Duty to Warn: Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July, 1852
by Gary Kohls on 04 Jul 2010 0 Comment

Millions of us American peacemakers have been so frequently deceived about the prospects for peace, that we have understandably lost any sense of patriotic fervour.


America’s decisive loss in the Viet Nam war should have made the war-mongers retreat into oblivion, but the shame of losing made them double their efforts to regain their lost pride by re-building the war machine and looking for a war that they could win (and they found it the first Iraq War against a 4th rate military with an economy the size of Kentucky, sort of like sending the NBA All-Stars up against your local junior high basketball team).


The “peace dividend” that should have happened following the end of the cold war was denied us by the Reagan/Bush administration’s voo-doo economics built on cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy, “investing” heavily in the military (to the tune of a $4 trillion “Borrow-and-Spend” debt that still hasn’t been repaid) and the eager Pentagon’s plans to get ready for “two-front” world-wide wars – as soon as they could figure out what enemies to manufacture.


Often heart-broken, we once-patriotic American peacemakers, who are understandably cynical about - and often disgusted with - our wasteful, boastful, morally bankrupt, war-mongering nation, don’t feel very patriotic on Independence Day. For some of us, particularly since the American military atrocities perpetrated in the Vietnam War, our patriotic fervour has approached the vanishing point. Not that we don’t love our country. We peacemakers regard ourselves as loving our country so much that we have decided to have a lover’s quarrel with it.


I was once a supporter of the Democratic Party, even to the point of once being a delegate to the Minnesota State DFL Convention. Actually I was a supporter of the ideals of the Democratic Party, the now very tiny (and rapidly disappearing) progressive wing of what has become the highly militarist and corporate-controlled (and therefore right-wing) “NeoLiberal” national Democratic Party. I have come to realize that the Democratic Party is, sadly, increasingly meeting the definition of classical European fascism, albeit not quite as strongly as the equally corporate-controlled NeoConservative and Theocracy-aspiring Republicans. Being an anti-fascist, I can no longer support, ethically or monetarily, either political party.


Most seasoned American peacemakers have seen through the hypocrisy of the pro-war super-patriotic rhetoric that saturates the mainstream media, much of which is generated by the public relations agencies that are doing mercenary duty for the Pentagon and the other corporate war profiteers.


The “Greed is Good” Captains of Industry and their Ponzi Scheme dealings on Wall Street have been selling “get-rich-quick” snake oil - and the addicted stock market devotees among the investing public can’t get off the stuff long enough to sober up and realize that they are being had. And, what bothers many of us peacemakers the most are the “Just War Theorist” or “Holy War”-justifying leaders in the church of (the nonviolent) Jesus, who are mostly silent about - and therefore complicit with – the serious issues of war and militarism, stances that commonly drive ethical Sermon on the Mount-type Christians away from the churches and even away from Christianity.


The United States of America stopped being a beacon of light, truth, peace and liberty a long time ago. It didn’t just happen after 9/11, a time when the corporate-controlled Republican Cheney/Bush administration, squandering the sympathy of the world by, through a series of blatant lies, led the US into an unjust war - with the silence and consent of virtually all of the servile (and/or dis-informed) Democratic congress-persons on “the other side of the aisle.”


America’s promise to be the beacon to the world has been broken again and again ever since Ellis Island opened up and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. America once deserved its reputation as a democratic refuge to the world’s oppressed, and that is the America we peacemakers still love and honour. There was indeed a time in world history when the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was honoured and respected as true.


"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


Many generations of the now-despised “tempest tossed” (with occasional, but very heavily-publicized exceptions that, with a lot of luck, escaped the “American nightmare”), found out too late that they were going to be chewed-up and exploited by corporate America for their cheap labour, with no health care access, no safe living situations, no living wage, no real security for the future and very little political concern for their sufferings.


The black victims of the slave trade were among the first examples of the “illegal” aliens who are the modern “wretched refuse”. The freed slaves the mid-1800s were destined to become the easily-lynchable victims of Jim Crow segregation. When slavery was finally abolished, the most recent and therefore most exploitable European or Oriental immigrant classes usually found themselves living in similarly lethal situations of racial or ethnic discrimination, chronic malnutrition and poverty.


These oppressed ones “yearning to be free” had often been deceived about the deceptive and mis-labeled “American dream”. Many of these were destined to be treated as virtual slaves, indentured servants, share-croppers, or otherwise victims of predatory lenders. They became the frequently-unemployed masses who were so desperate for work that they were willing to accept the unlivable wages offered by greedy corporations that were willing to do anything necessary to prevent unionization of their industries.


Cynicism about Independence Day (independence from Great Britain) and the ideals behind the Statue of Liberty was prevalent in America long before the Statue of Liberty was inaugurated. The generous gift from France was intended to celebrate the first 100 years of American independence as well as the fondness France felt for the US.


The spirit of Liberty seems to have vanished, what with the Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld/Rove and now Obama pre-emptive and endless war doctrines, the “collateral damage” mass slaughter of innocent and unarmed Middle Eastern women and children, the “dissing” of anti-fascist France, and now the brutal treatment of Central Americans who are only wanting to find work somewhere to support their families (after American corporations, with the essential help of the State Department and the Pentagon, cunningly and unethically drove them off their ancestral lands in order to establish highly profitable sugarcane, fruit and/or coffee plantations).


One person who justifiably and inarguably criticized the annual celebrations of the 4th of July was the emancipated black intellectual Frederick Douglass. Douglass was the pre-eminent – and obviously very courageous – mid-19th century spokesman for the abolition of slavery. His speeches and writings remain important today because of the powerful way he articulated the case against racial discrimination.

I close this essay with excerpts from his 4th of July speech, 1852, a decade before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Declaration.


Prepare for many unwelcome truths, many of which still remain true today. Some will dismiss Douglass as simply being unpatriotic, but his statements are irrefutable and his truth-telling makes him a hero to many. Douglass even warns in his speech that “I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.”





What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?

Frederick Douglass – July 4, 1852

“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

“… I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of 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 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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? 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, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“… Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, … (it) would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.


“My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.


“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery - the great sin and shame of America! ‘I will not equivocate; I will not excuse’; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

“… What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment.


“… Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

“… Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? …There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

“…Am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.


“… At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. … the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

“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 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.

“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

“... 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. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. … Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.”

The entire speech is available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html

[Courtesy Gary Kohls] 

User Comments Post a Comment
Comments are free. However, comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate material will be removed from the site. Readers may report abuse at  editorvijayvaani@gmail.com
Post a Comment

Back to Top