Frederick Douglass On The Meaning of July 4

This is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s speech in Rochester, 1852.  It is a long speech, full of a remarkable orator’s skill and precision.  Douglass’s experience and passion fueled and boasted much of the abolition movement.  His voice is keen when I think about the nation’s journey toward continued freedom and how we include or don’t include people in liberty.  I wonder if you can think of people who might wail, as Douglass says, toward the bottom, while we celebrate:

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary.  Many of you understand them better than I do.  You could instruct me in regard to them.  That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.  The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue.  They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words.  They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor.  This is esteemed by some as a national trait–perhaps a national weakness.  It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans.  I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!

My business, if I have any here-to-day, is with the present.  The accepted time with God and His cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant,

Let the dead past bury its dead;

Act, act in the living present,

Heart within, and God overhead.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.  To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome.  But now is the time, the important time.  Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well.  You live and must die, and you must do your work.  You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are blest by your labors.  You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.

…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.  If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!”


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