What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Frederick Douglass – July 5, 1852

This page was last updated on September 14, 2017.

Today’s left likes to claim the U.S. Constitution supported slavery.  The reason for this representation is to smear the Constitution, its authors, and the ratifying states as racist, thereby undermining the moral authority of the document.  The debate over whether the Constitution was pro-slavery or anti-slavery has been with us since its ratification, however.  Today, the debate is primarily along ideological lines.  The left goes with the pro-slavery representation as a political tactic to curry favor with black Americans and undermine the Constitution’s standing.  After all, if the Constitution supported slavery, why should the rest of the document receive respect?  The right tends to view the Constitution as anti-slavery.

To forward their goal, lefties like to quote selectively Fredrick Douglass’ (FD) July 5, 1852, speech to “The Ladies of the ‘Rochester Anti Slavery Sewing Society.’”  Though untitled, it’s commonly referred to using the title above.

At the time, many orations/speeches were marathon events.  For example, Edward Everett’s speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery was over 13,000 words and took over two hours to present.  In comparison, President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about 270 words and takes less than two minutes to present.  The Douglass speech was over 10,000 words according to Microsoft Word.

The reason I mention the speech’s length is some sites that purport to show the Douglass speech actually present only cherry-picked excerpts, usually omitting Mr. Douglass’ comments about the Constitution.  In a lefty version of the speech, you’ll never see FD referred to the Constitution as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”  Liberal use of ellipses (…), anything less than 39 8˝”x11” pages, and no link to the full, original speech are clues you’re not getting the real thing.  PBS and The Freeman Institute are sources that do not present the full speech.  The original 1852 printing is 39 pages.

On July 4, 2017, Bob Tomashevsky, a frequent contributor to Carl Davidson’s Facebook page, posted a link to a Democracy Now! (DN) 2016 posting entitled “‘What to the Slave is 4th of July?’: James Earl Jones Reads Frederick Douglass’s Historic Speech.”  DN is a leftist media outlet.  DN claims to be “funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, and foundations” and does not “accept advertisers, corporate underwriting, or government funding.”  DN claims this funding model “allows us to maintain our independence.”  I guess we’re to believe “listeners, viewers, and foundations” attach no strings to their contributions.

The DN talking head reads, “Today, in a holiday special, we feature James Earl Jones (JEJ) reading Fredrick Douglass’s Independence Day address more than 160 years ago.”  Not even close.  JEJ read only about 470 cherry-picked words of FD’s 10,000-word oration.  JEJ’s excerpts don’t begin until page 14 then conclude on page 20.

Getting back to the speech, FD rightly railed at length against the state of “the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and America religion.”  Leftists want us to believe, however, the entire speech was a bashing of America.  It was not.

Below are some excerpts about the Constitution and “its framers and adopters” leftists don’t want anyone to know about.

“But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints.  They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to.  I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers.  Such a declaration of agreement on my part, would not be worth much to anybody.  It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776.  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 un-fashionable in our day.  The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.  But, to proceed.

“Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated, by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress.  They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner.  Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable.  This, however, did not answer the purpose.  They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn.  Yet they persevered.  They were not the men to look back.” – pages six and seven

“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.” – pages seven and eight

“On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshippers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction.  They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day, whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.

“Resolved, ‘That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.’

“Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution.  They succeeded; and today you reap the fruits of their success.  The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary.  The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history-the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

“Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance.  I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the RINGBOLT to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it.  The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.  Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” – pages eight and nine

“The coming into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event.  But, besides general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which make the advent of this republic an event of special attractiveness.

“The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime.

“The population of the country, at the time, stood at the insignificant number of three millions.  The country was poor in the munitions of war.  The population was weak and scattered, and the country a wilderness unsubdued.  There were then no means of concert and combination, such as exist now.  Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline.  From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days.  Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men.  They were great men too – great enough to give fame to a great age.  It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men.  The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration.  They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

“They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect.  He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise.  Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country.  In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

“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 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.

“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!

“Fully appreciating the hardships to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause, honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep, the corner-stone of the national super-structure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you. – pages nine to 11

“I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in in their own favor.  This is esteemed by some as a national trait-perhaps a national weakness.  It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans.  I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the Americans can side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

“I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!” – pages 12 and 13

“But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that, the right to hold, and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.

Then, I dare to affirm, notwithstanding all I have said before, your fathers stooped, basely stooped.

‘To palter with us in a double sense :

And keep the word of promise to the ear,

But break it to the heart.’

“And instead of being the honest men I have before declared them to be, they were the veriest imposters that ever practised on mankind.  This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape; but I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States.  It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe.  There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length; nor have I the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed.  The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq.  These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.

“Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution.  In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.  Read its preamble, consider its purposes.  Is slavery among them?  Is it at the gateway?  or is it in the temple?  It is neither.  While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.  What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made?  Now, there are certain rules of interpretation, for the proper understanding of all legal instruments.  These rules are well established.  They are plain, common-sense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law.  I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality, or unconstitutionality of slavery, is not a question for the people.  I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one.  With out this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman.  Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted.  He further says, the constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens.  Senator Berrien tells us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others.  The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly.  The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution.  I take it, therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that instrument.

“Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.  On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” – pages 35 to 37

It’s easy to see why leftists don’t want anyone to hear or read the full speech.

Another point to be made is we frequently make the mistake of judging people in the past based on today’s standards.  One of the byproducts of judging people in the past based on today’s standards is some truly great achievements are diminished.  While the idea of a country based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is no big deal today, it was truly revolutionary (no pun intended) in 1776 and started the world on a path from being dominated by dictators and monarchies to a world where even small democracies flourish.  Were mistakes made along the way?  Of course, we’re humans and evolution is not a perfect process. 

© 2004-2017 Robert W. Cox, all rights reserved.