Although today is a day of celebration, it doesn’t feel like it has in the past, at least to me. I love history, and I especially love the Revolutionary period. And while the men of that era were flawed in many, many ways, I appreciate and admire their actions in regards to the Revolution. Looking back over the last few months, we need more people like the revolutionaries – people who will stand up to tyranny and oppression.
While we celebrate the Declaration of Independence today, I’m also drawn towards the 4th of July speech given by Frederick Douglass in 1852. Unfortunately, we can draw a number of parallels to our nation today.
Though slavery, as it was known to Americans in 1852, does not exist here today, do we not still have what Douglass calls “gross injustice and cruelty” perpetrated onto large swaths of our population? Has it not been any more glaring since the new administration took office? Haven’t attempts to expand injustice and cruelty been made since day one? Is it even necessary to elaborate on that?
Douglass says in this speech, “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.” Indeed it does. Though slavery is gone, hate, prejudice, racism, and intolerance remain. Our government, especially under the present administration, has shown that it does not care about our lives, our liberty, our pursuits of happiness. In the document we celebrate on this day it is written, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” These words are no less revolutionary today than they were when they were written. The Declaration of Independence recognizes this. Jefferson wrote, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
But it immediately follows, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” How can we do this? Douglass, in his speech, said, “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.” Some Americans have taken this up, with protests in the streets, with calls and visits to their representatives, and with loud denunciations and complaints. If the government continues to abuse and usurp, let us hope that even more Americans take action.
We must all do what we can to preserve our liberties, to preserve the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. We don’t necessarily need armed rebellion against our government, but we do need to hold our government and our people responsible for their actions. This is the way to ensure our liberty. We cannot allow our fellow citizens to harass, intimidate, and attack others. We cannot allow our elected leaders to do so either. Nor can we sit by idly as they strip us of rights that those who came before us fought so dearly for, sometimes with their lives. Otherwise, there is no need to celebrate today.
Douglass claimed that “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” I hope that he is wrong.
I would like to end with what is probably the most well-known part of Douglass’s speech, as a reminder that if we remain false to the future, we may be doomed to repeat the past.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. 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.”