History

What Frederick Douglass Teaches Us About American Exceptionalism and the Growth of Freedom

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I don't think there's a greater Fourth of July speech than Frederick Douglass' 1852 address, "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?"

The titular passage is the most-searing indictment of precisely the sort of cheap and easy American exceptionalism that continues to clot political rhetoric with the phoniest sort of patriotism:

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 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.

Contemporary conservatives especially recoil from this sort of auto-critique that is in fact one of the most unique facets of our national identity. Even before the United States was a nation, characters such as Samuel Sewall (one of the judges in the Salem witchcraft trials who recanted his actions, wore sackcloth and ashes in penance, and authored the first anti-slavery tract in the colonies) and Roger Williams (the religious dissenter who first articulated a theory of fully secular government in English and is the subject of a brilliant new biography) excoriated the my-country-right-or-wrong mentality that is hardly specifically American.

Sure, there is something grotesque about intergalactic "apology tours" that never seem to right past wrongs or change future policy, but as the constantly shifting valorization of dissent reminds us, partisan politics is a weak foundation upon which to rely for moral standing. Contemporary liberals loved dissent under Bush but they find it unpatriotic under Obama, while conservatives simply reverse the process.

In pre-abolition America, Douglass was of course specifically addressing slavery, a national original sin so monstrous that he notes its justification is elided in the founding document of the United States. The Constitution is a "glorious liberty document," he notes. But "if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument," Douglass asks rhetorically, "why [is] neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave…anywhere…found in it"?

Yet for the all fury that courses through Douglass' lecture, he "do[es] not despair of this country." Instead, he paints a picture of globalization, interconnectedness, and progress toward more expansive freedom that resonates well over a century after he first spoke it:

While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.

In reading the above, I'm reminded that Douglass himself drew early inspiration as a slave boy from writings by the Irish-born playwright and politician Richard Brinsely Sheridan, who argued in Britain for Catholic emancipation. And that just four years earlier, Douglass had attended the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, and joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists in pushing for equal rights (the alliance between Douglass and Stanton, abolitionists and feminists, would break down before reasserting itself in the post-Civil War era).

Douglass' genius was not in hailing or excoriating American in hyperbolic terms. Plenty of people before and after him have done that. To simply assert that the United States is the either most perfect or most depraved nation is a form of exceptionalism, to be sure. But it is also an indulgent gesture that presumes that we can't redeem ourselves or ever be held in error.

I think what resonates to this day is that Douglass was able to place America not simply in an international context but also to recognize that embracing freedom and liberty is a process that will continue to unfold and expand (or contract) over time.

The United States has much to be ashamed of as a nation and much to celebrate. But as we hurtle through history, what we need more than anything is a compass by which to chart future actions. Douglass' life and writings help provide that in a way few other examples can.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, now out in paperback with a new foreword.

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76 responses to “What Frederick Douglass Teaches Us About American Exceptionalism and the Growth of Freedom

  1. I wish America would just abolish slavery already.

    1. Well they did for about 70 years or so until this president named Franklin Roosevelt came along.

      1. You mean Woody Wilson?

  2. Frederick Douglass’s quote in Valley Girl-speak:

    What, man, to thuh American slave, fer shure, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, oh, baby, more than all other days in thuh year, oh, baby, the grodie injustice and cruelly to which he is like wow! the constant victim. To him, mostly, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, like, wow, an unholy license; your national awesumness, like, swellin’ vanity; your sounds of rejoicin’ are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, man, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, fer shure, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, mostly, your sermons and thanksgivin’s, fer shure, with all your religious parade, oh, baby, and solemnity, like, wow, are, like, to him, fer shure, mere bombast, mostly, fraud, man, deception, man, impiety, like, wow, and hypocrisy?a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. Like, there is not a nation on thuh earth guilty of practices, fer shure, more shockin’ and bloody, man, than are thuh people of these United States, man, at this super hour.

    1. That might be the unfunniest thing I have ever read, and I’ve read SNL transcripts.

      1. I’ll see your SNL, and raise you one Three’s Company. But I agree with your statement.

    2. Terrible.

  3. I never read it before, but WOW.

    Pulling out this quote:

    “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

    really nails the message home.

  4. The Constitution is a “glorious liberty document,” he notes. But “if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument,” Douglass asks rhetorically, “why [is] neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave…anywhere…found in it”?

    I’ve long thought he was wrong about this. First, the Constitution is a totalitarian document of almost unlimited government, as we have been most recently reminded. Second, the word slave isn’t mentioned, but hello, “all other Persons” were obviously referring to slaves. Also did he miss the part about “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”?

    1. First, the Constitution is a totalitarian document of almost unlimited government, as we have been most recently reminded.

      ————

      cant tell if serios, hope is sarkasm

      1. “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”

        — Lysander Spooner

        1. It’s funny that earlier he was on the side of Douglas, saying that the Constitution was this great document of liberty. Then he got governmented.

        2. Way to blame the victim, Lysander.

          No constitution is or can be self-enforcing.

