Nearly 250 years ago, the Founding Fathers brought forth a new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Abraham Lincoln would so poetically put it later at Gettysburg. Of course, on July 4, 1776, that equality extended only to white men, particularly those who had property, which often included ownership of other people.
That didn’t stop the great American Frederick Douglass from lauding their accomplishments in a Fourth of July address in 1852 — nine years before the Civil War that would finally end slavery in the United States. In his deep baritone, he said that, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. ... They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Soon, however, the man who ran away from slavery and later bought his own freedom reminded his listeners who he was — and of the full history of the nation they were celebrating. “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.” Yet, Douglass was a true patriot, believing in what America could become even as he spelled out to his white listeners of what it was. He saw both with absolute clarity.
He lived to see slavery end but also to shudder as Jim Crow rose up. At the end of his life in 1895, freedom for Black Americans had regressed decades. The year after his death came the egregious Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed racial discrimination under the Constitution and would not be overturned for generations.
American women may feel some of that same injustice because their right to privacy and bodily autonomy — one that had been theirs under the Constitution for nearly 50 years — was diminished by the Supreme Court last month when it overturned Roe v. Wade. The symbolism of a Supreme Court ringed by a black security fence is stark, and it can be hard to feel good about a country when your personal freedoms have eroded. Even those who argue for the right to life of an embryo at conception have to agree that women now have less control of their bodies under our Constitution than they did a few days ago. And others who have benefited from a more expansive reading of the Constitution — such as LGBTQ Americans who have married — worry that their rights are in danger next.
So where does that leave us on this day we when we celebrate the Declaration of Independence? Look back to Frederick Douglass, whose agile mind could simultaneously hold two contradictory thoughts. He believed in the Constitution, a document that allowed slavery, because he believed that document’s promise “to form a more perfect union, establish justice ... and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” was our nation’s best hope.
Even as liberty once again slipped away from Black Americans during the latter part of the 19th century and Douglass despaired toward the end of his life, his vision of America would slowly ripen. There is no way to know what he would have thought of a nation that twice elected a Black president but where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. But imagine that throughout his life — from slavery to freedom and a descent into Jim Crow — he kept the faith in what America could become. He was, in many ways, the conscience of the country and always pushed America a bit closer to its professed ideals. He never gave up, and neither should we Americans who live in the country that this great Black patriot helped to create. Happy Fourth. And keep the faith.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.