What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? . . . To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns. . . are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
So Frederick Douglass, himself a runaway slave, summed up the Fourth of July to an abolitionist audience in Rochester, N.Y. in 1852. He admitted a deep admiration for the Founding Fathers: “They loved their country better than their own private interests . . . Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country.”
Yet he could not join his fellow Americans in celebrating them and the republic they had created, precisely because, within that republic, millions of Americans were held in bondage. Two years earlier the Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act which authorized the seizure of any escaped slave, like Douglass, wherever he happened to be in these United States. Our Constitution sanctioned it all, no matter what pledge to equality and freedom those same fathers had made in the Declaration by which they had asserted their independence.
The injustice and hypocrisy that moved Douglass in 1852 to refuse to join in our greatest civic holiday should move all Americans today to a like conclusion. Just as the ideals and rights that we celebrate on the Fourth were contradicted in Douglass’ day by the nation’s original sin of slavery, so today those truths are mocked by the actions of Trump and his abettors who have imposed an internal siege upon this republic.
This contradiction is made all the more scandalous by the president’s audacious appropriation of this year’s Fourth by inserting himself into the very center of the official national celebration on the Mall and moving the festivities to the Lincoln Memorial, the site of so many iconic events in the nation’s past.
We need to put down our phones, shut down Twitter and Facebook, turn off the TVs and ask ourselves: How can we celebrate America when the Trump administration and most of the Republican Party is waging an all-out war against our democratic norms and institutions? How can we celebrate when the president is leveraging his office for his family’s personal gain? How can we celebrate when that president is hell-bent on obliterating the difference between truth and falsehood?
How can we celebrate when we have a Republican-controlled Senate which refuses even to consider legislation to address the all-too-critical issues of climate change, immigration, campaign financing, voting rights, the integrity of our elections, gun violence, and infrastructure? How can we celebrate when far too many of our current “fathers” and “mothers” are putting their private interests above their country?
Honoring the Fourth is a cherished tradition among us, but sometimes, as Douglass noted, non-observance is the better way to display our patriotism. This is one of those times. What if we said on this Fourth of July, we will attend no parades, concerts, or fireworks displays? If displaying a flag, we will fly it upside down, to signal the distress in which the republic finds itself. What a patriotic repudiation that would be of all that Trump and his allies stand for or aspire to. In this small way, we could, in part, recapture the spirit that empowered Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists to ultimately gain freedom for his enslaved brothers and sisters.
With slavery at last abolished, the celebration of the Fourth became, for a while at least, an honest one. In this age of protest, when the internet can, within hours, marshal millions into the streets for a cause, what greater cause could we have today than the preservation of democracy and the restoring of integrity to our celebration of the Fourth?
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.