A Thought on Frederick Douglass and Justice

If you read the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, you will have no doubt you are in the presence of a towering refutation of the racist lies of American slavery.   You will understand, within a few paragraphs, why teaching a slave to read was considered such a serious offense.  To compare a man to a barnyard animal when that man can speak and write as eloquently and powerfully as Douglass does, shoves the smug comparison back down the ignorant comparer’s throat.

I received an email yesterday comparing our Founding Fathers to the Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, who drove the forces of Antiochus out of ancient Israel, a rebellion celebrated in the rare nationalistic holiday of Chanukah. The speaker gave the pertinent details:

 “The 167 BCE Jewish rebellion led by the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family against the Seleucid/Greek Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies, who was determined to ruthlessly uproot Judaism and replace it with Hellenic values.”

The Founding Fathers and the Maccabees, he said, were determined, idealistic, brave, visionaries who prevailed for freedom against powerful enemies in spite of the massive odds against them.   Their truth goes marching on, the email intimated, as does the connection between American democracy, a light unto the world, and modern day Israel which embodies the ancient code the Jews gave to the world.

As I read the email I thought of the same speech being delivered by any number of true believers.   Every true believer believes their cause is uniquely just, that their greatest leaders are determined, idealistic, brave visionaries fighting often impossible odds against evil enemies intent on their destruction.  One woman’s freedom fighter is another woman’s terrorist and so on.  I replied that I wondered how someone like Frederick Douglass, who gave a famous speech on July 4th, 1852, years after his own escape from an American slavery still heartily underway, might feel about this discussion of American Freedom and the Light unto the Nations bit.

My friend wrote back that she meant to read a bit more about Douglass, but that it was her impression that he was a “‘Jeffersonian-type’ thinker,’ always able to see the whole picture and understand the context of the times.”

I wrote back suggesting she read more from the pen of Douglass and then ventured, in my opinionated way:

For him to have been a Jeffersonian-type during slavery would have been like a guy in Auschwitz taking a nuanced view of Hitler.  I think even Jefferson’s most privileged house slaves probably were not enlightened enough to see the “big picture” and be consoled by the idea that in just a couple of hundred years there would be a black president.  

Here is the heart of the speech Frederick Douglass delivered on Independence Day 1852:

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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour.

The whole speech is here.

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