We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
––– The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
“If you want water, drink from the toilet.”
––– U.S. Border Patrol agent to a thirsty immigrant, July 1, 2019
John Adams, our second President, predicted a Fourth of July “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] It would be a time to remember our origins, honor our ideals, and pledge ourselves to nurture and preserve the noblest portions of our national life.
In the nineteenth century, the vision of Independence Day as a national covenant of memory and renewal found exuberant expression in the verbal fireworks of grand orations. These long-winded blasts of rhetorical excess came to be known as “making the eagle scream,” but their homiletic intention was serious: to summon the people to “effusions of gratitude” for America’s sacred origins, and to encourage “a faithful and undeviating adherence” to the principles of liberty, equality and the common good. [ii]
But what about those who are excluded from the blessings of liberty? By the 1820s, some Independence Day orators began to call out the inconsistency of celebrating freedom while so many still wore the chains of slavery. “We ought to remember that the happiness we enjoy is not universal,” Giles B. Kellogg told an audience at Williams College on July 4, 1829. “This will temper our exultation and render more heart-felt our tribute of gratitude . . . There are those among us who are shut out from the light of freedom, chained down in the prison house of bondage . . . those of common origins with ourselves, inheritors of the same great blessings, heirs to the same immortality.” [iii]
The most famous of these abolitionist orations was delivered on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, to the Rochestery Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. As an escaped slave himself, he gave voice to the voiceless with fiery eloquence:
“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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; 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 on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” [iv]
Irony and guilt continue to haunt our national celebrations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism is alive and well, along with other long-standing national sins. And the concentration camps on our southern border, where federal agents put children in cages and subject countless refugees to conditions of torture, certainly make the rhetoric of freedom an unholy sham in our own day.
For those who are more offended by the words “concentration camp” and “torture” than by the realities they describe, let me point out that while these are certainly loaded terms, they are technically accurate. A concentration camp is defined as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”[v] While the most notorious examples are Nazi death camps and Soviet labor camps, the term itself has a broader application. As for torture, a physician who witnessed the appalling conditions of the camps––“extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food”––concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” [vi]
How shall we respond to such evil? Let Douglass be our teacher:
“O! had I the ability, and could 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 proclaimed and denounced.”
The Fourth of July should be a day of atonement not only for the cruel barbarity of the Trump administration––which would indeed “disgrace a nation of savages”––but also for our collective impotence to make it stop. Instead, the president is stealing millions of dollars from our National Parks to stage a military spectacle in his honor, and to desecrate the Lincoln Memorial with hate speech to his adoring mob (Trump opponents will be kept at a distance to silence the voice of protest). And to such shameless and pitiful parody of Independence Day, the words of Douglass make perfect reply:
“Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of [the people] crush and destroy it forever!”
Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness
[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203.
[ii] Phrases taken from the July 4, 1821 oration of John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of State. This and many other Independence Day orations may be found at https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th.html
[iv] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852). https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/
[v] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/concentration_camp Some might argue for the term “refugee detention center,” where people may indeed suffer from logistical overload. But the deliberate and intentional infliction of suffering by the Border Patrol and its white supremacist enablers in the Administration justifies, in my view, the more damning term.
[vi] Matt Stieb, “Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps,”New York Magazine (July 2019). The physician quoted is Dolly Lucio Sevier: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/the-inhumane-conditions-at-migrant-detention-camps.html
I’m struck, reading that first paragraph from Douglass’ oration, that currently we have a so-called President who doesn’t even indulge in “denunciation of tyrants” but blatantly cozies up to them and emulates their behavior.
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