It’s Independence Day. Read Frederick Douglass.

It’s Independence Day. Read Frederick Douglass. July 4, 2024

What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?

I often post excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ magnificent 1852 speech on this day.

That’s partly because I work retail and the Fourth of July is a crazy busy time at the Big Box and I’m too tired and/or busy to post much of anything else around this point. But it’s mainly because even if you’ve already read that speech a dozen times, you’ll find it just as fresh the next time you read it — just as challenging, insightful, audacious, bracing, inspiring, troubling, and illuminating.

Usually when choosing an excerpt, I focus on Douglass’ fierce words for his brothers in the white church. That part of Douglass’ speech is, among other things, a perennially timely and devastating sermon on Isaiah 1. It diminishes Douglass to describe him as a great “orator.” Oratory, schmoratory — he’s doing theology here.

And, yes, based just on this one speech, I will argue that Frederick Douglass is the greatest American theologian of the 19th century. If you want to understand American Christianity, read this speech. (Not because Douglass was widely influential in shaping the course of American theology, but because he wasn’t.)

Other times I have focused on Douglass’ piercing dismissal of the brazen bad faith of slavery’s defenders and debaters. The blunt clarity that bring — and allows — is so refreshing.

But this July 4 people seem fearful, pessimistic, and panicky. Hopeless, even. So this year I’m quoting from the earlier parts of Douglass’ speech, hoping to encourage you to start reading at the beginning. Because if you’re feeling fearful, or pessimistic, or unable to speak of hope without sounding scornfully sarcastic then you might need to read this whole thing:

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old.

I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.

Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown . Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.

But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.

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