On July 5, 1852, the great African-American statesman Frederick Douglass asked a provocative question at a Rochester Independence Day event: “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?”
His question still resonates and demands that we come to grips with the fact that America’s first promise—equality—has not been fully realized.
This is not to say that the Declaration isn’t worth celebrating. It very much is.
“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men,” Douglas said. “They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. . . . For the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
And Douglass was right. Until the Declaration, all governments had been structured to discriminate amongst people. There was no aspiration to do otherwise; it was just the way the systems were built. In the Declaration, for the first time in human history, the governing principle declared that we are all equal.
An amazing development!
But in our American reality, women were largely excluded from the promises of the Declaration. Slaves and Native Americans (and no doubt others) were entirely excluded. The Declaration was the greatest governing aspiration ever articulated, but it overlooked harsh and barbarous unequal realities.
For example, we all know that Thomas Jefferson, the acclaimed author of the Declaration text, was a slave owner who had a longtime sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Jefferson himself recognized the cruel irony. “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he wrote in 1781, “that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
After Douglass paid the Founding Fathers their respect, though, he turned back to the question of how the slave should consider the Fourth 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.
Eleven years later, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years after that, on June 19, 1865, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger told a group of enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over. The North had won, but the slaves hadn’t been aware. Some plantation masters didn’t tell their slaves about their liberty until after the harvest work had been done. Galveston’s mayor forced freed people back to work. Some former slaves, trying to move toward their freedom, were shot.
We honor that moment on Juneteenth as a symbol of Black independence in America. There are other contenders. For example, on September 22, 1862 Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order; it took effect on January 1, 1863. On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment.
But Juneteenth is unique and confusing and poignant—because the slaves had been freed, yet were still living as captives. This complexity is what makes the date more meaningful, as the formerly enslaved people transformed June 19 from a day of ignored military orders and bitter malice into a defiant, yet hopeful, rite.
One hundred and fifty-five years after that moment in Galveston, we’re still living in confusion and rage amidst ongoing racial injustice.
In his book In the Matter of Color, the great Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. (with whom I had the privilege of studying and for whom I clerked) offered profound insight on this most incongruous state of affairs in America. Was the Declaration of Independence a lie, a failure, a joke?
Not at all.
Higginbotham believed that principle “all are created equal” in the Declaration represented the largest possible promise in our first statement as a nation, the standard to which Americans of all colors could appeal as America edged closer to its fulfillment.
You could hear the Declaration’s echo in the Emancipation Proclamation, in the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws (for the newly freed slaves and otherwise), in the Twentieth Amendment’s guarantee of women’s right to vote, and in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And I would suggest that you can hear it in the streets today, as protesters grieve George Floyd and demand accountability once and for all.
Because the Declaration’s promise demands us to strive to fulfill it.
As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July this year, the festivities won’t look like they have in the past. Our outdoor grilling will have appropriate spacing between guests, and instead of community gatherings, we might wave at each other from our front porches. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Douglass’s lament will still hang in the air, even after the fireworks have faded.
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Douglass said in Rochester. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Today we should still ask: “What, to Black Americans, is the Fourth of July.” Or, even better, “What, to all Americans, should the Fourth of July be?”
This year, let’s not gloss over the disconnect between the lived experience of white and black Americans. Let’s acknowledge the path Black Americans have traveled—through Emancipation, Juneteenth, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, and on to today—to even get where we all are.
It’s okay for our holidays to be complicated. Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to take just two examples, commingle our celebration of what has been achieved, with our mourning of the sacrifice that work entailed, and the aspiration to earn the freedoms which were secured for us at great cost.
That’s a lot of freight. But the truth is, the holidays mean more when we appreciate their complexity. Not less.
Similarly, let’s change how we take July Fourth to heart. Together we can celebrate what has been achieved.
But together we should also mourn the costs with Douglass and our Black American brothers and sisters. And so together we can pledge to work to fulfill the Declaration’s promise.