Reflections on Independence Day
My local newspaper, like those all across the nation, ran the words of the Declaration of Independence in the editorial pages today. I suspect most people are similar to myself and are familiar with the portions of the declaration that are always quoted about “all men being equal” and “inalienable rights”, but I was unaware that there were about two other drafts of the declaration before the final version we know today. A side by side comparison of the language in the first two drafts and the final version can be viewed here. Most of the revisions in the final version were simply moving around words here or there, but there was one entire section dealing with slavery that was included in the drafts but removed from the final version. Here’s the deleted section that adds slavery to the litany of complaints against the King of England:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crime committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
This section was written by Thomas Jefferson who, as we all know, was a slaveholder himself. The real problem that the founders had with slavery was Britain’s attempt to induce the slaves to join them against the colonists with a promise of freedom. The deleted section didn’t make the final draft due to the objections of the slaveholding delegates to the Continental Congress. Clearly, the idea of all men being equal did not apply anyone but white men.
Hence, from the very beginnings of the nation, African-Americans were not included when it came to ideas about freedom and equality. The declaration of independence is really a document declaring economic independence from Great Britain. The colonists didn’t want to be vassals paying tribute to King George III so, they figured that they’d do far better economically by severing the ties to the England and going it alone. Slavery was the key thing underpinning the wealth of the young nation and without it, it’s very doubtful that America would be what it is today.
But how do some African-Americans feel about independence day? Dubois in The Souls of Black Folks talks about a double consciousness among those of the blood Afric—a consciousness that is both American and one of the oppressed class:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
But there was one African-American who answers this question even better. This is from a speech given July 4, 1852 by the great abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass:
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be divine. Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may – I cannot. The time for such argument is past.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
The echoes of history from the nation’s inception still reverberate over the centuries and I choose to acknowledge it for what it is and how it may impact how some may interpret this day. This declaration of independence was not intended for my antecedents or me and it needs to be acknowledged as such. Fortunately, history is not static but evolving and the nation has made new history and this too must be acknowledged. Let’s hope and pray that we continue to move toward that more perfect union. Happy July 4th!