Today, By the Company It Keeps takes a breather for America’s holiday.
But what better way to head into this long weekend than with a dose of inspiration drawn from two of the most famous Fourth of July speeches in our nation’s history.
In 1852, leading abolitionist, former slave, and famed orator Frederick Douglass was invited to publicly celebrate Independence Day in front of a swollen Rochester crowd. But he was in no mood to rejoice, delivering as scathing a presentation as you could fathom in front of an audience prepared, instead, for national hosannas.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan used the moving story of the reconciliation of two presidential predecessors to remind the nation’s citizens that what united them was far greater than what pulled them apart.
At first blush, the sounds of these two speeches couldn’t be more dissonant. Their words seem to reflect entirely different histories, entirely different principles. But on our nation’s birthday, we can see that they are of one piece: We have had, and we will continue to have, enormous challenges to overcome—but unlike any nation before, we did, and we will.
As Americans, we are so very fortunate to have kept the company of those who founded this nation and for those who have sought to preserve and perfect it ever since.
Frederick Douglass, 1852
…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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 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 light 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.
…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. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O had I the ability and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
…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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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…
Ronald Reagan, 1986
…All through our history, our Presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom, the only permanent danger to the hope that is America, comes from within. It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a kind of familiar exhortation. Yet the truth is that even two of our greatest Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once learned this lesson late in life.
They’d worked so closely together in Philadelphia for independence. But once that was gained and a government was formed, something called partisan politics began to get in the way. After a bitter and divisive campaign, Jefferson defeated Adams for the Presidency in 1800. And the night before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams slipped away to Boston, disappointed, brokenhearted, and bitter.
For years their estrangement lasted. But then when both had retired, Jefferson at 68 to Monticello and Adams at 76 to Quincy, they began through their letters to speak again to each other. Letters that discussed almost every conceivable subject: gardening, horseback riding, even sneezing as a cure for hiccups; but other subjects as well: the loss of loved ones, the mystery of grief and sorrow, the importance of religion, and of course the last thoughts, the final hopes of two old men, two great patriarchs, for the country that they had helped to found and loved so deeply.
“It carries me back,” Jefferson wrote about correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence, “to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless . . . we rowed through the storm with heart and hand . . . .”
It was their last gift to us, this lesson in brotherhood, in tolerance for each other, this insight into America’s strength as a nation. And when both died on the same day within hours of each other, that date was July 4th, 50 years exactly after that first gift to us, the Declaration of Independence.
My fellow Americans, it falls to us to keep faith with them and all the great Americans of our past. Believe me, if there’s one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for five and a half years the office held by Adams and Jefferson and Lincoln, it is this: that the things that unite us—America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country—these things far outweigh what little divides us.
And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans.
Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world…
This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.