If statues of Washington and Jefferson are going to be defaced and toppled from their pedestals because they depict slave-owners, I think that it is appropriate on this Fourth of July to ask someone who had actually been a slave to speak on their behalf. So I invoke an 1852 speech by the great civil rights leader Frederick Douglass titled, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Douglass was an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. Photographs of him show a man of iron determination, with a leonine head and piercing eyes. A runaway slave, who had been ripped from his mother as an infant and savagely beaten while still a teenager, he was largely self-educated. He was a superb orator, and the topic of his speech was deliberately provocative.
Like the Rev. Martin Luther King a century later, he was challenging Americans to live up to their most sacred principles. Either all men, regardless of race, were created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — or the Declaration of Independence was a hollow mockery, and America itself was a fraud.
Said Douglass: “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union.
“It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh, be warned! Be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!”
So if Douglass were here now would he be joining in the mindless destruction that we have witnessed in recent days?
No, he wouldn’t.
We can be sure of that because Douglass began and ended his speech by paying respectful tribute to our nation’s Founders and their legacy.
In his opening words, Douglass insisted that even as an ex-slave he was not “wanting in respect” for the Founding Fathers. “The point from which I am compelled to view them, is not,” he admitted, “certainly the most favorable.” But then he went on to say, “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.”
Douglass returned to this theme at the conclusion of his speech, where he found the legacy of the Founders to be cause for optimism: “Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably, work the downfall of slavery … I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. 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.”
Douglass, in short, had understood the full import of what the Founders had said in the Declaration of Independence. Granted, some of the Founders had owned slaves. But in the long run that counted for next to nothing.
By setting forth the revolutionary idea that all men were equal, and were endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Founders were laying the foundation for the anti-slavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay liberation movement and the vindication of every other group of persons in America who for some reason or other were relegated to something less than full citizenship. Our present concepts of liberty and equality simply would not exist without the Founders’ vision.
That is why any effort to diminish the Founders can on only end by diminishing ourselves.
• Thomas C. Stewart is a former Naval Aviation attack commander and a retired New York investment banker.
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