The point of breaking up the Declaration of Independence into smaller pieces, rather than posting the whole thing at once, was to (hopefully) make us all slow down and actually (re)read it. And by reading it recognizing that, as a number of you have commented through the day, a lot of it seems just as relative to the US in 2018 as it did to the American colonies in 1776. Even if the underlying context is different. I hope to have more on that tomorrow. However, another reason to break it down into smaller pieces was not just to have the brilliant and/or still relevant portions of the Declaration pop out at us as readers, but also so that the flawed portions, the portions that seem so incongruous to us today, as well as the parts that even in context should have seemed out of place to the Founders and Framers in their day, stand out as well.
The Founders and Framers for all their intelligence, wisdom, and in some cases foresight, were also all too human. They were flawed. They had their own prejudices. And they had petty disputes and squabbles with each other. Even fifty years after he drafted it, and after a significant portion of his lifetime having been lived for all intents and purposes in a common law marriage with a biracial, African American slave who was also his sister in law, Jefferson still seemed to be incapable of recognizing what was both literally and figuratively right in front of his face. Jefferson was invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration in DC, but was unable to attend because he was ill and would soon die. Instead he sent a reply detailing what the Declaration meant. Here’s an excerpt, but you can see that he still seemed to be missing a key point:
I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. may it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Twenty-six years later on the 76th anniversary of the Declaration, Frederick Douglass gave an oration that focused on what Independence Day means to African-Americans. Both those still enslaved and those who had been able to escape their bondage. Here too is an excerpt, but do click across and read the whole transcript if you’ve not ever read the whole thing.
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 this 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 life 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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
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. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! 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! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
Here are both Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones reading excerpts of Douglass’s oration:
And here’s the audio of the whole oration:
As I wrote last year, which is, I think appropriate for both this specific post and for the circumstances of the US in 2018, to bring Independence Day 2018 to a close:
During the years prior to the Great Rebellion, America abolitionists rewrote the lyrics to My Country Tis of Thee. This abolitionist variant, done in a minor key, becomes a haunting spiritual begging the divine providence cited by the Founders in the Declaration, Constitution, and their other writings to finally bring liberty to all.