On July 5, 1872, the members of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Society packed into a New York lecture hall to welcome their guest for the day, former slave and outspoken American orator Frederick Douglass. The abolitionist would shatter all expectations in the searing address titled “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” a lengthy diatribe against America’s failure to live up to its promises of liberty and equality under the law.
“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,” asserted Douglass, his support for American values only eclipsed by his withering critique of the nation’s support for the institution of slavery. “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.”
It’s one of the truly great American speeches, and its legacy has drawn wide-ranging political acclaim—even Ibram X. Kendi believed it to be one of the highlights in America’s rhetorical rejection of slavery. As someone who believes Douglass to be America’s greatest true antiracist, I’m inclined to agree. Yet, what weight do such words carry today? American chattel slavery is gone, along with the systemic framework (and many of the after-effects) of brutal Jim Crow racism that challenged America’s claims to greatness for so long. Today is a day to remember that progress and recommit ourselves to the ideals and aspirations that have allowed us to come so very far. But is it a merely lesson of the past? Or can the outlook of heroes like Douglass impart some wisdom to our current national turmoil?
Because that turmoil, like it or not, is real. Forget the fact that almost three-quarters of Americans believe the nation to be on the wrong track: we are increasingly losing sight of what the right track is. More than half of Americans are dissatisfied with the outworking of democracy in our country. As affirmative action falls by the wayside, the percentage of Americans who believe that our institutions need to be “fundamentally rebuilt” because of racial biases is probably higher than you’d think—more than half of black Americans and almost four in ten within America’s youngest (and on track to become largest) voting block. Add to this the current slew of debates over gender identity, education, and immigration, and it’s easy to understand why American progress seems impossible.
So, what does July 4th actually mean to those of us who feel the weight of America’s crushing tide of division? Is it a day that reveals to us, more than all other days in the year, the polarization and hatred that we see daily on our screens, and a reminder of how far this nation’s fallen?
To puncture the poetic moment: no.
It screams of privilege to complain that our problems can be summed up in the words of a former slave like Douglass describing the United States in 1852. At the time of Douglass’ speech, America was a nation that a day prior had celebrated its independence even as the institution of slavery remained. This is not that America, even if it feels like it at times. And if it feels like it, I’d argue that some grass touching may be in order.
The reason Douglass’ words speak to us today is not because our realities are the same, but because our ideals are. To Douglass and his fellow abolitionists, even the horror of slavery did not render America illegitimate or its ideals not worth pursuing. “Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate,” the former slave said of Independence Day. “The principles contained in [the Declaration] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
That is our mission, polarization notwithstanding: to renew our belief in America as an aspiration worth fighting for. Nothing that we are facing today renders America’s promise unworthy of belief. On the contrary, our present turmoil only increases our obligation to make the argument for the American promise convincingly, as Douglass did. If we fail, there is no do-over. There will be infighting, it will be infuriatingly slow, and we will make mistakes. Yet, today is a day to reflect on the potential of that mission—it’s a mission that’s created a brighter future for millions of people, even those not born on these shores, and can for millions more. We can make the individual choice everyday to not fail—to stand up for freedom and justice and hope even when it seems impossible. That is what July 4th means to the exhausted American: a day to reflect on the mistakes of the past, accept the uncertainty of the present, and still embrace the truly endless potential of the future. It’s the same task we’ve always had—the task of us freedom-loving, forward-thinking, and beautifully stubborn people to preserve the greatest country that has ever existed. And, in the words of one of the best properly ‘Murican blockbuster films ever made…
“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day.”
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.