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Independence Day was an Oxymoron for Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

On this Fourth of July, America celebrates its independence from England. What is often forgotten is that, even within the celebrated charter declaring “liberty and justice for all,” the nation did not extend the same rights to those who were here before them nor to those brought to these shores to work as slaves to build these nations great wealth and prosperity.

Of all the historical events that have marked the Fourth of July, the one that stands out or should stand out for most Americans is the address delivered on 1852 by Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y.

After being asked by the leading citizens of Rochester to give a speech as part of their Fourth of July celebration, Douglass orated a scathing and vehement attack against the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence while it maintained the practice of slavery.

With the use of a sturdy understanding of history, Douglass spoke of the reality that whites could not see or purposefully ignored. In the middle of his essay, he stated, “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. 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 life 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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”

Douglass was instrumental in getting Lincoln to see that the Civil War was a struggle between freedom and slavery. Lincoln was troubled by the view in the North that it was seen as a war for abolition of slavery singularly. This upset Douglass and, in his meetings and dialogue with Lincoln, he made sure Lincoln understood that the country could not form “a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility” and, at the same time, promote and maintain “a system of rapine and murder like slavery, especially as not one word can be found in the Constitution to authorize such a belief.”

Douglass had advised President Lincoln in 1862 to free the slaves in Washington, D.C., and understood that this fight was really against an economic system directly in contradiction to the principles on which the country had been founded.

Yes, this is what we forget while tending to our grills and drinking beer. Frederick Douglass set the record straight about what this day means for blacks in America — celebrating a day of independence, when we were not free, is a sad sickness that many still maintain today.

torrance stephens, ph.d.