“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Few words have been more important in the course of human history. This idea – that humans are innately equal and deserve liberty – is the founding idea of our nation. It marked a radical break in the world towards a new era of democratic thought. Today’s world is still very much informed by the poetry of our successful rebellion. For this fact alone, the Declaration of Independence deserves celebration and reverence. Yet every 4th of July also presents a problem to many Americans. How do you accept Jefferson’s famous words if you have yet to realize his promises of equality, if you continue to endure systemic injustices?
On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass tried to answer that question while speaking before the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. The former slave had made a name for himself as a powerful orator and a passionate opponent of American slavery, so he was an obvious choice as the day’s speaker. Douglass embodied the promise of American liberty (though he had to survive, fight, and flee to achieve it), and would surely juxtapose the freedom and equality of the North to the wretched oppression of the South. At least that’s what the crowd anticipated. To the crowd’s shock, Douglass proceeded to deliver one of the harshest orations in his entire career, one which condemned every American who enjoyed freedom while others suffered in bondage. It is worth remembering for its brutal honesty.
Douglass began the speech with a sense of empathy, saying that he understood that colonists fought real oppression during the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers risked everything for a new nation, and for this alone, Americans should be proud, Douglass said. Yet for Douglass, there was a darker side to the Fourth. Every Independence Day felt like a cruel joke to the American slave:
Douglass continued his harsh critiques and condemned both the American government and well-meaning abolitionists for their lack of progress. For Douglass, the hypocrisy of the United States was too much:
Finally, Douglass attacked the two pillars of the American ethos – religion and the Declaration of Independence – and argued that Americans had distorted and ignored these pillars for personal gain.
Douglass’s image of America is understandably bleak. He experienced this nation’s worst inequality and oppression, at a time when many Americans firmly believed that all men were not created equal and that some were endowed by the creator with misery and bondage. Douglass was right to be furious with an America that proclaimed the values of human liberty and equality while millions suffered through slavery and white supremacy. How then, do we understand the Declaration of Independence? Is it nothing more than a sham?
Douglass seems to have anticipated this question: “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.” Even Douglass, for all his anger and frustration, believed that there was hope for America, founded as it was with the promise of equality. He understood that any nation built on such a stark contradiction between rhetoric and reality would eventually have to choose a path. In our tumultuous history, we have often strayed from the path of equality. Thankfully, we have had leaders like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind us of the unfulfilled promises set forth in that immortal Declaration. Today, once again, in that great tradition, Americans are grappling with the full meaning of the Declaration of Independence.