“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” -Isaiah, as quoted by Frederick Douglass
On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Rochester Hall, New York. Douglass, of course is himself the preeminent abolitionist, a man who escaped slavery and went on to champion not just the cause of freedom for American slaves but for all people, including the near-slaves of Ireland who received him with great warmth.
The first part of his speech (the full text is available here and is well worth reading to the end) is restrained, even apologetic in tone, though he carefully maintains a wording that places him as an outsider to the festive observances
of the 4th of July. Later in the speech he makes up for his earlier diffidence with a thundering indictment of the American nation, the most famous passage from which is:
“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.
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
That was then, we might say, this is now. Things have changed.
They have indeed. There was a Civil War in the offing that would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, most of them what we call “white,” who as the war progressed believed they were fighting as much against slavery as against the secession of the Southern states from the Union.
After the North’s victory in that war there was a period of Reconstruction, barely a decade, during which the former slaves enjoyed something like freedom. But then the North withdrew and left the South again to its own devices which promptly included a new system of social and economic repression of the freed slaves that was almost as beneficial to their former masters as was chattel slavery. That was the beginning as well of Jim Crow, the de facto apartheid system under which Southerners of African ancestry lived until the latter part of the 20th century.
What kind of speech would Frederick Douglass make today if he could come back and give one? Early on in the talk he gave in Rochester he speaks of the youthfulness of the American nation, how it is easier for a young nation to make changes than it is for one that has been doing things the same way for many centuries. He lauds the Founding Fathers for the principles they espoused: love of liberty, putting country before self, bravery. He calls upon America to make good use of those virtues and end the abominable practice of slavery, though it’s clear by his words that he sees a nation whose citizens would rather celebrate the greatness of their ancestors once a year than emulate that greatness in the present.
The last time I checked there was still no major museum to the atrocity of American slavery or the genocide of the American Indian. Our righteous emotions are reserved for foreign travesties committed by foreigners, not by God-fearing Americans. Our sins go unacknowledged, our glories loudly celebrated.
But there is a school of thought that would say Douglass was too generous in his depiction of the motives of the revolutionaries of 1776. The scholar Gerald Horne is one such. Professor Horne’s research (The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States) argues the American Revolution was fought in large part to avoid the abolition of slavery toward which Britain was moving. The end of slavery would have meant a major economic adjustment for the colonies. The fact that slavery was in fact expanded after independence, just as it had been expanded earlier after it was deregulated by the British crown, taking it out of the hands of the King and placing it in those of the entrepreneurial class, makes this argument seem all the more plausible.
A similar argument has been made by other historians who maintain that the British when they made treaties with the Indians did so more or less in good faith, while the colonists never intended to honor those treaties and waged a revolutionary war largely to free themselves from the restraints placed upon them by the crown from pushing Indian tribes further and further west, in the process destroying their civilizations, not to mention the slaughters that occurred when they resisted displacement.
Those two motives — removal of restraint by the mother country on further westward expansion and forestalling Britain’s declaring slavery illegal — seem to me sufficient in themselves to explain the Revolution without bringing in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Among the long list of grievances brought against the crown in the Declaration is the following:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It takes a certain cheek to write words like that after the way Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples for the previous two centuries.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out the colonists had fought against the French settlers in America in the so-called French and Indian War, 1754-1763, the American version of the Seven Years War in Europe. During this war some of the Indians who fought on the French side did indeed torture and massacre British captives, something Mr. Jefferson & Co. chose not to forget. But the outcome of the war was that France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, and French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (including New Orleans) was ceded to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain. This opened up vast new territories which the colonists saw as their manifest destiny to populate with their kind, the indigenous people on that land being mere obstructions to that God-given purpose.
There is no mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and only a political one in the later Constitution which allowed the South to count 3/5’s of its slave population as citizens for the purpose of gaining more representation in Congress than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The very silence of the Founders on
the subject of slavery in their official documents, though, speaks loudly. A nation economically dependent on a system of chattel slavery was an embarrassment to everything those high-minded men claimed to stand for in their fine words about all men being created equal. And, as Douglass points out, then and in his own day there was no question but that the master class knew the humans they owned and worked like animals were human beings. In the early days of settlement as well they recognized the native people’s humanity, depended on their knowledge and know-how for their own very existence. Later, when the settlers had the upper hand and had demoralized the Indians they regarded those peoples with contempt.
There’s nothing uniquely American about our refusal to face up to our national disgraces, the results of which continue to plague tens of millions of our fellow citizens as well as the descendants of those indigenous peoples we exiled and slaughtered. Turkey has yet to acknowledge its genocide of the million Armenians slaughtered in 1919. Japan refuses to take responsibility for their own massacres in China and elsewhere. The Allied Powers of the second world war prefer not to talk about the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, which caused more civilian deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If hypocrisy is an indication of a bad conscience, we have a bad conscience of epic proportions. There’s no reason why we could not celebrate the independence of this nation without leaving out the moral and practical work which, more than two centuries later, still needs to be attended to. A true celebration of the Fourth would include a bill of grievances that is still outstanding, starting with a factual account of how our nation was cobbled together out of the land of other peoples, and not just Indians. One third of the United States was taken by force from Mexico, though to what extent Mexico itself had a legitimate right to “own” that land I’ll leave to a Mexican to determine. The consequences of several long centuries of slavery and then the slightly more subtle forms of repression and abuse that followed must also be dealt with if we are ever to be morally whole as Frederick Douglass hoped we would be.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate the 4th as we always do, with fireworks and hot dogs, no more thinking of the nation’s unfinished business than a child does. We have in effect decided we have done enough. We have other fish to fry — “terrorists” to kill or torture, foreign “enemies” to contain or punish.
The American empire, like all others, will fall eventually, and not all it stood for will be seen as hypocrisy and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if before that day of judgment arrives we could add to the list of things we did well the setting right of the outstanding moral obligations bequeathed to us by those same sons of the revolution we make so much of on this July 4th? We are only a century and a half older than we were when Douglass held out the hope that a nation as young as the United States could still mend its ways.
Or are we like the drunk who would rather have another drink to forget what he hasn’t the will to face and overcome? Perhaps we are not young after all, not high-minded, and perhaps never were. Someone said a hypocrite is salvageable because he at least acknowledges virtue even though he chooses vice. Beneath our self-inflicted national amnesia there is a broad reservoir of decency in our people not shared by most of its elected officials and other elite. If that decency were to be mobilized and expressed, not even the powers-that-be could resist it and we could claim in good faith and with a clear conscience to be the nation we like to believe ourselves to be.
My latest piece for Eclectica.
“I recently read there are plaques, brass plates, embedded in the sidewalks of Berlin, that contain the names of people who were removed from those addresses and taken to Nazi concentration camps. This got me to wondering what our own cities would look like if we commemorated in a similar fashion the human beings America has systematically killed or enslaved….” (read more)
It’s about the way we not only fail to acknowledge our own, American genocides but how we use our immigrants as facilitators for our denial.
Let me know what you think.
A Journey in the Back Country
by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
If you are anything like me this book will, if not stand on its head, at least knock down your picture of the American South in the years just before the Civil War. Olmsted, the same Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York City’s Central and Prospect parks as well as hundreds of others, decided to take a journey through the Cotton Belt in 1853 and write an account of the economic system there. He did not initially intend to produce an exposé of its slave system about which he had been largely ignorant. What he produced was both… (Read more)