“Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the 1851 oil painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze. The original painting has inspired many appropriations.

In Declaration of Independence: A Global History, David Armitage writes that the main purpose of that esteemed document was to announce, before the “Opinions of Mankind” that the united colonies, or “united States” (as there was no such thing as the United States, yet), were legitimately independent of the British Empire.

Armitage demonstrates that, from the perspectives of the signatories and international men of opinion (both for and against American independence), men like Thomas Jefferson, this document was more of a procedural gesture than a manifesto of either individual rights or perceived wrongs. 

It was a foreign policy statement — a press release if you will — with global reverberations. And its iconic second paragraph (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”) was meant to play a mere supporting role to the first (“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another …”).

In other words, the Declaration of Independence was not necessarily a proclamation of human rights — if it were, you’d think that its hallowed tenets of self-evident equality would apply to slaves and Indians and women and people who didn’t own property and the like, but it didn’t. 

The Declaration of Independence was an announcement directed at other nations, particularly global powers such as France, so that they would recognize the united colonies as a force, independent of Great Britain, to be reckoned with (and worthy of credit to finance the fight for independence that would come later).

One “People” refers to the wealthy white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant landowners, men like Jefferson, who controlled the colonies’ political affairs. It didn’t apply to “us” (i.e., the majority of the population who weren’t wealthy white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant landowners). 

This was the reality less than 80 years later when Frederick Douglass delivered his brilliant July 5, 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and it is what prompted his highly intentional irony that had to make at least a few white people in the audience at Corinthian Hall a little squirmy. 

After heaping due deference and fervent praise on the heroic and selfless actions of early patriots such as Jefferson and Washington and Madison and Hamilton, Douglass launched into a scathing jeremiad that anticipates some of the most penchant criticisms of American self-righteousness lodged by everyone from James Baldwin and William Appleman Williams more than 50 years ago to Andrew J. Bacevich and Ta-Nehisi Coates today. 

After Douglass wondered aloud before his Rochester audience, who may have been relatively comfortable up to this point, whether or not it was mockery to have a Black man, an escaped slave, speak at a ceremony marking the Fourth of July, he said this:

“But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. […]

“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have ‘Abraham to our father,’ when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day?”

In his brilliant 2014 essay in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates channeled the spirit of Douglass’ 1852 critique when he wrote:

“One cannot escape the question [of how to recompense blacks for being terrorized for more than 200 years] by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. 

“A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’ body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the [runaway slave] Oney Judge.”

There has always been this undercurrent of tragedy and darkness running against the naive, hot-dogs-and-fireworks version of American history, the former to which only the most brutalized and ignored Americans, or those who empathize with them, are attuned. 

Throughout this nation’s history, critics like Douglass have been jailed, murdered, dismissed, denounced and defamed. 

But every once in a while, some aspect of their message breaks through, hacks the ‘freedom-justice-equality-and-liberty-for-all’ optimism to which our brains are programmed from childhood. Their negative, pessimistic critiques are taken seriously from time to time. Their aggression and impatience seriously confronted. 

For most of us, what semblance of liberty and freedom we have (secured through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments; Women’s Suffrage; the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; the labor movement; etc.) has only ever been achieved after battling with the received patriotism that we’ve been taught since childhood, a patriotism that would have you thinking that only wealthy white men can be patriots. 

And to remind ourselves of this reality — that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” as Douglass famously said — is not to diminish our collective Independence Day commemoration. It enhances our collective understanding of what it takes to achieve real liberation (from domination, from fear, from hatred, from racism, from want, etc.). Freedom isn’t a birthright; it’s a constant struggle, one often fought within ourselves. 

With that, Happy Fourth of July.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com