This Wednesday (July 4), marks Independence Day, even as protesters mark America’s denial of liberty to people of color. As The Associated Press noted yesterday (July 1), formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass addressed the failure of American commitments to freedom more than a century ago in several Fourth of July-focused speeches.
The AP traces Douglass’ critique back to an 1852 speech that he delivered to a predominantly White audience in Rochester, New York. “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” which he technically delivered on July 5, captured how ongoing enslavement of African Americans sullied the holiday:
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. 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.
He delivered “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion” a decade later, on July 4, 1862, during the Civil War. Douglass denounced the ways supporters of enslavement twisted the Declaration of Independence to support their beliefs. He noted the deadly impact on not just the primary targets—the enslaved—but other marginalized people as well:
Instead of treating it, as it was intended to be treated, as a full and comprehensive declaration of the equal and sacred rights of mankind, our contemptible Negro-hating and slaveholding critics have endeavored to turn it into absurdity by treating it as a declaration of the equality of man in his physical proportions and mental endowments. This gross and scandalous perversion of the true intents of meaning of the declaration did not long stand alone. It was soon followed by the heartless dogma, that the rights declared in that instrument did not apply to any but White men. The slave power at last succeeded, in getting this doctrine proclaimed from the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. It was there decided that “all men” only means some men, and those White men. And all this in face of the fact, that White people only form one fifth of the whole human family—and that some who pass for White are nearly as Black as your humble speaker. While all this was going on, lawyers, priests and politicians were at work upon national prejudice against the colored man. They raised the cry and put it into the mouth of the ignorant, and vulgar and narrow minded, that “this is the White man’s country,” and other cries which readily catch the ear of the crowd. This popular method of dealing with an oppressed people has, while crushing the Blacks, corrupted and demoralized the Whites…. Slavery, that was before the Missouri Compromise couchant, on its knees, asking meekly to be let alone within its own limits to die, became in a few years after rampant, throttling free speech, fighting friendly Indians, annexing Texas, warring with Mexico, kindling with malicious hand the fires of war and bloodshed on the virgin soil of Kansas, and finally threatening to pull down the pillars of the Republic, if you Northern men should dare vote in accordance with your constitutional and political convictions.