Last week on CNN, as contributor Angela Rye accused White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnaney and President Trump of failing to understand the history of black America, she referred to the legendary Frederick Douglass. “Frederick Douglass said about Independence Day in this country, what to the slave is the Fourth of July?” she said. “And I would invite them to even start there, as a reading principle, to see how different we see this country.”
Douglass is among the greatest of Americans. But when he was born in February 1818, not only was he denied American citizenship and the rights that come with it; he was denied his very humanity. On July 5, 1852, Douglass — then 34 years old and not long after he was himself freed from slavery — addressed an Independence Day gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York. There, he presented his most famous speech: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Yet, as Black Lives Matter activists and left-wing leaders read and reference Douglass’s 1852 speech, they cherry-pick only part of his lengthy address. Consequently, they miss Douglass’s real message: that America’s founding documents are documents of liberty, and slavery is an affront to the principles they espouse.
A Resounding Condemnation of Slavery
On Friday, National Public Radio posted a video of several, young descendants of Frederick Douglass narrating excerpts from his 1852 address, in which he resoundingly condemns the evil institution of slavery. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” they quote their ancestor. “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 … 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.”
They go on: “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 feeling of the nation must be quickened; 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.”
Amen. Douglass, born a slave, rightly devotes paragraph after paragraph to decrying slavery. Yet he does so much more. Unfortunately, NPR ignores the essential portion of the speech. The only hopeful line NPR asks these young people to read is, “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.” But by leaving out Douglass’s praise of America’s founding documents and leaders, his essential argument — that slavery is incompatible with America’s culture of liberty — is lost.
A ‘Glorious Liberty Document’
Frederick Douglass would have likely found himself out-of-place in the Black Lives Matter movement. Although he asserts that Independence Day did not belong to the slave, he does not assail the Declaration, the Constitution, or their authors. Instead, he praises them and uses them in his appeal. To wit, “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny … The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.”
Of its signatories, Douglas argues, “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.”
He also contends that “there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; 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? … is it in the temple? It is neither.”
“Now,” Douglass continues, “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.”
Without a doubt, Frederick Douglass held the framers, the Declaration and the Constitution in high esteem. One can only come to the opposite conclusion if one ignores the words “saving principles,” “great men,” “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” and “hostile to the existence of slavery” from Douglass’s 1852 speech.
What he found fault in, however, was the utter hypocrisy of the United States in its protection of slavery. In this, he was undoubtedly right.
A Failure to Live Up to ‘Saving Principles’
In his 1852 address, Douglass unequivocally excoriated the abject evils of slavery — its brutality, inhumanity, and horrors. Consequently, it is reasonable that, when people think of this speech, they think of his penetrating condemnation of slavery. Douglass did so brilliantly and eloquently, in a manner both timely and significant.
While righteously condemning slavery as only a liberated slave could, he touts the authors of the Declaration, many of whom were slaveholders, and acknowledges their sizable contributions. The reality, as Douglass forcefully frames it, is that during the 1850s, America was far astray from the ideals of liberty espoused in the Declaration and affirmed in the Constitution. Again, he was correct.
Douglass recognizes his exclusion from Independence Day, yet he acknowledges the Declaration is a statement of “saving principles” — principles the United States was not, and often still is not, living up to. More than anyone alive today, Frederick Douglass could justifiably disparage the Declaration and the Constitution if he thought it warranted. Instead, in 1852, he acknowledged the truth about them and argued that America needed to fulfill its principles and eradicate slavery. It took us far too long to do so, but, through the course and outcome of a bloody civil war, we ultimately did.
For those who only look to Douglass’s condemnation of slavery, they miss something significant. They miss his entire point.
The Real Lesson
Today’s Left condemns the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as flawed documents created by racist writers. Accordingly, we should tear down their statues and ignore their words in some sort of historical correction. Douglass rejected this view, particularly because he used these very documents, the ideals they represented, and the better traits of the men who wrote them to underpin his arguments against American slavery. And while he could appeal to the better angels of America’s culture of liberty, he would have been unable to do under the regimes of the Aztec Empire or with the Mongol’s under the rule of Genghis Khan.
Douglass was correct in his approach then, and he would be correct today. The spirit of Frederick Douglass can guide us even now, but we must be mindful to carefully read and understand him so that we may continue America’s advance into the future.