Since his speech in 1852, Frederick Douglass’s “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July” has been one of the most piercing rebukes of American hypocrisy. Having been asked to give the speech on July 5, 1852––the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence––Douglass wasted not the opportunity to confront the ongoing institution of enslavement. As we celebrate the 4th of July, his words are worth reading again (or for the first time), if for nothing more than a historical reflection.
However, in reading the speech, I hope we give far more value to his words than simple historical reflection. The incisively and unabashedly honest presentation of America's inability to see its own inconsistencies and injustice while at the same time honoring itself is incredibly instructive for us all. Honoring ourselves, whether personally or corporately, comes easy, as we tend to highlight our successes and downplay our failures. We all do this all the time. It is human nature. Prophetic voices like Douglass’––voices that confront our sin and injustice––are often needed to jar us out of complacency and ignorance. I do not know the extent to which his hearers heeded his words. But in this famous snippet from his speech, Douglass points out,
The feeling of the nation must be quickened; 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.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly 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.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
On a day when we celebrate our nation, our success, and our contributions to the world via democracy, we must balance our celebrations of the good with a sobering remembrance of our grievous wrongs. Douglass is right to point out that while we were championing our great achievements of justice and liberty, we, at the same time, were perpetuating one of the most grievous systems of injustice the world has ever known. For as he notes: “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.”
Why Bring It Up?
To that, some might say something to the effect (and have said to me before), “Why bring this up? We are one of the greatest countries in the world because we have moved on from those injustices. We are not a racist nation any longer. Everyone knows that slavery was wrong, and repeatedly bringing it up isn’t right.” I disagree for several reasons.
First, and I am going to be very brief on this point, people still attempt to make “benevolent slave-owner,” “man of his time,” or “blindspot” arguments for those often revered in our past. At a minimum, Douglass’s words––words written by someone in the thick of the injustice––ought to dissuade us from such notions. It is self-protective, minimizing, and unhelpful to treat our history and the actions of our forbearers that way. We need a better way to address the injustice of the past, especially amongst those we revere.
Second, and most confronting for Christians, Douglass points out the additional grievousness of Christians upholding such injustices. Douglass also points out the most egregious of hypocrisy, noting:
The Bible addresses all such persons as ‘scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.’ But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything—in preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines.
He goes on to say,
But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation—a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.
As Christians, we need constant reminders that our claims of faith in Jesus do not mean we are free from participating in grave injustices. We must have a constant posture of humility and contrition before the Lord so that we might not err in such grievous ways.
Lastly, another striking section of Douglass’ speech is when he addresses the notion of importing contemporary sensibilities as a way of ignoring present-day injustice. In addressing the American Revolution and the commendable rejection of English injustice toward the colonies, he says,
To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.
In other words, during his time, it was easy for everyone to see that English injustice was wrong and that America was right to resist. Similarly, today, we know that slavery was wrong and that the abolitionists were right. It costs us nothing to make such pronouncements. However, do we know who else thought the same? Many in the post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights era. Authors of Jim Crow laws, advocates for segregation, those violently opposed to miscegenation, and even some who participated in lynching could look back and say slavery was wrong. Yet, at the same time, they were blind to the grave injustices of their own day.
We do not need help in noticing our successes. We are more than willing to emphasize them. We need reminders of our failures––reminders that pierce our contemporary notions of greatness and focus our attention on where we might still be erring.
Holding the Tension
From a Christian perspective, such reminders are throughout Scripture. For example, some might emphasize Hebrews 11 and the faith of men like Abraham. Obviously, the author of Hebrews is pointing out the extent to which such faith is commendable. Yet, the honor bestowed in Hebrews 11 is also balanced with the eternal words of Genesis 16––the story of a vulnerable enslaved woman with no recourse against the evil plans of her masters, Abram and Sarai.
Additionally, I often think about King David, who, on the one hand, was called “a man after God’s own heart.” But on the other hand, Matthew reminds us in his genealogy––lest one thinks too highly of David––of “Uriah’s wife,” the woman with whom David grievously abused his power (2 Samuel 11). Ironically, the same impulse that gives birth to “benevolent slave-owner,” “man of his time,” or “blindspot” arguments also produces similar arguments for David. Some argue the encounter between David and Bathsheba to have been a consensual affair, with some even arguing that Bathsheba seduced David. But that argument hardly stands when one considers the nature of Nathan’s rebuke of David––a rebuke centered on a story about a rich man who abused his power against a poor and vulnerable man.
What is the point? We must learn to hold the tension, and we need better ways to understand history, ourselves, and the reality of current injustice. We would be wrong to ignore the development of America today, as though there has not been immense progress. Holidays like the 4th of July are reminders that, as a nation, we have accomplished much. But like when Douglass gave his speech, holidays like the 4th of July should also be reminders that human nature does not change. The sin that was pervasive in the heart of humanity during enslavement is the same sin pervasive in the heart of humanity today.
We can praise God for his faithfulness in restraining the evil we are capable of embracing, but we must also recognize that, like those of Douglass’s day, our self-righteous hearts can be so enthralled by how far we’ve come that we lose sight of how far we still have left to go. And how far do we have left to go? Well, until Zion––until the day when we experience the fullness of the city of true and complete justice––we continually fall grievously short of God’s justice. I hope that the 4th of July is not a mere celebration of ourselves but also a motivator to strive to reflect God’s justice more and more until Christ returns. And the words of Douglass, for me, orientate me toward that pursuit. I hope you read them and feel the same!