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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 . . . 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. . . a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
When Frederick Douglass spoke these words on July 5, 1852, more than four million African Americans were in bondage, women (regardless of race) were not allowed to vote, wars were being waged against the original inhabitants of North America which would culminate in the decimation of millions of Native tribes. In the intervening 159 years, the United States has become a world super power. The slaves have been freed, women not only vote but hold elected office and lead multinational corporations. Native peoples, while still suffering the effects of our former policies, are not solely at the mercy of an uncaring government any longer. We have much to be proud of. We put men on the moon and may have discovered evidence of life on Mars. A bi-racial man is President. His wife – the descendant of slaves – is our First Lady. We survived a Civil War, two World Wars and a major terrorist attack on our soil.
Frederick Douglass, were he alive today, would no doubt be proud of our progress and our national resilience. But how would he judge, as he did on that 4th of July celebration in 1852, our adherence to the ideals of our founders? Then, he reminded us that our Founding Fathers (and mothers, I add) decided “to side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor!” As individual states and our federal government struggle to come to agreement on issues ranging from immigrants’ rights, gay marriage and women’s reproductive freedom we would do well to remember Douglass’ words. While our founders may not have been able to conceive of a world like our own – more than 300 million citizens, millions of non-citizens (both legal and undocumented), women and non-whites in positions of power (not to mention the technological advances of the last few centuries) – they did have a basic belief in Enlightenment principles. They believed in something Jefferson called “inalienable rights” which were “endowed by their Creator.”
As we have expanded the meaning of the term “man” to include women and males of races not thought of as wholly human or equal to whites in the 18th century, we are now faced with the possibility of expanding the definition even further. Transgendered people, gays and lesbians are the most obvious groups seeking to be included in our national sense of self. But we also must consider the immigrants. The founders did not originally consider issues of “legal” or “illegal” immigration. People just came to our shores – or were brought in the holds of ships. Land, wrested from the Native peoples, was cheap or free. Resources were more than enough to sustain a population many, many times its size at the time of our first July 4th holiday.
We live in a different world now. We have different fears, different needs and different desires. Or do we? Our founders, and those on the side of the Patriots, wanted freedom. They wanted to live peacefully. They wanted the opportunity to flourish by hard work and their own intelligence. They wanted – above all – a chance, a chance to make a life for themselves and their descendants. They feared outside influence and tyranny, they needed the protection of the state and federal government, they desired the fulfillment of those immortal ideals: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While we wave our flags on parade routes, shoot off fireworks, barbeque and drink our weight in beer in celebration, we should also remember that the Founders held slaves and approved the genocide of Native peoples. In short, they made mistakes – egregious, savage ones – which, we assume, they have had to answer when they met their “Creator.” We have the opportunity to not repeat those mistakes. We have the opportunity to end what Douglass called our national “hypocrisy” and extend citizenship, opportunity and equality to all our residents instead of judging (as if we are the “Creator” incarnate) on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. We have the opportunity to help children, US citizens by birth, fulfill their promise and potential without the fear that deportation will devastate their families. After all, to paraphrase Douglass: There is not a person beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that oppression is wrong for them.