75 Arguments, American literary Canon, fireworks, Founding Fathers, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, free speech, Freedom, history, Independence Day, July 4th, Liberty, Literature, Politics, Republic, slavery, Speech, Temple of Liberty, The Declaration of Independence, The Meaning of the Fourth of the July for the Negro, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, United States, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, White America Vs. Black America, White Priviledge
It’s fair to say that I’m a nerd of epic proportions because I would honestly rather sit in my house reading The Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July than I would being outside shooting off fireworks.
Two days of barbeque have made me into a bit of a grump. You see I’m not a terribly huge fan of holidays, and despite my patriotism the 4th of July is not one of my favorite holidays. Part of it may simply be bad memories of fireworks, for despite the fact that I loved watching the colorful bursts of light the powder in the smoke, along with the pollen that was already in the air, most of my memories of independence day are of me sitting in a car snorting and crying as I sweated and blew my nose into my t-shirt. The only enjoyable part of the holiday was the food and war movies. It was never really brought up why we always watched World War II movies, I guess it was just one of those things you do.
Still reflecting upon my younger self I’m reminded why the holiday has always left me a bit flat. While other people were watching the fireworks and beating their chest to Bruce Springsteen, and typically screaming at their kids to stop shooting each other with fireworks, I was a shlub mourning my own existence and wondering why we celebrated our nation’s founding with such a pathetic display.
Despite this narration I’m actually a pretty positive person in person. I also love my nation terribly.
Because of the vividly described afore mentioned nose problems I typically had to stay inside either playing video games or reading Calvin and Hobbes. As my ability as a reader improved steadily over time I began to challenge myself, and likewise I created my own ceremonies so as not more than I already did. Whereas others would celebrate the Fourth of July by getting drunk as a skunk and playing with explosives, I chose to curl up on couch next to my dogs and read The Declaration of Independence…and then get stinking drunk. It’s about the little decisions in life. This act assumes pressing significance to me as an individual citizen of a republic because, and perhaps I’m just being pessimistic, I seriously doubt many Americans have actually sat down to read the Declaration in its entirety.
Part of this may simply be because of the faults in public education. We’re taught the first lines:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (210).
But after that there really isn’t much else apart from the story of John Hancock signing his name extra large to piss off George III. For my own part I did eventually read The Declaration of Independence in its entirety. My parents had managed to take me to a History Museum, and when we stopped in the gift shop I convinced them to buy a packet that had “replications” of the Declaration, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. It’s been a long abandoned project, but I distinctly remember grabbing the Declaration and reproducing the original text in cursive in a purple spiral notebook. Beneath the cursive I would transcribe the text in print, and finally beneath that I would write a small summary of what Thomas Jefferson was conveying to King George III. To this day I have no idea where that spiral is, because I stopped at the list of abuses. Many of my classmates at the time eventually asked me what I was doing, and after I explained they usual response was “why do you want to do that?” My response was usually something hammy like “Because I’m an American” or “Because it’s an important document” but I do think that some part of me was either just trying to get attention and the other was honestly just trying to understand why this document was so important.
It may seem odd to have to explain the significance of The Declaration of Independence given the fact that it’s the very reason I’m able to write under the shadow of the Stars and Stripes. Still despite the barbeques and family dinners and fireworks displays what’s buried beneath the actual holiday is a significant literary and political document that has informed American democracy, or at least its illusions.
Looking at The Declaration of Independence as a literary document it’s impressive to see Jefferson’s actual prose, for the man doesn’t write casually. The Declaration is a work of thought and passion that was well edited and written with precision, though honestly most it was plagiarized from the work of John Locke but that’s for another article. As a document it lifts it’s reader into an archetypal realm where citizens become part of an almost divine struggle between deities and beasts. This is a bit of hyperbole on my part, but I hope my reader is able to understand this hyperbole after the following passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. (210).
Jefferson wrote this document during the period of Enlightenment, a space of time in Europe and America when there was a burst of interest in Philosophy and Science. Literature at the time reflected this the most popular and important works tended not to be fiction (though Gulliver’s Travels may be the exception to this) but rather political and philosophical works written by men like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johnathan Swift, and Thomas Paine. These authors emphasized reason as the cardinal virtue of man, and it was believed that, given the chance, this reason would eventually supersede religion because man was innately reasonable.
This notion would die out not long after the French Revolution when many realized human beings were anything but innately reasonable, but considering this intellectual atmosphere Jefferson’s words become more imbued with meaning. In a contemporary environment Jefferson would most likely be heckled as a “self-righteous expert” or else another “armchair intellectual,” but the American consciousness has held onto the first lines of that passage because it exemplifies everything United States citizens want to be, or else believe that they are. America is often sold as a land where “all men” are created equal, and that any person can become someone of significance or importance not only because they were born with a name or title.
Such is the idea, but no longer the reality.
My effort here isn’t to bitch about the changing economic realities of the U.S. however, for that is another day and time. The actual concern is my original compliant. For all of the flashy rhetoric and fireworks there is a real problem because not everyone is or was entirely comfortable. In fact some people were suffering.
