No other phrase in the founding documents of the United States stings an African American as much as this one: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration of Independence was not a declaration for all but for some. “All men” did not include people of African descent. “Unalienable rights” were stripped from those who were taken from their homeland and forced into lifelong servitude. And “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could not be pursued at the end of a chain.
The former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, gave a speech on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY commemorating the day of independence for the United States. Cognizant of the contradictions embedded into the foundation of the United States, Douglass expounded for his audience the significance of “independence” day for black people. In it, he loses no respect for the founders of the nation calling them “statesmen, patriots, and heroes.” But he does not fail to point out the hypocrisy of declaring freedom from Britain’s control while subjugating an entire race of people.
Below are some excerpts from Douglass’ speech. His words remind us that for some Americans, independence ends with an asterisk.
Read the full text of the speech here.
“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”
“This Fourth 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.”
“My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!”
“Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery the great sin and shame of America!”
“What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.”
“For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. 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 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.”
Listen to a dramatic reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech by James Earl Jones.