What, to Americans, Is the 5th of July?
I like parades, baseball, war movies, barbecue, Sousa marches, and fireworks. So I can do the patriotism of the 4th of July.
But I’m much more interested in the patriotism of the 5th of July.
Starting today we have another chance to cultivate the patriotism of what comes next: a way of loving your country not as it was, but as it could be, if only we’d commit to the hard work necessary to make today’s America more closely match yesterday’s noble words.
Addressing the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852, Douglass began by celebrating what happened on July 4, 1776 as “the first great fact in your nation’s history —the very ring—bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.” The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence were “saving principles.” Their revolutionary defenders “did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.”
Read the full speech; abridged versions sometimes leave out the opening paean… which makes the jeremiad that follows all the more powerful.
For what was an Independence Day celebration to an enslaved African, or one who had liberated himself from slavery? Douglass had asked to speak a day late because “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine.2 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.”
At this point Douglass pivoted to the “scorching irony” that Blight says made an audience of white progressives “squirm as he dragged them through a litany of America’s contradictions.” For the better part of an hour, no cruelty, cowardice, or hypocrisy associated with slavery escaped Douglass’ unblinking gaze.
And that included his own religion. In a speech that freely quoted the Bible, Douglass was scarcely less critical of the American church, which “is not only indifferent to the wrongs of die slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters…. For my part, I would say, Welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything—in preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines.”
His spirit worn down by “such blasphemy,” Douglass didn’t hesitate to sound bleak. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present,” he thundered, “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.”
“The best friend of a nation,” Douglass once told Horace Greeley, “is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins.” As the ring of fireworks fades from our ears, maybe we should all dedicate part of this day to listening to those voices that tell us the truths we least want to hear.
But however harshly Douglass delivered his rebuke, it was ultimately offered in hope. “The conscience of the American public needs this irritation,” Douglass told another group of abolitionists in 1847, “and I would blister it all over from center to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer and a better life than it is now manifesting to the world.”
So as he came to the end of “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?”, Douglass would not “despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.” Theological forces included: “The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
Douglass realized that speaking hard truths that Fifth of July would itself help to inch America towards a fuller realization of the “saving principles” of the Fourth of July.
So what rebuke should we hear this July 5th that will prompt us forward the rest of America’s 247th year? What in our national conscience today would Douglass irritate “until it gives signs of a purer and a better life”?
Douglass would surely recognize and regret the work left to do on the two causes that mattered most to him: freedom and equality for African Americans, on the one hand, and women on the other.3
If he couldn’t fathom mass shootings like those in Highland Park, Uvalde, and Buffalo, he’d soon recognize our age’s destructive iterations on the enduring American propensity to pit individual liberty against the common good, to protect one person’s independence to the detriment of our interdependent lives. (See also: climate change, our health care system, etc.)
Finally, Douglass might join the chorus warning of existential threats to democracy itself. Unlike his estranged mentor William Lloyd Garrison, he did not regard the U.S. Constitution as irredeemably wicked, and one of Douglass’ signal post-Civil War achievements was to help expand the franchise to Black men (but not women, of any race). So I suspect that he’d be concerned by efforts to suppress — or make meaningless — the votes of Americans; he’d surely condemn seditious attempts to set any political leader above the rule of law and beyond the will of the people.
But I also wonder if he would be less hopeful on July 5, 2022 than he was 170 years earlier.
Speaking in 1852, Douglass professed himself “glad that your nation is so young… only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood.” Just seventy-six years into the American experiment, “the eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence.” It was not too late for the American child to unlearn its prejudices and outgrow its injustices, to mature into something better than its parents could have envisioned.
Even in 1852, however, Douglass recognized that time would not always be on this country’s side. “Were the nation older,” he told that audience in Rochester, “the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow.”
Nearly a quarter-millennium after the first 4th of July, this 5th of July dawns on an older nation, many of whose patriots now grieve what they see as the reversal of reforms. Amid the gloom, is it too late for us to fulfill the hope of prophets like Frederick Douglass?
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Blight notes that slave auctions were often scheduled for the 4th of July in antebellum America.
Just four years earlier and fifty miles away, Douglass had been in Seneca Falls, New York for its historic convention on the rights of women.