[On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech to the March of Washington. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that and four other great American speeches!]
On the stunning speech that challenges us as much today as it did 150 years ago.
I’ve written many times, in this space and elsewhere, about the inspiring history of Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker, and their Revolutionary-era peers and allies. Freeman, Walker, their fellow Massachusetts slaves, and the abolitionist activists with whom they worked used the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence and 1780 Massachusetts Constitution in support of their anti-slavery petitions and court cases, and in so doing contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more inspiring application of our national ideals, or of a more compelling example of my argument (made in the second hyperlinked piece above) that black history is American history. Yet at the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to claim that Freeman’s and Walker’s cases were representative ones, either in their era or at any time in the two and a half centuries of American slavery; nor I would I want to use Freeman’s and Walker’s successful legal actions as evidence that the Declaration’s “All men are created equal” sentiment did not in a slaveholding nation include a central strain of hypocrisy.
If I ever need reminding of that foundational American hypocrisy, I can turn to one of our most fiery texts: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass’s speech is long and multi-layered, and I don’t want to reduce its historical and social visions to any one moment; but I would argue that it builds with particular power to this passage, one of the most trenchant in American oration and writing: “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?” The subsequent second half of the speech sustains that perspective and passion, impugning every element of a nation still entirely defined by slavery and its effects. Despite having begun his speech by noting his “quailing sensation,” his feeling of appearing before the august gathering “shrinkingly,” Douglass thus builds instead to one of the most full-throated, confident critiques of American hypocrisy and failure ever articulated.
As an avowed and thoroughgoing optimist, it’s far easier for me to grapple with Freeman’s and Walker’s use of the Declaration and the 4th of July than with Douglass’s—which, of course, makes it that much more important for me to include Douglass in my purview, and which is why I wanted to begin this week’s series with Douglass’s speech. There’s a reason, after all, why the most famous American slave is undoubtedly Harriet Tubman—we like our histories overtly inspiring, and if we’re going to remember slavery at all, why not do so through the lens of someone who resisted it so successfully? Yet while Tubman, like Walker, is certainly worth remembering, the overarching truth of slavery in America is captured far better by Douglass’s speech and its forceful attention to our national hypocrises and flaws. And despite the ridiculous attacks over the last few years on “too negative” histories or “apologizing for America,” there’s no way we can understand our nation or move forward collectively without a fuller engagement wth precisely the lens provided by Douglass and his stunning speech.
Next speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?
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