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Frederick Douglass on Independence Day

His harsh words were instilled with hope for America

Frederick Douglass Associated Press/Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass on Independence Day
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Yesterday our nation celebrated Independence Day, which means that America’s harshest critics will triumphantly, if briefly, rediscover Frederick Douglass.

I’ve written before about how Douglass’ 1852 Fourth of July speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” is often quoted selectively and out of context. Douglass used the occasion to inspire and challenge an audience of radical, mostly white abolitionists, many of whom wanted to do away with the Constitution entirely. Despite his strong (and of course, accurate) critiques of America, Douglass was actually far more hopeful about our country than most of his listeners that day. Where some saw no other course forward than to scrap the American experiment and start over, Douglass urged reform from within. He eloquently used our Declaration of Independence to teach the timeless virtue of freedom.

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it,” Douglass said. “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

Douglass gave the speech at a time when slavery was still legal in America. And yet, even as a former slave himself, Douglass did not think our country was hopeless or beyond redemption. In fact, in a speech given a few years earlier, he explained that he told harsh truths about America not out of hatred but out of love: “So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”

After the Civil War was won and slavery was abolished, Douglass did not stop calling for reform. He labored for black suffrage and fought against lynching, but always as someone who believed in America’s capacity to improve, not as one bemoaning the country as incurably sinful. In another Fourth of July speech given in 1895, he urged his fellow black Americans to embrace their stature and responsibility as full citizens: “We are no longer slaves but freemen; no longer subjects, but citizens; and have a voice and a vote with all other citizens. A new condition has brought new duties.”

Where some saw no other course forward than to scrap the American experiment and start over, Douglass urged reform from within.

Yet, I often see people quoting Douglass’ pre–Civil War criticisms of America as if they somehow embody what he would say about us today. None of us can know for certain what Douglass or any historic figure would think of our current challenges and predicaments, but I have a hard time imagining that he would believe or proclaim that “nothing has changed” since he was whipped as an 18-year-old slave for “disobedience.”

An illustration may help explain Douglass’ point. When our youngest child came home for Christmas his freshman year of college, he and I had a very serious talk. He had had a little too much fun that first semester and was in jeopardy of losing the academic scholarships that enabled us to send him to an out-of-state school. At a louder volume than I typically employ, I expressed concern, disappointment, and no small amount of anger.

But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. After some deliberation, my wife and I decided to let him return in January with a commitment to pay us back for the classes where his grades were unacceptable. To our delight and relief, the second semester went much better. It was not perfect but a vast improvement, and he kept his scholarships. (And I’m grateful to say that since then, he has continued to mature and make us proud.)

What if people tried to define my relationship with my son by quoting only the words I said to him that day in the middle of his freshman year? I stand by what I said because those words were entirely appropriate given his behavior at the time. But he changed his behavior, and so I changed my words. What kind of father would I be if I didn’t acknowledge the progress he made and focused solely on any of his remaining imperfections?

Of course, this is not a perfect metaphor. Nations aren’t people and slacking off your first semester in college is not the same as buying and selling human beings. But the central purpose question of honest criticism remains: Like Douglass criticizing America, I criticized my son out of a hope he would improve and, most of all, out of love.

My challenge to all who quote Douglass’ fiery rhetoric detailing our nation’s sins during slavery is this: Do you, like Douglass, love and hope the best for America?

Dean Nelson

The Rev. Dean Nelson serves as the vice president of government relations for the Human Coalition, one of the largest pro-life organizations in the United States. He also serves as the chairman of the Douglass Leadership Institute, an education organization advocating for human dignity, strong families, and limited government. Rev. Nelson is a licensed minister from Salem Baptist Church in Marshall, Va., and an ordained bishop with Wellington Boone Ministries.

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