Thinking about the holiday, and preparing myself to read The Declaration again, I remembered another definitive American document that I only recently became aware of. Last summer I took an American Renaissance course that dealt specifically with the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass, and during that class I read the speech The Meaning of the Fourth of the July for the Negro. For the record this speech is also sometimes listed as What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? If the reader has never heard of it a little bit of background is necessary.
Frederick Douglass was a former slave from Virginia who had managed to learn how to read in secret and eventually escaped the plantation he worked for to seek solace in the North. From there he managed to join abolitionist groups before writing his successful but controversial memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book created a national tiff and Douglass was actually forced to leave America when his former owner put out a bounty for his capture. Douglass fled to England until a few of his friends managed to secure his freedom. Upon his return to America he continued his efforts for abolition giving many public readings and lectures. On July 5, 1852 in Rochester New York Douglass gave a speech in which he asked his audience a simple but important question:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (194).
Douglass it should be noted, was a brilliant speaker and a damn good orator and reading many of his speeches will reveal just that to the reader. He regularly addresses his audience as an equal human being, and whenever he expresses outrage it is always checked by a concern for balance. Douglass rarely, if ever, resorts to pathos because he doesn’t need it. Asking the audience “why am I here? Why do you assume that I’m celebrating” is an effective strategy because it overthrows the mood that would be in the air during the celebration of Independence day.
He follows his question with an accusation that stings true:
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! (194).
The idea that the Fourth of July is a “yours” and not “ours” is an important rhetorical device because it heightens the division. Douglass was speaking to a time and audience with attitudes concerning race that were dramatically different than in our own contemporary times (then again if you’ve ever looked through the comment section of YouTube I might be overstating people’s current ability for tact). The idea that there was a black America and a white America should sound familiar however for even today we’re still having this argument. The way white parents raise their children is often far different the way black parents do largely because the complexities of African American life in this country are dramatically different. Young black men are far more likely to be profiled by the police and receive jail-time, and many black women struggle with a job market that’s preferential to upper middle class white women.
It’s not my concern to get into the nuances of the differences between white and black cultures in America, but rather to observe that there is one. Growing up I was often surrounded by white people, and while the Fourth of July meant just as much for the few black friends I had growing up, Douglass’s speech stops me as I remember why I hate flashy mass rhetoric.
Rereading The Declaration of Independence I’m reminded why I love being an American for my country is a founded upon a beautiful idea. Liberty is a word that can be thrown around a lot, but when an individual possesses it in the core of their identity they are able to live life without fear. Liberty is the virtue of civic reality because being free means that you are able to be and exist without fear, and reading What is the Fourth of July to the Negro? is a reminder that The United States’ founding was as much tragedy as it was glory.
Douglass hits his audience with the real implication of speaking of freedom while slavery exists:
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 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 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.
Being an American is often simply about owning a car, having a job, blowing shit up on the Fourth of July, and going to bed after watching The Walking Dead or New Girl. Rarely are we asked to consider the history of our nation even on the day when we’re supposed to remember it more than anything. I understand that asking people to remember slavery on the Fourth of July is being the buzzkill of all buzzkills, especially when slavery is no longer an active institution.
Slavery may be gone, but our nation is still feeling the lingering reverberations of the economy and environment that relied on the institution. Race is a hot topic in my country (though watching the after effect of Brexit it may not just be an U.S. problem) and for that reason discussing race with careful and sane rhetoric becomes an important political act. Holidays are important to break up the mundane nature of our lives, but if the joy of the Holiday comes at the expense of relishing in bullshit rhetoric and erasure of history then it becomes corruption of informed democracy.
On this day and night people in my city, state, and country will be shooting roman candles at each other, firing off black cats, and launching bottle rockets into the sky enjoying the catharsis of watching something go pop. Some of them, many let’s be fair here, will think about how lucky they were to have been born in this country, but few of them will really consider that the day they’re celebrating was not always a universal festival. Ignorance, specifically willful ignorance, can and should never be excused. This independence day, as I thought about what that actually meant, I could only think of Douglass’s speech because it seemed the most appropriate way to really celebrate my country.
Douglass’s speech is outdated, but like The Declaration of Independence it reminds its reader of the importance of universal liberty. If the United States was founded on the notion that all men were created equal, and that abuse of liberty cannot be tolerated, then the fact that Douglass could criticize the system openly, and without fear or shame, only reminds me more why the United States is truly a great nation.
Freedom of speech and act is what makes this country great.
I suppose blowing shit up may not be the best means of expressing admiration for this nation, but it does at least look pretty when they hit the last rocket of the night.
All Passages from The Declaration of Independence were taken from 75 Arguments: An Anthology. All Passages from What is the Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro were taken from The Library of Back America anthology Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings edited by Philip S. Toner
I’ve used the word “America” throughout this essay synonymously with the “United States” and for this I must apologize. Part of the rhetorical patterns of being a citizen of this country tends to be referring to yourself as American, but growing up nobody ever corrects you to remind you that you’re a U.S. Citizen and that “American” refers to someone living on the American continent. A Mexican, Canadian, Peruvian can be Americans as well as citizens of this nation. I apologize again for this, it’s just cultural habit.
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
While I was finding images for this essay I stumbled upon a fascinating illustration of the Founding Fathers, re-imagined as a sexy sorority party complete with frilly nighties…it’s the simple joys in life that keep you going. Enjoy.