July 4th is an appropriate time to remember Frederick Douglass’s famous speech of 1852: "What is the fourth of July for the slave?" It is best known – for good reason – for its powerful condemnation of slavery, racism and American hypocrisy. It also contains passages praising the American Revolution and the founding fathers. Both are worth remembering.
Here is perhaps the most famous part of the speech:
What is your 4th of July for the American slave? I answer: A day that reveals to him more than any other day of the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he constantly falls victim. For him, your celebration is an illusion; Your boastful freedom, an unholy license; Your national size, swelling vanity; your joyful noises are empty and heartless; Your denunciation of tyrants, cheeky insolence; your calls for freedom and equality, hollow mockery; To him, your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgiving with all your religious parade and solemnity are just bombast, deception, deception, godlessness and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes that would shame a nation of savages. There is no nation on earth that is guilty of practices that are more shocking and bloodier than people in this United States at this hour.
And there is a lot more material of the same kind in the speech, ranging from denouncing the internal slave trade to attacking the then most recent 1850 law on volatile slaves. The key point is that slavery and racism have been ridiculed for America's well-known ideals of freedom and equality. And unfortunately this legacy is still far from being completely overcome.
But Douglass’s speech also includes passages like this that praise the American Revolution:
Citizens, I don't want to respect the fathers of this republic. The signers of the declaration of independence were brave men. They were great men too – great enough to bring glory to great ages. It is not often that a nation raises so many really great men at once. The point from which I am forced to look at it is certainly not the most favorable; and yet I cannot see their great deeds with less admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they have done and the principles they have fought for, I will join you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and although this is not the highest form of human excellence, everyone will admit that it is a rare virtue and that if it is exhibited it should show respect. The one who will lay down his life in an intelligent way for his country is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers committed their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the cause of their country. In their admiration of freedom, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred the revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were calm men; but they did not shy away from agitating against oppression. They were lenient; but that they knew their limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. Nothing was done with them that wasn't right. With them justice, freedom and humanity were "final"; not slavery and oppression. You can really appreciate the memory of such men. They were great in their time and generation. Her solid masculinity is all the more striking when we contrast her with these degenerate times.
Her political art looked beyond the passing moment and extended powerfully into the distant future. They resorted to eternal principles and set a glorious example of their defense. Mark them!
Elsewhere in the speech, he also praises the revolutionaries' refusal to submit to oppression simply because it was legally guaranteed. This is an obvious reference to those who argued in the 1850s that abolitionists were required to submit to the law on fugitive slaves and other unjust proslavery laws. It is also a rebuke to "just enforce the law" arguments that support submission to deeply unjust laws in our time.
Douglass recognized that the American Revolution not only advocated high principles, but actually made significant progress in achieving them – even though he contradicted the failure to achieve them more fully and denounced the hypocrisy of the Americans to tolerate the massive injustice of slavery open to these principles.
In other writings and speeches, Douglass also praised the constitution's anti-slavery potential (which in my opinion he overestimated in some ways). His goal in the July 4th speech was not to denounce the founding fathers, but the white Americans of his time.
This raises the question of how we should think about slavery and the American Revolution today. Elsewhere I have argued that the revolution as a whole has given an important boost to anti-slavery in America and Europe – particularly by encouraging "first emancipation" – the abolition of slavery in the northern states, which was a prerequisite for a possible nationwide abolition.
However, I do not believe that this fact completely frees the founders from violent criticism of their slavery records. Most obviously, they still deserve the conviction that many of them were slave owners themselves. People like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and George Mason have had slaves for most of their lives, even though they knew that this was wrong and was against their own principles.
Jefferson denounced slavery as "moral depravity" and "the most relentless despotism". Still, he still had slaves. The same applies to the others, although Washington finally released him after his death. It is difficult to avoid that they continued to commit serious injustice because they did not want to suffer the loss of wealth and social status through maneuvering.
It is not even a matter of "judging historical figures according to modern standards". The point is that they don't live up to their own standards.
Most founders not only failed to liberate their own slaves, but also failed to prioritize the abolition of slavery as an institution. They have taken some important steps, such as promoting abolition in the northern states, preventing the spread of slavery in the "old northwest", and finally banning the import of new slaves from abroad. But they clearly didn't give the greatest moral evil in the new republic the priority it deserved.
Instead, they often prioritized less important but more politically advantageous issues. Alexander Hamilton (who was not a slave owner) is often praised for his anti-slavery stance – in a way, rightly so. During his political career, however, he repeatedly placed abolition under other priorities. The same applies to most other political leaders of the day.
Great responsibility comes with great power. When it comes to slavery, most of the people who held great power in revolutionary America and the early Republic have not fully accomplished theirs.
But the condemnation they deserve for this failure must be weighed against the very real progress they have made possible, including slavery. In addition, we should remember that we ourselves may not be free from the same types of mistakes.
It's not uncommon for people to put principles aside when they clash with self-interest. How many of us value doing the right thing when we have to pay a high price? We like to think that if we were in Jefferson's place we would have freed our slaves and prioritized abolition. However, it is far from clear that we would actually have the courage and commitment to do so.
Even modern politicians rarely prioritize the morally most important issues over those that are politically most advantageous in the short term. Given that slaves couldn't vote – and a lot of free blacks didn't either – it's remarkable that the founders did as much to stem slavery as they did, even if it wasn't nearly as much as they were should have done.
All in all, Frederick Douglass was right to praise the American Revolution and also to condemn gross injustice and hypocrisy that the nation was not living up to its principles. When we think of the founders today, we should also praise the great good that they did – which ultimately outweighed the damage. But we should also remember her biggest shortcoming. And we should be careful not to assume too quickly that we would do better ourselves if we faced the same decisions.
UPDATE: In previous posts I wrote about Douglass' underestimated speeches on immigration and how we should remember the civil war.