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America’s Birthday: The True Meaning of July 4 (Part 2)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In speeches delivered nearly 10 years apart, two men from very different backgrounds – one a president and one a former slave – reflect on the meaning of July 4th and the Declaration for themselves and their nation.

The American Calendar project is a series of nine e-anthologies — one for each national holiday — whose stories, speeches, songs, poems, letters, and essays help us think about the meaning of each occasion. Compiled by educators Amy Kass and Leon Kass, they are all available free of charge at http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

The rationale for the collection is simple, explain the Kasses: “National holidays offer wonderful opportunities to learn about and to become more knowingly attached to the American Republic. For the national calendar, as a whole and in each part, provides an excellent introduction to the diverse strands of our national identity and the meaning of our common life and purpose.”

The Kass e-book, “The Meaning of Independence Day,” contains over 50 selections from colonial times to the present, chosen and arranged to illuminate a series of themes: declaring, securing, and maintaining independence; the promise of the new republic; seeking a more perfect union (with special attention to securing equal rights for blacks and women); and celebrating the holiday and remembering its national promise. The readings were chosen for their differing perspectives and for their ability to speak both to hearts and minds about the meaning of Independence Day. Yesterday, we revisited the Declaration of Independence and Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Today, we continue our celebration of July 4th with commentary by the Kasses on a Frederick Douglass essay and Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in February 1861.

—The Editors

What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

As virtually every American today understands, without the need for any argument, the existence of slavery was a stain on the American republic from its founding. It also embarrassed our alleged devotion to the principles of human equality and unalienable rights, principles that had been presented in our birth announcement as truths by which we Americans define ourselves in declaring that we hold them to be self-evident. No American in our history has exposed our hypocrisy more powerfully than did Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–95), a one-time slave who became a great orator, statesman, and abolitionist. Douglass made the case best in his famous Fourth of July oration (excerpted), delivered on July 5, 1852 before the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York. Yet as remarkable as his indictment is his vigorous defense of the Constitution and of the American experiment.

Read an excerpt of the speech.

Questions for the Reader

The speech is divided into several parts, which look at the past, the present, and (briefly) the future. How does Douglass regard the American Revolution, and those responsible for it? What is his attitude toward our Fourth of July celebrations? What is his answer to the question posed in the title of his oration? Review the various parts of his critique of his American present. Which arguments and indictments do you find most compelling and most damning? For what offenses does he condemn American religion and American churches? Why, despite all that he condemns, does he vigorously defend the Constitution of the United States? Do you agree with his defense? Finally, why is he hopeful about the American future? What is the point of William Lloyd Garrison’s poem, and why does Douglass use it to conclude his oration? Imagining yourself a middle-of-the-road white member of Douglass’ Rochester audience, how would you have reacted to this oration?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

Speech at Independence Hall

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

On the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, February 22, 1861 — after he had been elected president but before he was inaugurated (March 4), and before the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War (April 12) — Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) delivered this impromptu address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the speech, Lincoln credits the principles enunciated in the Declaration as the source of “all the political sentiments I entertain,” and for which he was determined to live and govern and, if necessary, to die.

Read the full speech.

Questions for the Reader

What, in particular, was so important to him? What would it mean, in fact, to live by the principles in the Declaration of Independence? Why would Lincoln not accept saving the country by giving up on those principles? Why does Lincoln regard the American principle of equal liberty and opportunity as a gift of “hope to the world for all future time”?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

Amy Kass and Leon Kass, along with Diana Schaub, are editors of the anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. Their website is www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

FURTHER READING: Leon Kass also writes “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” and joins Walter Berns to discuss Steven Spielberg’s film "Lincoln". Berns also writes the book Making Patriots. Karlyn Bowman, who helps us in “Understanding American Exceptionalism,” joins Jennifer Marsico and Andrew Rugg to analyze “Polls on Patriotism.” Jonah Goldberg talks about “Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution” and Ralph Kinney Bennett hails “This Astounding Enterprise.” Mark J. Perry claims that “The Founding Fathers Were Bloggers.” Charles Murray examines the changing nature of presidents' sense of responsibility in “Of Presidents and Duty.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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