          1. Kind of his point, eh? What is it’s purpose if it cannot prevent tyranny?

            1. The People need an anchor point to be motivated to prevent tyranny, which is what the Constitution provides.

              1. Well, the anchor was ripped up long ago.

              2. And where are the limits in the constitution, this great anchor?

                1. “Government shall make no law abridging freedom of speech”, etc READ IT

                  1. Anarchism says, Make no laws whatever concerning speech, and speech will be free; so soon as you make a declaration on paper that speech shall be free, you will have a hundred lawyers proving that “freedom does not mean abuse, nor liberty license”; and they will define and define freedom out of existence. Let the guarantee of free speech be in every man’s determination to use it, and we shall have no need of paper declarations.
                    – Voltairine de Cleyre 1866-1912 (a previous believer, also came to Spooner’s conclusion)

                    1. Anarchism says this and that but its results are collectivist. You will be a the mercy of whatever assholes have the most forces be it Islamists or Scientologists.

                    2. Anarchism says this and that but its results are collectivist. You will be a the mercy of whatever assholes have the most forces be it Islamists or Scientologists.

                      Umm, no. The question is, what type of legal system is best suited to protect the rights of individuals, a “top-down”, monopolistic legal system based on ststutory law, or a “bottom-up”, polycentric legal system based on customary law?

                2. It surprises me not at all, Juice, that you don’t ‘get it’.

            2. No piece of paper can single-handedly prevent tyranny. It’s up to the people. The Constitution is great we sucked.

              1. and isn’t that pretty much what the Founders themselves said? Here’s this great form of govt; try not to screw it up.

                1. The Constitution is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the Judiciary, which they may twist and shape in any form they please.

                  I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifices of themselves by the generation of ’76 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I shall not live to see it.

                  – Thomas Jefferson

                  1. As for believing in this “great form of government”, they did not believe that themselves. Paine believed it to be at best, a necessary evil. Madison such as in Fed papers, waxed and debated about it, realizing the tendency for tyranny and did not really come to any satisfying conclusion. Jefferson actually conceded that no government was probably the best! But simply believed it not possible with a large population

                  2. We need no lectures from slaveholding scum like TJ.

                1. BakedPenguin|7.4.12 @ 6:20PM|#

                  I’ll just put this here.

                  Yep. Kinda sad, really. More along the lines of the Federalists vs Anti-Federalists and the compromised nature of the Constitution

                  Why the Constitution Had to Be Destroyed | Thomas J. DiLorenzo

              2. A Constitutional lawyer himeself, Lysander Spooner’s own fight with the government illustrates the problem: He started his own delivery business and became very successful. He competed with the Postal service and forced them to lower prices significantly.

                The government’s solution? Pass laws outlawing the activity. Perfectly Constitutional, cuz hey, Congress has the authority. Commerce Clause (the Proper and Necessary clause and the Welfare clause) and all

                1. That’s why America’s freedom peak was in the late 1800s after Lincoln. It’s worth noting that Canada was more free than America until Trudea (our Sauron) came to power.

              3. Yep.

                “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

                Judge Learned Hand
                The Spirit of Liberty (1944)

        3. Nice, Epi, but I prefer this:

          The ostensible supporters of the Constitution, like the ostensible supporters of most other governments, are made up of three classes, viz.:

          1. Knaves, a numerous and active class, who see in the government an instrument which they can use for their own aggrandizement or wealth.

          2. Dupes?a large class, no doubt?each of whom, because he is allowed one voice out of millions in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself, is stupid enough to imagine that he is a “free man,” a “sovereign”; that this is “a free government”; “a government of equal rights,” “the best government on earth,” and such like absurdities.

          3. A class who have some appreciation of the evils of government, but either do not see how to get rid of them, or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to the work of making a change.

          – Spooner

          1. or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to the work of making a change.

            But enough about anarchists.

            1. But enough about anarchists.

              You’ll have to be a little more specific.

  5. Racist.

  6. From the same speech:

    RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.

    I take this law [the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850] to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it….

    …A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. 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.”

  7. 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.

    ——

    Now now, Mr. Douglass, no need to fuck, mutilate, roast in the blood of a thousand swans, and jump the shark.

    1. I think Douglass can be forgiven a bit of hyperbole considering he spent his childhood in enslavement, and at the age of 16 was sent to live with a sick, sadistic psychopath for the expressed purpose of torture.

      1. He fought off Covey’s cousin and his fight with Covey himself, which lasted nearly two hours long, ended with Douglass’s victory. Covey did not physically assault Douglass thereafter.

        2 hours. Holy shit. That needs to be in Django Unchained.

      2. Reading things like that, I can’t help but feel like half a man for just coming here and bitching instead of kicking some deserving ass for what’s going on in America.

    2. Too bad he was not born someplace that never experienced that wholly western concoction of slavery. Maybe if he were from Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe he would have had an easier life.

    3. I was going to make the same point myself. His comment there is simply not true.

  8. You know, “American exceptionalism” originally meant the resistance of the United States to Marxist socialism, especially the utter failure of any explicitly socialist party to manage to gain any significant political traction. We were the exception to the universal rise of socialist parties into major political forces everywhere they weren’t outlawed.

