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What was the Fourth of July to the abolition movement in America?

In an extremely moving video that went viral on Fourth of July weekend, the descendants of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a forceful leader of the abolition movement in the 19th century, recited his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Appreciation of the speech requires a close reading of its remarkable content, as well as recognition of some fundamental facts of history surrounding the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution – and no fact surrounding the Revolution is perhaps less appreciated than the reality that the American colonies could not end slavery or the import of slaves unless they separated from Britain. While there is clearly more progress that needs to occur on inequality and race relations, Pennsylvanians should take pride that their forebears were attending to the cradle of the nascent anti-slavery movement in the 1700s. As Douglass and civil rights leaders after him made clear, it is a patriotic thing to critique this nation for falling short of its promise, and we should be grateful and cognizant that the Constitutional order has provided a system in which this promise can be secured.

First, with respect to the speech, Douglass first gave a version of it in 1852, predating the Civil War, the end of slavery in America, Reconstruction and the nation’s first federal civil rights laws. Douglass begins the speech with a moving account that exhorts listeners to appreciate what he called the “saving principles” of the Declaration of Independence – that peace was a virtue, but not if it meant “peaceful submission to bondage.” Order, too, was desirable, but “not the order of tyranny.” Douglass also made clear the signers of the Declaration of Independence were staking out a claim that “justice, liberty and humanity were final; not slavery and oppression.” Indeed, contrary to some modern revisionist history, Douglass argued that revolution from Britain was a noble and well-intentioned enterprise, one that stood against the oppression of men — and then, in the very stirring section of the speech that follows, Douglass says to listeners that the leaders in American government at the time (again, in the 1850s) have betrayed the promise of these signers. In a bold and prophetic voice, Douglass said America’s political leadership “betrayed the promise of the Revolution.”

This cannot be emphasized enough. The abolition movement was distinctly an American innovation. While Britain would end slavery faster than the United States ultimately did, it was religious leaders in the colonies who first began activism against the horrendous institution. Chief among these leaders were Quakers in Pennsylvania, who were egalitarian to the utmost degree. “We shall do to all men as we will be done ourselves,” the citizenry protested through a state legislative resolution in 1712 to British Parliament, “making no difference of what generation, descent or color they are.” The state General Assembly then attempted to impose a duty on the import of slaves to make it more expensive for slave traders to do business in the state, but a royal court overturned the law. Pennsylvania was at the vanguard of the abolition movement. But the fact of the matter was, slavery was enshrined in British law, and unless the colonies separated from Britain, that would remain the case. In 1780, in the waning days of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania would pass the country’s first emancipation law — which remained in effect after the British surrendered at Yorktown.

In Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, he concludes by examining, with appreciation (and let us join him in doing so), the Constitution as a document of “glorious liberty.” Notably, and in stark contrast to some current views of the document, Douglass thought it was plain to see it is not a pro-slavery document, and attempts to do so were a slander to the framers. Anyone, said Douglass, who claims the Constitution “guaranteed and sanctioned … the right to hold and to hunt slaves” is an “imposter.” “Take the Constitution according to its plain reading,” he said, “and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.” His central claim to the speech was that the Constitution provided citizens with a means to do the good and moral thing, which their leaders in government had failed to do: through the political process, make good on the promise of liberty as established in the words of the Declaration and of the Constitution.

Some 240 years ago, the Pennsylvania General Assembly went to work to end slavery. Pennsylvanians should take great pride in that fact. We can also, and at the same time, acknowledge that while we still have so far to go, we have indeed come very far. And not, I might add in closing, by discarding our Constitutional order, but working within it to secure the promises of liberty and equality which men like Douglass saw are core to the fabric of this nation. As Douglass so eloquently stated in the closing line of this monumental speech, “The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be light,’ has not yet spent its force.”

Kevin Sunday is director of government affairs with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce.

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