What, to us, is the Fourth of July?

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. In spite of the fireworks and picnics (and the vacation from work), I'm more prepared to withstand than to enjoy the Fourth of July. Especially in the current political climate, it's not unreasonable to expect excesses of patriotic fervor, especially of that kind of patriotism that tries to exclude dissent from the national community.

In some ways, it's ironic, because the Fourth of July is - originally - nothing if not a celebration of dissent. It commemorates a moment when people decided that the government they were under was oppressive, and took matters into their own hands. The Revolutionary War was, indeed, revolutionary, even if it was also extremely limited in its scope. It excluded women and people of color, as well as landless white men, but in spite of these deficits, it was a powerful statement for the power of the people in an age when the monarchy was not often challenged. It was an affirmation of the right of people to take up arms against a government that did not represent them. Thirteen years before the French Revolution, the American Revolution seemed the proving ground for radical ideas like republicanism and democracy.

How far we've come since then. The exclusions of that republic, its crimes of genocide and slavery, continue to haunt the U.S. today, though many would prefer not to acknowledge that fact. But that belief in the right of people to rebel, to stand up against a government that fails to represent them - that's gone, almost entirely. Now, even those who refuse to say the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - words that do seem opposed to the First Amendment, words only added to the Pledge in 1954 as a result of Cold War anti-commie scares - are labeled unpatriotic, and potentially dangerous to our sense of national unity. (Right, whatever.) That the Fourth of July is intended to celebrate just such dissent, just such standing up for one's rights in the face of a government that does not represent the majority of its own people - that is an uncomfortable fact that will be swept under the carpet in the course of the day, as unity and blind patriotism are held up as national ideals.

Much the same point was made, though far more eloquently, 150 years ago. Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, gave a speech in 1852 entitled "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?" Douglass emphasized the powerful, revolutionary force of the colonists' rebellion against the British government. Sure, part of Douglass's admiration was rhetorical; he was well aware that the original founding fathers had no more respect for African Americans than their descendants did in his time. But he took them at their word, took their language of freedom and equality, and showed how succeeding generations had failed to keep the promises of 1776.

"[The fathers of this republic] 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 that 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."

Douglass continued,

"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 defence. Mark them!"

Today, 150 years after Douglass's speech, his words still ring true - perhaps even more so, since George Bush is presumably the most undereducated, least circumspect and least statesmanlike president ever. There is no looking "beyond the passing moment," there is no sense of care for the future; we want oil now, and who cares what future generations do. A man who believes that bombing a country "back to the stone age" will actually prevent terrorism (how? by promoting hatred of the country doing the bombing? oh, right, that makes sense...); a man who is perfectly willing to accept innumerable casualties in his blind pursuit of one fugitive; a man who does not believe in upholding the Constitution, whether it be the First Amendment separation of church and state or the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a "speedy and public trial," or any number of other constitutional guarantees; a man who lacks even the most basic understanding of the world, of foreign or domestic policy, and who cares not one iota for the suffering of others - a man who has said that things would be much easier if our country were a dictatorship - this man is a sign of "these degenerate times." And the sad fact of the matter is that while Baby Bush is the figurehead, he is not the man responsible for these policies. He is surrounded by advisors and a power structure that share and support this skewed view of the world.

Frederick Douglass's indictment of the United States' hypocrisy is still powerful today because the hypocrisy of which he speaks, the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom while millions suffer, is still with us. Slavery was abolished, but the United States has not ceased to infringe on the freedoms of millions - citizens of the world and its own citizens. The United States has not ceased, in so many places, to make its name synonymous not with freedom, as so many would like to have us believe, but with oppression.

As the fireworks go off and we take another hot dog off the grill and speeches make appeals to our patriotism, it is worth remembering what Frederick Douglass had to say, 150 years ago, about our Fourth of July celebration.

"Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultous joy, 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."

Ju ly 3, 2002


More from Douglass's speech

This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. 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. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages.... But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations. ...

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

But, such is not the state of the case. 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.

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