Frederick Douglass didn't hate America, and neither should you
If anyone had a right to hate America, it was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery and witnessing its horrors first hand, Douglass could lay claim to resentment against our country in a way that only he and his enslaved brethren ever could. He also possessed a unique ability to articulate those feelings—and in his famous 1852 “What, to a Slave, is the Fourth of July?” speech, he showed just how powerful a skill that was.
Every year on Independence Day, advocates and activists across the political spectrum share that speech on social media, and every year I fear too few of them truly grasp its content. Some focus only on the beginning, where Douglass calls the Founding Fathers “brave…[and] great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age.” They revel in Douglass’ acknowledgement of these “statesmen, patriots and heroes,” and that “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, [he] will unite with [us] to honor their memory.”
Others skip to the middle, once Douglass notes that, for all the aforementioned praise of the Founders, he is “not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.” Readers of a certain ideological bent will delight in the fact that Douglass didn’t take the stage to join in the jubilation, but rather to “call in question and to denounce…everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America,” and to bring into stark relief the “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy,” for which “America reigns without a rival.”
Indeed, the majority of Douglass’ time is dedicated to enumerating and elucidating America’s inhumanity and moral contradictions, and those who quote him to paint a purely flattering image of our country often elide the speech’s substance. Douglass himself pre-empts this by noting Sydney Smith’s dictum that “men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own.”
I would argue, however, that those who are hyper-focused on Douglass’ invective—those who use it to argue that America is irredeemably corrupt, or that descendants of slaves shouldn’t celebrate July 4th, are also missing something crucial: Namely, the reason Douglass was compelled to speak at all.
For all the venom in his Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass didn’t hate America. He believed in it—so much so that he fought his whole life for his rightful place in it, on the basis of its founding principles.
Douglass recognized America as an ideal. He saw in those founding documents not just hypocrisy, but also a boundless and unfulfilled potential. In what he called the Declaration’s “saving principles,” he saw a hope he considered “much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.” Douglass spoke to his audience of their America, and the ways in which it failed to be his America. He bravely and rightfully held a mirror up to our country, and demanded that it work to live up to its promise, because he wanted that promise to be fulfilled.
And that’s what too many seem to miss. Despite having every right to be, Douglass’ criticisms weren’t cynical, or merely angry and spiteful. Anyone who reads the speech in full, rather than pulling convenient bits and pieces to serve their ideological ends, will see that Douglass not only “[does] not despair of this country,” but chooses to end his address “where [he] began, with hope.”
That hope is present throughout even the most vicious of his criticisms. In fact, hope is what fuels them. Without it, I imagine Douglass wouldn’t have bothered to criticize America at all. What would have been the point?
There’s a heartbreaking bleakness to the idea, communicated by some, that progress is impossible. I believe this is a mistake—not simply for the fact that despite our myriad problems, all around us is evidence to the contrary. It’s also mistaken because without hope there is no real reason to fight. Douglass knew that. We should too.
The United States was only seventy-six years old on the day Douglass addressed that audience on the Fourth of July. He noted that the country was “only in the beginning of [its] national career, still lingering in the period of childhood.” As we approach our two hundred and forty-sixth year, perhaps the beginning of our national adolescence, we still have plenty of work to do to live up to our founding principles. That work will likely never be finished. But if we wish to get somewhere, we must first acknowledge not just where we’ve been, but also where we are and how far we’ve come.
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