Many elites in the media this week have cited abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” as evidence of the former slave’s condemnation of America, and another excuse for them to express derision about the United States on its birthday. If they read the whole speech, however, they’d see it is in fact a testament of support for our nation’s founding principles and gives even more reason to celebrate the Fourth of July and American patriotism.
The historic speech was given on July 5, 1852, in Corinthian Hall to a white audience of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery society less than a decade before the Civil War began. The speech has been upheld by many as a prime example of speaking truth to power. In it, Douglass chastises the founding fathers for not resolving the question of slavery when they created the nation.
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, 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, ‘May my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’ To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, 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!
Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick touted the Douglass text this week as a denunciation of American ideals and an example of the hypocrisy of American freedom as slavery was still practiced well beyond the nation’s founding.
On Thursday, while families across the country were celebrating American independence, Kaepernick tweeted an excerpt from the Douglass speech.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine…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.”
– Frederick Douglass pic.twitter.com/IWLujGCJHn
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) July 4, 2019
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) immediately called out athlete-turned-activist.
“You quote a mighty and historic speech by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but, without context, many modern readers will misunderstand,” Cruz wrote on Twitter, followed by a series of tweets providing context to the speech.
You quote a mighty and historic speech by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but, without context, many modern readers will misunderstand. Two critical points: https://t.co/x4oLfa9DrH
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 5, 2019
While Douglass’s speech roundly criticizes Americans for saying they promote natural rights and equality before the law while still abiding legalized chattel slavery, it in fact celebrates the United States’ ideals and calls Americans to live up to them by abolishing slavery. Contrary to the idea of many on the left, who insist America was conceived in sin that it can never repent of, the speech celebrates American founding principles and praises the founding fathers for creating a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” in writing the Constitution. Douglass places the capital letters in his original text.
Douglass also concluded with praise for the Declaration of Independence, saying its principles act as a beacon for hope for all peoples. Douglass argued that the Fourth of July in the year 1852 was a joke, as slavery’s practice was then at its peak, but that the holiday as it started and as it should have been could yet live up to its promise as a day of hope for those enslaved.
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.
Read the whole speech yourself.