Let’s take back the Fourth of July

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

Frederick Douglass spoke those words 170 years ago, in his great speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” They seem appropriate today.

Two American flags on front porch.

I’m thinking, of course, of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ignoring a whole lot of convincing argument, the court’s far-right majority upended decades of settled law with breathtaking speed and arrogance. In a week’s time, it:

And we’re supposed to be celebrating freedom?

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Frederick Douglass’ essential speech

One hundred sixty-eight years ago today, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the most powerful and important speeches in U.S. history.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (National Park Service image).

Titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, it drew on the language and moral fervor of the Old Testament prophets to expose the contradictions between the American ideal of liberty and the institution of slavery.

“What Douglass crafted and delivered on July 5 was nothing less than the rhetorical masterpiece of American abolitionism,” historian David Blight writes in his 2018 biography of Douglass.

Blight describes the speech as a symphony in three movements. In the first, the abolitionist, who had escaped slavery only 14 years earlier, praises America’s founders and celebrates its independence.

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