What Frederick Douglass Teaches Us about July 4th and American Exceptionalism

Douglass recognized that embracing freedom and liberty is a process that will continue to unfold and expand over time.


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, figures 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 this brilliant 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, found it unpatriotic under Obama, and now with Donald Trump in the White House, are busy rebranding themselves as "the Resistance." 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 and "exceptionalist" 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.

Note: A version of this ran on July 4, 2012.