American identity, as we know it today, is centered around momentous epochs. The Plymouth Rock landing and a conceptual framework mythicized by “city upon a hill” rhetoric; the Treaty of Versailles and America’s permanent place as a nation; Manifest Destiny and an imperialist mindset; abolition and citizenship; growth of women leaders through suffrage; and expansionism. Every one of these era’s is associated with specific dates and every date we invoke in patriotic fervor, every monument – tangible or abstract – we construct, every memory we evoke is part of our collective identity. One day in particular, July 4, more so than any other is the bedrock of an American identity through patriotism, monumentalizing, and evocation. However, July 4, through our shared past, has not and will not be felt by all Americans similarly. It is not “un-American”, as some like to claim, it is a known fact, and this known fact cannot be any more obvious than witnessing and living through the events of modern-day America.
Barbeques, flags, American flag t-shirts, sunglasses, shorts, and an armada of patriotic sentiment flows through the nation every year on the Fourth of July. It was a day in which British subjects declared their independence from British Rule. It was a day an American nation gained its foundational document declaring a self-evident truth, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Today our understanding of July Fourth is formulated with a fabricated history of the “Rights” implied by the pen of these activists. However, in 1776 rights only extended as far as property owning white males. Any, and all white “Rights” outside independence from Great Britain were subject to careful deliberation in favor of Colonial delegates snatching power. Throughout our history, white memory sticks to this narrative, but in black history, the patriotic narrative around July 4, 1776, changes drastically. In Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass addressed this narrative when he asked an audience, “What to the American Slave, is your Fourth of July?”
On July 5, 1852 in Rochester, Douglass very well understood his role as an ex-American Slave, now freedman, who would speak on America’s hypocrisy and America’s broken vow of “Liberty.” As he begins his speech, Douglass recites, broadly, some history for his audience. He used rhetoric and a booming voice to retell a history very well known to his audience in which a group of Founding Fathers won their freedom from Great Britain. Through emotional connections to these events, Americans celebrate, as Douglass stated, to remind the people of “National Independence” and “political freedom” from a country across the ocean. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and many others, provided future generations with a “great deliverance” and an early footprint for the creation of a nation predicated on Enlightened ideals. These men, Douglass recognized, joined together to “pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether as ought not to be quietly submitted to.” With one voice they rose together risking life and wealth to agitate and rebel, “To side with right against wrong, with the weak against the strong, with the oppressed against the oppressor!” And the Founders acted. For their actions, they are remembered, but take note, they were not always peaceful men. They “preferred revolution to peaceful submission” Douglass emphasized. To receive their desired change they needed to agitate. From Douglass’ perspective, and perspectives of Americans then and now, the Founders could do absolutely no wrong, and to hint at such sentiments was and is sacrilege. Actions for freedom and their outcomes are what the people chooseto remember, but Douglass methodically attacks the hypocrisy of American liberty through this American memory.
The hypocrisy of America, the hypocrisy of the Revolutionary Era is quite simple; the advantages of freedom apply to one race, the dominating white race. “It is the birthday of yourNational Independence, and of your political freedom,” Douglass calls out to the audience. Douglass’s use of possessive adjectives changes a commemorative speech to that of a rebuke of American patriotism and American ideals. To Douglass, American history and the very American ideals that established this nation are divided by race. While white America can celebrate the birth of their nation through Independence Day, enslaved Americans must remain in bondage. In 1852, slavery was still intact and is protected by federal law, through the Fugitive Slave Law. This law required the return of fugitive slaves, even in Northern free states, and placed responsibility of returning fugitive slaves on the national government. Freedom gained from the Revolutionary Era was yourswhile the freedom denied is ours, lamented Douglass. To that degree, “What, to the American Slave, is your Fourth of July?”
At this moment, Douglass exposed his audience to the evils of slavery, the space behind the veil by responding to his own question with a heartfelt and real memory from his past. “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.” Douglass’s retelling of his own enslaved experiences is a rhetorical tool used multiple times by the African American abolitionist. From his early abolition career, he spoke about torture at the hands of Mr. Covey, his overall enslavement, and his desire for freedom. His full story was published in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass’s scathing rebuke on slavery, not only in his narrative but in his July Fifth speech, is maximized by lifting the veil on slavery through a mastery of language and visualization.
The veil was, and still is, a rhetorical tool used to convey a conscious white American effort to hide something. Douglass describes this conscious effort of erasure within America as “a thin veil to cover up crimes.” With the veil pulled back Douglass revealed the horrors of American slavery and other meanings of July Fourth. First, Douglass pointed to the domestic slave trade as one evil. As opposed to the foreign slave trade – which the government denounced as piracy – the domestic slave trade goes unnoticed, but “sustained by American politics and American religion.” Men, women, and children are “reared like swine for the market,” and controlled by a “man drover” who “crowds the highways of the nation with droves of human stock.” These “wretched people” are prodded to the New Orleans slave market where they became human property on Southern farms and plantations. The veil was pulled back farther to expose “the old man with locks thinned and gray” and “a young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms.” Finally, Douglass thrusts open the veil with “a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle.” As it turns out the sound was not a rifle but a whip, tearing flesh from the woman carrying her baby whose speed “faltered under the weight of her child and her chains.” American ideals partially concealed these truths behind the veil but to Douglass these ideals became hypocritical:
“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 you 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.”
The hypocrisy of American independence is also imminent in American religion. Without spending much time on the subject, Douglass expressed his sentiment about American Christianity. American faith “takes sides with the oppressors” without any regard for the oppressed, voiced Douglass. While white America could “thank God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty,” American slaves were held in bondage by a crude interpretation of the bible. In that interpretation, the relation of master and slave was ordained by God and the slave must be obedient to their enslavers if they desired an eternal life in heaven. Thus, American Christianity is guilty of upholding slavery and promoting the hypocrisy of freedom and independence. Douglass continued his attack on religion in America by calling it a sham and advocated, satirically, “infidelity,” “atheism,” or “anything! in preference to the gospel, as practiced by those Divines.” Further, Douglass denounced a religion that strips man from God and puts the center of control on acts of oppression and suppression. Thus, America’s struggle with freedom and slavery led to the moral corruption of America domestically. Douglass noted that Americans denounce the tyranny of Russia and Austria, but the national government remains a body guard to the “tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.” While the Declaration of Independence cited an unalienable right, “endowed by their creator,” American religion and American politics contradicted the free ideals of Republicanism through protections to slavery.
“What, to the American Slave, is your Fourth of July?” A contradiction. A broken promise. A hypocrisy of American ideals. While white Americans celebrated their liberty and freedom, American slaves continued a life of tortured enslavement. Douglass’s view of the nation and the founders are, however, not of total disdain. In the eighteenth century, “your fathers…earnestly sought redress” and once petitions did not work, they persevered, grew stronger, and acted in aggression for freedom. Now, in 1852, Douglass called for that same aggressive agitation to promote enslaved freedom and liberty to African Americans. That moment, that new founding moment for the establishment of freedom to all peoples, was led by the “new” founders such as Douglass with guidance from the old founders in Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and everyone else not mentioned. He expected, as they expected, to face daunting tasks along the route to freedom but Douglass knew, just as the founders did, that all the denunciations of wrong could not undermine the natural right that all men were created equal. In closing at Rochester, Douglass was filled 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.” With this hope, within a new nation with “great principles” a new day of freedom will emerge where the hypocrisy will be undone and left standing will be freedom, liberty, and justice to all.
Douglass, Frederick, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor. (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 188-206.
Photo of Frederick Douglass courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.56175/.