Insofar as the Fourth of July is the American Midsummer Day, full of warm weather conviviality, playful communal rituals, and the climactic glory of fireworks, it is a day of pleasure and joy. As a celebration of our founding ideals, however, it has always been fraught with the ironies of our national and cultural imperfections.
I have noted these troubling ironies in recent years. “Your Celebration is a Sham”—Indepedence Day in an Age of Cruelty (2019) and Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America? are the most recent examples. In light of the January 6 insurrection and all the calamitous behavior in its wake, one could write volumes about the weird vibe of this year’s holiday affirmations about “America.” But a separated shoulder suffered a week ago, when I flew off my bicycle for a painful meeting with unforgiving concrete, has momentarily limited my ability to sit for long at a computer, and I need to go into the garden now to renew my love for America in conversation with Dickinson and Thoreau. But let me pass on a couple of things before I do.
When a friend posted Church’s 1861 painting, “Our Banner in the Sky,” today, it struck me an image of where we are as a country today. When Church painted it at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expressing his support for the Union cause. In the most tempestuous of times, he assures us, our flag shall yet wave. But to me the painting seems fraught with fundamental tensions. Is that sunrise or sunset in the background? Does the flag made of colored clouds and a patch of clear starlit sky promise the endurance of an ideal written in the heavens, or does the dematerialization of Old Glory signify the vanishing of a perishable dream? Does the withered tree anchoring the flag imply death—or resurrection? In America 2021, the answers seem no more certain than they did 160 years ago.
Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a usually long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.
In 1852, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass was invited to give such an oration on July 4 by the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York. But due to the absurdity of celebrating Independence Day while slavery persisted, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead.
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers,” he said, ” is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
For Independence Day 2021, in a country still beset by rampant racism, National Public Radio invited young descendants of Frederick Douglass to recite portions of that 1852 speech, followed by brief reflections of their own. Like any truly prophetic text, Douglass’ address condemns our sins, urges repentance, and preaches hope. This video is a compelling and moving updating of the traditional Fourth of July oration, and I hope you will make its viewing (and sharing) a part of your own celebration this year.