the answers are buried beneath layers of shifting identities, forbidden passions and secrets that run far deeper than skin color.

Thanks to the Nat Turner’s Revenge blog for the heads up on this. I am a comic book fan, and I might buy it.

If you want to browse some black blogs, here is a list for your consideration. Only a few of these are ones that I regularly look at, so it was nice to get a little diversity. There are probably hundreds of blogs out there that could use some attention.