While Frederick Douglass is obviously not a Founding Father, his life embodied our nation’s highest ideals, and his speeches were delivered to promote these values. And on this day — the day we commemorate the inception of our nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — Douglass is one man that deserves to be associated with the Fourth of July.
From Slave to Honored Orator
Born a slave in 1818 in Maryland with the given name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass was a strong-willed and intelligent man who, in spite of the laws at the time, learned to read and write.
In 1838, he escaped and eventually made his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he labored and was a lay preacher. Later, he became involved in the abolitionist movement, where he met William Lloyd Garrison, who took Douglass under his wing for a time.
As Douglass’s orator skills grew, so did his fame. However, Douglass and Garrison did not see eye to eye on the issue of slavery, and eventually the two parted ways.
Douglass founded his own abolitionist newspaper called “The North Star” and would go on to become the major force in the movement to abolish slavery in America — even going so far as to meet with and advise Abraham Lincoln and help recruit black soldiers for the Union army.
His earlier views were obviously denunciatory of slavery and the nation that hypocritically allowed it at its founding and promoted it with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. However, Douglass did not ultimately accept Garrison’s doctrine that the U.S. Constitution was an inherently pro-slavery document. Instead, he came to appreciate the significance of America’s Founding Fathers and the “self-evident truths” with which they shaped a new nation.
In time he learned to see that when it came to the grave injustices endured by his fellow countryman, it was not the principles that were lacking but the courage of individual Americans to live those principles out.
Thus in 1852, Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Here, he laid out in stirring detail how it was a “slander upon [the framers’ memory” to call the Constitution a pro-slavery document. He went on to say that the Founding Fathers were “brave” and “great” men but that:
Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times. How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
Interestingly enough, many of today’s racial grievance initiatives like Black Lives Matter or those who believe America’s founding and its founders were racist, patriarchal, or any of the other jaundiced shibboleths used by the left, will sometimes cite this speech as proof that racism is built into America’s DNA. This is a belief typical of those who have been educated (or conditioned) to filter every aspect of life through the lens of race, class, and sex while harboring a self-imposed sense of alienation from America.
However, as Peter C. Meyers of the Heritage Foundation once noted, it is a belief that can only be held by those who have not read Douglass’s speech in context and in its entirety.
Meyers notes today’s activists are making the same mistake Garrison made by seeing “America’s betrayals of the ideals of liberty and equality” as “betrayals in the nation’s founding principles rather than betrayals of them.” In doing so, those who “critically” denounce the Constitution and America’s founding, are siding with a man who went so far as to burn a copy of the document, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”
Fortunately for all of us, history has not been too kind to the memory of Garrison, and we can only hope for a similar outcome with today’s activists.
Pursuing Eternal Principles
The life of Frederick Douglass shows us that while our nation’s history has and always will have dark periods of which we should rightfully be ashamed, those times will only come about when we fail to live out our nation’s highest ideals. These “eternal” and “saving” principles — that we are all created equal with certain God-given inalienable rights — are ones that we should not only be celebrating today; we should endeavor to pursue them each and every day as part of an ongoing goal to “forming a more perfect union” with our fellow citizens and our nation as a whole.
As for those who question or reject those principles, all I can say is that if they were good enough for Douglass (a man who at one time had none of the rights we all take for granted now), then they should be good enough for us all. It is an insult to the man’s memory to think that today’s overly educated activists and underinformed slacktivists have endured, let alone accomplished, more than Douglass did.
So on this Fourth of July, in addition to honoring our Founding Fathers and the principles that have made America exceptional among all the other nations, please take a moment to offer a toast or a prayer for Frederick Douglass. He is a true and faithful American — one whose life is everything this holiday is meant to commemorate.