Ross Steinborn remembers the words of Frederick Douglas, and reminds us to look to both the past and the future for our vision of freedom.
The 4th of July is the celebration of the past, the courage of a revolution and the birth of a nation. Here in Boston it’s hard not to remember, the site of the Boston Massacre—which in many ways kicked off the Revolutionary War—is in the financial district. I’m only blocks from Dorchester Heights, the place where George Washington and the Continental troops held-out the high ground of Boston, forcing the end of the British Siege and forcing British troops to evacuate the city.
However, there has always been a dark shadow that haunts our nations past. A history that would scare our vision of freedom for the better part of the next century: slavery. So as we remember the bravery of our soldiers, who have fought and died for our freedom, we should also remember that we’ve never lived up to that freedom, even since its inception. For this reason I always find it helpful to turn to Frederick Douglas, who asked:
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 denunciations 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 these United States, at this very hour.
Douglas, like all good patriots was critical and hopeful, he saw the purpose and potential of the American ideal, but he also saw that it was being wasted.
The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
Our nation was birthed on the most dynamic and the highest standard of principles. With such principles comes the obligation, they do not operate all by themselves, and they are never fully realized. This is why true patriotism requires a skepticism of the past and critical eye towards the future.
photo by bootbearwdc / flickr