Most of America celebrated the Fourth of July this past weekend. Most, but not all. Some chose to denounce it in one way or another.
That date gets capitalization because of what it represents. A small group of intellectual men gathered and wrote down a set of principles that has no equal among political writings in human history. They said:
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 effect 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.
A government based on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Who had ever heard of such a thing? In 1776, practically no one. Kings still ruled by their bloodline or “divine right” and czars — descendants of the Roman caesars who had destroyed that great republic — still walked the earth. In the context of the age, there was no more radical nor more important document published on the rights of humanity than the Declaration of Independence. It was born of its time but transcended it.
They adopted and published these grand thoughts under threat of death on July 4, 1776. This declaration of a new nation’s independence, the first of its kind in so many ways, changed their lives and ours forever, and they changed the world. Billions today are free all around the world right now because those men wrote down and acted on these principles and carried them through to the best of their ability.
Were they perfect about it? Did the nation they founded start off in perfection? The answer to both is no, because men aren’t perfect and neither is any institution they create. Even they needed a do-over from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. But understanding their own imperfections, they created a constitution that pitted ambitions against one another for the good of the people. This was also unheard of and radical, yet aimed for justice. It’s not always perfect, but it has served its people better than any other system of government over the centuries.
How many French republics have there been during America’s one? How many times has Germany changed forms, disastrously, and Russia, and China, and Korea, and Japan, all disastrously? How many dictatorships in how many forms have risen and fallen since 1776? You don’t have to believe in American exceptionalism if you don’t want to but the facts win: America is exceptional. America has stood as the exception to most of history’s arbitrary violence and will to power. Because the founders saw the natural rights of being human more clearly than most anyone else had before, and they had both the wisdom and the courage to explain the world as they saw it and then put their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the line to defend their beliefs.
That was 244 years ago.
On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered the greatest address of his life in Rochester, New York. At the time he spoke, slavery still existed in the United States as it had for thousands of years around the world. As he stood and addressed the nation, Douglass asked the question of the age: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass had every right and reason to ask that question. Douglass himself had escaped the bonds of slavery just 14 years earlier. He knew what it felt like to be owned by another person. He also knew what it felt like to be a free man. He knew what it was like to be ignored as less than human. He knew what it was like to be respected and listened to.
Rather than denounce the nation that celebrated its birthday that day, he pointed directly back to its founding day and asked why any slave should celebrate the 4th of July. He answered:
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.
He was right.
Cling to this day. Cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight… At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed… It is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake…
Douglass called upon the Fourth of July, therefore the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution’s preamble, which simply says:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Taking the words of the Declaration together with the preamble to Constitution and Douglass rightly saw the ideas that would inevitably end slavery, as long as the republic endured long enough to see it. In 1852, as now, this was not ironclad. So, to the free man, the Fourth of July represented his guarantee. To those still enslaved, the Fourth of July represented hope of freedom to come. Frederick Douglass’ experience led him to see this more clearly than anyone else of his age and probably anyone since or now.
The storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake Douglass spoke of came, in the form of a destructive civil war. America paid in blood and treasure as it never had before, and slavery was ended. Douglass lived through it as one of abolitionism’s most ardent, eloquent, passionate, and heard spokesman. He had risen from slavery to become a friend of presidents, as a citizen, though not yet in full. Few have the power of oration without experience, and Douglass had experienced it all. He had lived under unjust law. He had broken that law. And he also respected and served the higher law, the Constitution, which he respected as a means of reaching understanding and offering hope. He was a true American on July 4, 1852, more true than many others.
On July 4, 2020, people as yet unknown damaged and toppled the statue of Frederick Douglass in Rochester that marks his moment and his speech. The damage was so extensive that it will probably have to be replaced.
Douglass believed in the words of the founders, “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.” He called upon these truths to make America live up to them. Rather than reject America’s founding, he embraced it and wanted to see it fulfilled.
Is there any clearer rejection of these truths than toppling, one by one, the statues of George Washington, who fought for them on the battlefield, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote them down, and Frederick Douglass, who used them to point toward freedom that was yet to be obtained? Is there any clearer rejection of these truths than the wanton killing of innocent men, women, and children over these past weeks?
We hold these truths to be self-evident… But do we? As a nation?
We now know that many do not. The New York Times revealed in its dishonest 1619 Project that it does not. It has fully rejected America’s founding. Many others have evidently followed or have been led down that same path in education that either succeeded in indoctrinating them in lies—but failed them and the nation—or failed to educate them in facts, also thereby failing them and the nation.
I pray that a majority still do hold these truths to be self-evident. Until this past year or two, it was a given. Our future and our hope of freedom very much depend on it.