Pollak: Frederick Douglass on the Redemptive Power of Independence Day

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: The Frederick Douglass Statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitors Center, at the U.S. Capitol, on June 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congressional leaders dedicated the statue during a ceremony on Wednesday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and black American leader, once condemned the Fourth of July.

So, at least, we were reminded in 2018 by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who quoted Douglass in declaring the 4th a “sham.”

King quoted a passage from Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. Douglass declared:

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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations 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 these United States, at this very hour.

But that is not all Douglass said — and King conveniently left out the rest of the speech, in which Douglass declared that the principles of the Declaration of Independence — if not the practice of American law at the time — were redemptive:

The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Activists like King, and proponents of Critical Race Theory, claim white supremacy is inherent to American institutions because the Constitution allowed slavery. The Biden administration itself, through UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, recently claimed that “the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.”

But in his 1852 speech, Douglass noted that the Constitution did not, in fact, mention slavery at all:

I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States …

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.

In fact, Douglass observed, the principles of the Constitution were opposed to slavery and anticipated its elimination:

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

So in spite of the fact that the Fourth of July did not mean much to slaves at the time, Douglass said, he was optimistic about the future — precisely because of the principles inherent in the Declaration and the Constitution. He concluded:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, 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.

Today, we are constantly told that America is beset by “systemic racism.” The National Archives themselves have told us that “Freedom wasn’t fully chartered by the three documents in the Rotunda.” And yet to Douglass, who experienced slavery directly, freedom was chartered by those documents. What was lacking was simply our commitment to them.

That commitment is more important today than ever, when those documents, and their principles, are under attack. Douglass knew what President Donald Trump declared last September — that “America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”

To demean the flag, or our founding, or the principles of our founding documents, is to deny what Frederick Douglass saw: namely, the redemptive power of Independence Day.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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