As we mark the Fourth of July weekend, let's pause amid the frolicking to ponder the meaning of independence and freedom -- and consider what Frederick Douglass had to say when called upon to give a widely publicized and much-anticipated oration on July 5, 1852. The famed abolitionist, not that long escaped from slavery in Maryland, hinted at "the dark clouds which lower above the horizon," as if he could imagine the carnage looming ahead, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg 11 years later. That was 150 years ago.
In reading his words today, one can easily compare the intransigence of so much of the Congress of his time with that of our own -- just as he compared them with the men whose desire for liberty led to revolution in 1776 and the founding of these United States, men who, "with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the cornerstone of the national superstructure":
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was "settled" that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were "final"; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.
Mindful that the Founding Fathers were imperfect icons of liberty, and that those who held their memories sacred were themselves selective in what they chose to remember, Douglass was compelled to note the irony that he, a former slave crusading on behalf of people who still languished in chains, was asked to take part in a celebration of independence:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? ... I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. 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. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?
As he spoke, more than 3 million blacks were in bondage in these United States:
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.
And so, with a passion not so intelligently articulated until Martin Luther King Jr. did so 100 years after Gettysburg, Douglass pleaded the cause of those who, in a land celebrating liberty, were anything but free.
In 2013, we should think of those currently denied freedom -- our nation's raison d'être. Those toiling in our fields, factories and homes who have yet unresolved immigration status. The working poor. The tens of millions without health insurance. The children denied a decent public school education. The men and women behind bars because they do not have access to adequate legal assistance. That's just a partial list.
As Douglass said in 1852, there is time for these United States to grow into the mature nation it longed to become at the outset. It is, after all, only 237 years old.
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. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, 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. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.