By Edward Achorn
Every American would benefit by reading Frederick Douglass’s gut-wrenching address on the Declaration of Independence, which he delivered on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. That was more than ten years before Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation and 13 years before slavery was finally abolished.
It is a scathing denunciation of America’s hypocrisy in perpetuating slavery while celebrating the signing of the Declaration, which declared that “all men are created equal” and that all are endowed with rights no man or government could justly take away.
I write about this speech in my new book, Every Drop of Blood.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” the great black leader and former slave asked.
“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 an American slave, “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 denunciation 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 the United States, at this very hour.”
Such condemnation gnawed at Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who at the time was a little-known former one-term congressman.
Lincoln was a fervent believer, as I am, in the stupendous moral achievement of the nation’s founding.
In an 1854 speech, Lincoln cited such the criticism of his beloved country and its people as one of the reasons he detested slavery.
“I hate it,” he said, “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.”
The three great voices
Three figures in American history, it seems to me, soar above all others in their eloquence and moral authority. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass changed the world with the power of words. All three, of course, were central figures in expanding civil rights to black Americans.
The Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, provided immense moral force to the arguments of all three. Douglass’s denunciation of America was based on the distance between its ideals and the evil of slavery. Lincoln believed, as I do, that the Declaration pointed the way to slavery’s death.
While initially thought to refer to white men, the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” helped Douglass and Lincoln demolish any moral authority for slavery.
There are enemies of free institutions today who want to exploit racial disparities to taunt Americans as hypocrites and destroy their system of self-government. I believe that terrible public schools, broken families and violent crime are doing horrific damage to black Americans, and that all Americans have a compelling and insistent moral duty to address these problems.
But I do not believe in overturning a nation founded on equal rights and free speech. As Lincoln argued — and Douglass implicitly argued, by using it as a foil — the Declaration of Independence is all-important as our moral guide.
Lincoln on the Declaration
“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments found in the Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln said in 1861. The Declaration was not just about separating from Britain but giving “hope to the world for all future time.” The Declaration promised “that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
In an 1859 letter to people planning a celebration of Thomas Jefferson in Boston, Lincoln wrote: “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
During his 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Stephen Douglas, Lincoln urged his bitterly divided audience: “Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me — take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever — but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence.
“You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. While pretending no indifference to earthly honors, I do claim to be actuated in this contest by something higher than an anxiety for office. I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man’s success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity — the Declaration of American Independence.”
That is wise advice for our bitterly divided nation, too.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)