As virtually every American today understands, without the need for any argument, the existence of slavery was a stain on the American Republic from its Founding. It also embarrassed our alleged devotion to the principles of human equality and unalienable rights, principles that had been presented in our birth announcement as truths by which we Americans define ourselves in declaring that we hold them to be self-evident. No American in our history has exposed our hypocrisy more powerfully than did Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–1895), a one-time slave who became a great orator, statesman, and abolitionist. Douglass made the case best in his famous Fourth of July oration (here excerpted), delivered on July 5, 1852 before the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York. Yet as remarkable as his indictment is his vigorous defense of the Constitution and of the American experiment.
“But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] 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. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”
Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University
Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His book God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2018. His next book, After Nationalism will be published in spring 2021. Goldman received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Harvard and Princeton before coming to GW. In addition to his academic work, Goldman is literary editor of Modern Age and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.