In part one of the “Great speeches every self-governing American should know” series, we discussed the significance of oration in American history and looked at two speeches that helped advance the modern conservative movement: Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech and Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing.” Today, we will examine a pre-Civil War speech that left an indelible mark on our history and helped make America into a more perfect union.

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery – Frederick Douglass

The very title of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Independence Day address says a lot about his views on America and silences modern anti-Americanism. The word “hypocrisy” suggests that Douglass is making a contrast; a contrast between who America was ordained, by God and her Founders, to be and who she had become in practice. Slavery was not in alignment with America’s founding; it was in direct contradiction. Hence, the hypocrisy.

Make no mistake, the famous abolitionist was disgusted at his country and clearly no fan of the Fourth of July. To in any way whitewash his harsh words of rebuke would be unfair to history. In the 1850s, America was not undeserving of Douglass’ reproval.

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary,” the former slave proclaimed. “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,” he mourned.

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“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty 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 shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast,” he later added.

Whatever they expected to hear upon inviting him to deliver Independence Day remarks, one can imagine his hearers’ discomfort. Douglas held nothing back. On a day of celebration, he chose to bewail and berate, and for good reason.

Yet threaded throughout his speech is a narrative that present-day anti-Americanism has acutely abandoned: an appeal to our founding.

The orator evokes “the name of the Constitution and the Bible.” “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty,” he asks. “That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it,” he states, referring to the nation’s founding documents. “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed [emphasis added]; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced,” he urged.

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Frederick Douglass had no quarrel with America’s foundational creed that all men are created equal and are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He had no reason to destroy America. No reason to destroy what she stood for. He had the intellectual honesty to admit that America, as an idea, was a beautiful concept. His mission was to help the rest of the nation realize the potential inherent in its founding. In a sense, it was to make America (in reality) more like America (in theory).

If America were truly founded on slavery – as we are told today she was – American slavery would not be hypocritical. It would be no less reprehensible, but not necessarily hypocritical. Douglass was trying to get his fellow Americans to see how grossly they had fallen short, yet he never argued that the nation itself was fundamentally evil. Born in self-governance, America had somehow denied self-governance to entire subsets of its populace, but its noble promise was still there… if only Douglass’ generation would reclaim it.

As unsettling as his speech may be (both in 1850 and 2023), his words were no doubt necessary. America had not yet lived up to her full potential, but thanks, in part, to Fredrick Douglass and his no-holds-barred discourse, we were on our way to becoming a more perfect union.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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