    1. American Exceptionalism means the rules don’t apply to us.

      Gin up lies to invade Iraq? No problem.

      Vietnam? Why not?

      Who can argue with us?

      1. Nobody, because socialist ass-pansies made them weak and ignorable.

      2. PB,
        wasn’t it your side that trotted out the notion of regime change as US policy toward Iraq? Why, yes it was, courtesy of Clinton. In addition, virtually the entire who’s who in the Dem Party is on the record, either in the House or Senate, waxing on about Saddam’s bad weapons and the need to do something about it.

        I am no fan of the war in Iraq, but I make no pretense that its was a one party affair. The resolution authorizing force got bipartisan support. Dems started to run away 1) because the initial success made Bush look good and 2) for much the same logic some Repubs use in pinning things on Obama.

        1. Bipartisanship does not mean it is OK to lie to do it.

          1. I know…I just get the ass over PB’s selective memory.

      3. Secede from the United States for purpose of preserving the institution of slavery, pass Jim Crow laws, and Segregate the Federal Government.

        Those are the rules your side plays from.

      4. And your Team Blue went along with both Iraq AND Vietnam, shrike.

        Never forget that.

  9. Gotta say I’m havin’ a hard time celebrating my freedom this 4th of July.

    I know I’ve got more freedom than a lot of people on this planet, but I can’t shake the feeling that I used to have even more just a few days ago.

    1. kinda goes back to people figuring out they can vote themselves other peoples’ money. Folks will give up a lot in exchange for free ponies.

      1. We’re supposed to get ponies?

    2. Yeah that’s the shitty part. We’re better off than most in this world.

      I predict that the Bush administration will be seen by freedom-wishing Americans a generation or two hence as the hinge on the cell door locking up our freedom. When my children are my age, they will not be free in any recognizably traditional American meaning of the word. I’d tell them to emigrate, but there’s nowhere left to go. I am left with nauseating near-conviction that I am a member of the last generation in the history of the world that is minimally truly free.-Donald Sensing.

    3. “My fellow Earthicans, we enjoy so much freedom it’s almost sickening. We’re free to choose which hand our sex-monitoring chip is implanted in. And if we don’t want to pay our taxes [or penalties], why, we’re free to spend a weekend with the Pain Monster.”

    4. Last night I read Poul Anderson’s “New America”, an old SF series of short stories about people fleeing Earth (and the Old America) to be free.

      I think freedom has been on its way out for a long, long time.

    5. I was watching the “John Adams” series on HBO and getting progressively more pissed off.

  10. O/T

    Damn, those “Knot-bots” are annoying little fuckers. Worse than Lone Wacko, White Idiot, Underzog, Chad and Tony all rolled into one.

    1. This July 4, I’m celebrating my freedom to squeeze the Charmin.

  11. Dude really needs to do something with that hair!

    http://www.Hittin-Anon.tk

    1. A.L.I.C.E.:

      That makes sense I suppose.

  12. I love that I can’t just watch some fucking fireworks and tip my hat to the founders of America, who were unquestionably brilliant men despite their shortcomings, without having to also flagellate myself over the institution of slavery, 150 years since abolished, and of which my first ancestors in America all of 3 generations ago had no part, without being some sort of Pollyanna.

    Because who doesn’t want to celebrate their graduation with a toast to their student loans? Or celebrate their birthday by listing all their disappointments in life? Fuck you bunch of debbie downers. It’s July 4th. YAY AMERICA! RAH RAH RAH! She may be a cunt, but she’s not a fucking cunt.

  13. How one reacts to this is obviously based on a person’s definition of “American Exceptionalism”, the reason we celebrate the 4th, and how the mistakes we have made as a nation impact all the aforementioned concepts as well as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Personally, I admit our country has done some scr*wed up stuff. We have not lived up to our founding documents. Yet, when I think about “American Exceptionalism” I don’t thing about the slaveowners, politicians (any party or time), judicial destroyers of the Constitution, etc. I think about the Declaration and the intent behind the Constitution, which I what I think Douglas was trying to point out to people. Our american exceptionalism is because we have a Declaration that states all men are equal, because the Constitution enshrines a Bill of Rights, and basically because out of all the countries in the world we did our best to design a country based on libertarian principles. Have people come and messed it up? Yeah, but the point that Douglas was making is that we are the problem not the foundation of our government.

    1. sorry, it should be, …which is what I think

  14. Frederick is big freedom fighter and he tells what is the right way to follow liberty.

  15. Give it a rest Nick.
    It’s the 4th of July. All that black you’re wearing in this heat has made you very grumpy.

  16. Although it’s from a partisan perspective, this post on American exceptionalism rang some of the same notes…including terming it indulgent. And, sigh, it uses a sports analogy, too: http://www.demadvisor.com

  17. the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London http://www.ceinturesfr.com/cei…..-c-26.html is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and

  18. the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London http://www.ceinturesfr.com/cei…..-c-26.html is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and

  19. the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London http://www.ceinturesfr.com/cei…..-c-26.html is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and

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