1852: Frederick Douglass asked “Are we included in your Celebration of Freedom?”
By Danny L. White
1852: Frederick Douglass asked “Are we included in your Celebration of Freedom?” Despite Heroism on the battle field – freedom eluded African Americans…
One hundred and sixty years ago, Frederick Douglass the leading Negro citizen of the day born of African descent and born into American bondage known as slavery, was invited to speak at a 4th of July Celebration in New York.
Growing controversy regarding slavery regarded as the “peculiar institution” by many was slowly tearing the nation apart. The U.S Congress passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 forced many individuals escaping to the North to flee further north to Canada as plantation owners ventured north and or hired Overseers to bring their (chattel) property back.
The Missouri Compromise, a bargaining chip and whether new states entering the Union would be a slave state or free state further challenged the new nation that would brace for war in only nine short years.
It was upon this platform both literally and figuratively that Douglass found himself in the summer of 1852,
Douglass an abolitionist who strongly opposed slavery and the inhuman treatment of those held in bondage refused to speak on the 4th but did agree to address those gathered the following day on July 5.
Douglass began, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration were brave men. They were great men, great enough to give frame to a great age.
“Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offerings to the national altar?
“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,” said Douglass.
Although many men born of African ancestry joined in the early Indian wars and some sided with the French and British on occasion during their early conflicts, it was the Revolutionary War that began the history of achievement and heroism that for the most part was omitted from books about America’s early history.
Names like Cripus Attucks, Salem Poor, Peter Williams, Prince Whipple and Jordan B. Noble – to list a few, became hero’s and medal of honor winners for their bravery and going beyond the call of duty in dire circumstances as America fought to establish itself as a nation governed by the people and for the people.
If the fore-fathers of the country truly believed in freedom and were repulsed by the strong hand of government imposed on them by British rule, why in turn would they subject other men – Americans of African descent to such cruelties as that of American bondage (slavery)?
“The early patriots were more interested in establishing a new nation than extending full liberties to those from Africa. The Declaration thus became a document of Intent. That is why we have so many amendments (acts to improve and include others or situations as deemed appropriate).
“Despite the great wording and work that went into it, it is more a document of Intent,” said the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall regarding the Declaration of Independence.
Why didn’t the Declaration and the early patriots not include Americans of African descent?
After all, it was a man born of African descent that first gave his life for the freedom the colonist envisioned for themselves.
On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave from Farmington, Massachutes living and working in Boston near the loading docks lead a group of men into the Boston Square calling for the British occupation in the city to end.
In the aftermath of what became known as the Boston Massacre, Attucks the first to fall, taking the full force of two musk balls to his chest would be regarded as a hero and the first to die for the cause of the new nation’s freedom.
Two others fell shortly there after and still two more died the following day but it is Attucks whose name became the rallying cry for freedom.
John Hope Franklin described the emotions and growing concerns by the colonist in his book – From Slavery to Freedom: A history of African Americans.
“It was almost natural for the colonist to link the problem of Black slavery to their fight against England. The struggle of Blacks to secure their freedom was growing,” wrote Franklin.
“James Otis an author and noted statesman of the day affirmed Blacks inalienable right to freedom. Black’s themselves were petitioning the general court of Mass chutes for their freedom on the grounds that it was their natural right,” wrote Franklin quoting Otis.
In the years that followed the Boston Massacre, the colonist as though pricked by their conscience, frequently spoke against slavery and England at the same time, wrote Franklin.
In 1773, the Rev. Isaac Skillman went so far as to assert that in the conformity with the laws of nature, slaves should rebel against their masters.
Future first lady, Abigail Adams wrote her husband attorney John Adams in 1774, stating,
“It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”
Jefferson wrote a summary view of the Rights of British America, in which he said that the abolition of slavery was the great object and desire in the colonies, but that it had become increasing difficult because Britain had consistently blocked the colonies efforts to put an end to the slave trade.
In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson laid the full blame of American slavery at the door of the King of England.
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people (Africans) who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold. By murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded (Indians); thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another,” wrote Jefferson.
This entry was totally unacceptable to the Southern delegation at the Contential Congress and was stricken from the document.
“The members of the Continental Congress doubtless realized that Jefferson’s bold accusations of the king were at considerable variance with the truth.
“The slave trade had been carried on not only by the British merchants but by colonist as well, and in some colonies no effort had been made even to regulate it. Those who favored slavery realized that if Jefferson’s views prevailed in the Declaration, there would be no justification for the institution once ties with England were completely cut,” wrote Franklin.
The silence of the Declaration of Independence on the matter of slavery, the slave trade and Africans as a whole was to make it equally difficult for abolitionist and proslavery leaders to look to that document for support,” concluded Franklin.
Despite the bravery of Salem Poor at the battle of Charleston, known today as the battle of Bunker Hill, a battle that witnessed more than 1,000 African American casualties and the bravery of Poor, in which his actions were noted by 14 officers who sent letters to the Mass chutes legislature declaring that Poor behaved like an officer and an outstanding solider, adding a ‘reward’ should be paid him.
And despite Prince Whipple, an African American solider crossing the Delaware River with General George Washington and other officers and troops on Christmas day 1779, on the eve of the Revolutionary War’s famous battle of Trenton, Black’s were only mentioned in the Declaration three times and listed as three fifths human.
Peter Williams a member of the clergy exhibited great bravery as did the young drummer boy Jordan B. Noble, who at the age of 13 was serving the Seventh Regiment of General Andrew Jackson force during the War of 1812.
The future Ambassador to Haiti as well as publisher and editor of the second black newspaper in the nation –the North Star (Freedoms Journal was first in 1827) Frederick Douglass address on that warm July day aroused many. Douglass continued: “What, to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer a day that reveals to him, more than any 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless. Your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery, a 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 the United States, at this very hour,” Douglass said.
Nine year later, the rift of whether to be a nation that condoned bondage for some or a nation of free men was put to the test as the War Between the States (Civil War), began in 1861.
Again, men of African American descent answered the clarion call to arms, fought, bleed and died for that elusive thing called freedom which came in the form of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery in the US and was followed by the 14th Amendment in 1868, which granted citizenship and in 1870 (at the height of Reconstruction) the 15th Amendment was passed, establishing the right of all citizens (those formerly held in bondage/slavery as well) the right to vote.
Notable: While the promise of freedom had not been realized at the time Douglass gave his speech in 1852, no people have earned the right to celebrate freedom more in America than those born of African descent – save those of Native heritage. Having fought, bleed, marched, and died for that elusive think called freedom aboard, it is far time to enjoy those same fruits of labor at home in America.
However you celebrate….Remember what it took to get here.
Danny L. White lives in Phoenix, AZ. He is the author and creative lead for the Sensational letter “S”, a children’s book focused on early reading comprehension and word development. He is also a Adjunct faculty member at Maricopa College, and staff reporter at the Arizona Informant. This piece was originally published in 2014.