"… a sad sense of disparity between us"

In keeping with the tradition of some, thoughts on the Fourth of July delivered on the fifth. These from 1852 are as relevant today as they were then – in ways you may find surprising. This particular section reminds me of the transition taking place in the insurance industry and current conversation about “cat bonds”(h/t CLS for the link)

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. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. 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. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.

This next section – perhaps the best known – speaks to the recent Supreme Court ruling that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have rights under the Constitution to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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.

Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

The full text of Frederick Douglass’ famous Fourth of July speech is here and well worth reading.

Those closely following the upcoming presidential election will find this contemporary analysis of the style and substance of Douglass’ speech interesting, if not fascinating, reading.

…no 19th century American ever offered a more poignant critique of America’s racial condition than [Frederick] Douglass…the 34-year-old black reformer and the country’s most conspicuous former slave – did on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in his adopted hometown, Rochester, N.Y.

The speech has three major rhetorical moves. First, Douglass sets his audience at ease by offering accolades to the genius of the founding fathers. He calls the Fourth of July an American “Passover” and places hope in the youthful nation, “still impressible” and open to change. He calls the Declaration of Independence the “ringbolt” of the nation’s destiny and urges his listeners to “cling to this day… and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”

…But his use of pronouns is a warning of what is soon to follow. The nation is your nation, the fathers your fathers...He would not sing a praise song on the nation’s birthday, because “above your national, tumultuous joy,” he said, “I hear the mournful wail of millions!” He sang no anthems, no spirituals, only a requiem for his people and for the nation…

After this classic use of the rhetorical device of reversal, Douglass launched the second section of the speech, dragging his audience into the “sights and scenes” of slavery itself—the slave trade, brutal punishments, sales at auction, denials of African American humanity. He implicates the church and the state, and his subject is the evil done by Americans to other Americans.

For 20 minutes, the crowd must have felt strapped in their seats, bearing up to a hailstorm of humiliation. Then, in the third stage of the speech, Douglass lets them up, wipes their brows, and ends on cautious hope. The principles of the Declaration of Independence still exist; the founders’ best wisdom can still be tapped. It is not yet too late.

Douglass transcended his audience, Corinthian Hall, and almost history itself, into the realm of universal political art. He had used language to move people and mountains; he had explained a nation’s condition, and through the pain of his indictment, illuminated a path to a better day. (emphasis added)