Sunday, July 4, 2010

4 July 1776: American Independence

Already on 26 June 1776, this issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette contained a declaration of the Pennsylvania Provincial Congress (24 June) calling for independence:

Independence was a radical step that not even all patriots necessarily endorsed at first.

Although it has at times been fashionable to minimize the significance of the American upheaval by downgrading it to a "war of independence" rather than a "revolution"—for example, because it did not entail a full social revolution, left slavery in place, and so forth— the pendulum seems to have swung back in the other direction or at least found a comfortable middle range. It gradually became clear to contemporaries that something remarkable had taken place, and the application of the word, "revolution," was appropriate both in the lexicon of the time and even by our modern standards:  for all its inevitable shortcomings, the revolution established the principle of popular sovereignty and republicanism.

The German poet Friedrich Klopstock wrote, as the struggle drew to a close:
Humanity ingenious and lofty
inspires you!
You are the rosy morning
Of greater days to come!

("The Contemporary War," 1781)
It was the unfulfilled promise of those "greater days to come" that prompted ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to deliver his now-famous radical speech, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro," in Rochester, NY on 5 July 1852.

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities recently began sponsoring annual study and public reading and discussion of the text as "a multi-year statewide initiative to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War during the presidency of Barack Obama." This year, the events took place at Court Park Square in Springfield on 30 June, and at the State House in Boston on 1 July.

Douglass began by acknowledging the importance of the Fourth of July, as "the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom . . . what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God." "It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance." He praised the founding fathers as "brave men," who "loved their country better than their own private interests" and were willing to risk life, liberty, and property because "they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage."

He went on, however, to say that he, as a black man, could hardly celebrate:
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?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful.

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? Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day from the slave’s point of view. Standing, here, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.
Despite this harsh verdict, he concluded on a note of optimism:
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.

The time was when such could be done. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

All God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.
His vision of an interconnected global community sounds strikingly modern, and indeed, might make more intuitive sense to us today than it did to his original audience.

Still, if Douglass was visionary enough to see the end of African-American servitude, he could not imagine the horrors that would arise in the presumably better and more humane world of the twentieth century.

And, even though we have transcended the enmities of the World Wars abroad and made vast strides in healing the national racial divide at home, we are not necessarily any closer to global peace and understanding. We have learned that commerce does not abolish conflict, and that interconnectedness brings discord as well as cooperation and reinforces difference as well as feelings of shared humanity.

The times change, and so do the challenges.

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