I had a fabulous time last year listening to the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and mingling with Revolutionary War era re-enactors Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Ned Hector, a black Continental Army soldier.
But this year was over the top! At the invitation of David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, I delivered the keynote address, taking my inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 Fourth of July speech while also recounting the role of black Patriots in Revolutionary War.
The morning was even more special because my friend Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, became the first African American descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence to participate in the reading of the document at the prestigious National Archives ceremony.
I’ve posted lots of photos on my Facebook page. Because several people were kind enough to ask for a copy of my speech, I’m posting what I said about Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Fourth of July speech and what the holiday means to me 160 years later. [Here, also, is a link to the video.]
Welcome to the BEST Fourth of July parade seat in America!
Today we wave our flags and stuff ourselves with hot dogs and barbecue! We light sparklers and get nostalgic for home-made ice cream and cherry popsicles. We cheer the bands and wait with great anticipation for a night sky filled with fireworks!
Fifty-six men who sat in a hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776 plotting their treasonous revolt against King George III. But today I’d also like to ask you to remember and celebrate those Americans who were not inside Assembly Hall. Women. African Americans. Native Americans. Indentured servants. Small family farmers. And the generations of immigrants who arrived on our shores after the Revolution. Beyond those doors at Independence Hall. . .in small towns, in kitchens and on farms were our Founding Mothers and Founding Citizens.
They, too, had a stake in the outcome of the Revolutionary War. And though Hollywood and the history books of my childhood rendered them mostly invisible, they were not absent.
AMERICANS DURING THE REVOLUTION In 1776, barely two-and-a-half-million people—including about 500,000 enslaved people of African descent and several thousand free people of color—lived in America’s 13 newly created states. Throughout the rest of the continent there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans—Cherokee, Iroquois, Choctaw, Shawnee and more. While Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration and the Continental Congress was debating matters large and small, black and Native American soldiers were helping stave off King George’s Redcoats.
BOSTON MASSACRE In fact, six years earlier at the 1770 Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks—a sailor and escaped slave—had become the first casualty of the Revolution, gunned down by the King’s troops in a public square. During the spring of 1775, several slaves and free black men fought in the military skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. While Paul Revere was shouting “The British are coming,” Peter Salem was loading his musket for battle.
Two months later at Bunker Hill, that same Peter Salem, killed the officer who had commanded the British Forces at Lexington and Concord. By the end of the war, some five thousand African Americans had served in the Continental Army from Saratoga and Trenton to the final victory at Yorktown. One of those free men of color was my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ishmael Roberts, who traveled with Colonel Abraham Sheppard’s apparently rather motley 10th North Carolina Regiment to Valley Forge. While the Founding Fathers insisted on freedom and liberty for themselves, there was no critical mass willing to argue for freedom and liberty for the human beings whose uncompensated labor allowed their fledgling nation to prosper. While Patrick Henry could proclaim “Give me liberty or give me death” on his own behalf, he also owned other human beings because, he said, of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”
WHAT THE BONDSMEN AND WOMEN HEARD In 1776, as the words of liberation were read in public, overheard in carriages and debated in drawing rooms, the servants, drivers and valets soaked in every phrase and spread the news. The messages may not have traveled as quickly as a Facebook post or a re-tweet on Twitter, but the information made its way from dining room to veranda, from plantation to city. As the Patriots listed their grievances against King George, the enslaved men and women couldn’t help but wonder why the words “that all men are created equal” should not include them. And so they embraced the spirit of the Revolution and applied it to their own condition of servitude.
In February 1774—a full year and a half before the Second Continental Congress—Phillis Wheatley, the black poet, wrote: “In every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom. It is impatient of Oppression and pants for Deliverance…I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.” But her plea went unanswered by the generation of the Founding Fathers.
SLAVERY AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS After the Peace Treaty between the new United States of America and Britain was signed in 1783, slavery remained the law of the land.
Although Benjamin Franklin later served as President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, George Washington continued to own slaves, as did Thomas Jefferson and ten other presidents. John Adams, though, was the exception with no slaves in his household. His wife, Abigail Adams, was even more anti-slavery than he. In September 1774 she wrote: “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight for ourselves what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”
Mrs. Adams is however perhaps even more well known for her stance on women’s rights, a topic the Founding Fathers seem to have found as unworthy as the rights of bondsmen. “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” Abigail wrote to John in March 1776. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” John Adams’s reply a few weeks later was entirely unsatisfactory. After calling Abigail “saucy” for her sentiments, he wrote: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.”
FREDERICK DOUGLASS’S 1852 FOURTH OF JULY SPEECH Seventy-six years later, women still could not vote and slavery had expanded into new states and territories. Frederick Douglass—a former slave, an abolitionist and one of America’s greatest orators—could stand the hypocrisy no more. He admired, he said, the eloquent words of the Declaration, but when invited to present a Fourth of July address in Rochester, New York, he felt duty bound to speak frankly.
“Fellow citizens,” he said on July 5, 1852, “the signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
“Fellow citizens, pardon me. . .The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.”
“Allow me to say. . .notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the union, I do not despair of this country. . .My spirit is cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
Douglass’s words were meant to make his audience squirm in much the same way the Founding Fathers intended to put King George III on notice. Just as the Patriots wanted the British Parliament to recognize their political and property rights, Frederick Douglass implored his audience to confront the inconsistencies in their words and deeds.
But he did not abandon America. Instead he continued to challenge the status quo with his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star. After the Civil War he served as the U. S. minister and consul general to Haiti and president of the Freedmen’s Bank. He advised President Abraham Lincoln and lived the rest of his life forcing America to confront its imperfections.
And so when I ponder Frederick Douglass’s question: “What is the Fourth of July?” I can’t help but imagine what he hoped the answer might have become. Did he envision a day when his descendants might claim the day as their own?
Today, because of Douglass and the generations of righteous and courageous men and women who came after the Founding Fathers, I choose to claim the Fourth of July as my own. It is mine as much as it is yours. It is mine. It is yours. And it is ours. It belongs to me as much as it belongs to the Founding Fathers because I know my ancestors on farms, in factories and on battlefields helped build America and make it what it is today.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS In 1776 we were a loose confederation of 2.5 million people clustered in 13 newly created states along the eastern seaboard. Today we are a nation of 312 million people in fifty states. A land of immigrants who have come from every continent. And today we all can claim our place in this American family.
We can also look to the Emancipation Proclamation. . .the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. . .the Nineteenth Amendment. . .and all the other laws, statutes and executive orders that have helped clarify the unfinished business of the Founding Fathers.
We can use these Charters of Freedom that those Founding Fathers created as a framework for debate to settle conflicts and promote civility. . .to seek common ground and common cause. . .to work together to turn our ever evolving, ever imperfect nation into a more perfect union.
To view the speech on YouTube, click here.
A’Lelia Bundles is chair and president of the Foundation for the National Archives, the private sector organization that raises funds to support the exhibitions, programs, publications and civics education Internet resources of the National Archives. Its mission is to educate, enrich and inspire a deeper appreciation of our country’s heritage through the collected evidence of its history.
To learn more about the Founding Citizens who were not at Independence Hall in 1776:
Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England by C. Adams and E. H. Pleck
Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July by James Colaico
Blacks in the American Revolution by Philip S. Foner
Abigail Adams by Woody Holton
The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution by William Cooper Nell (published in 1855)
The Negro in the American Revolution by Benjamin Quarles
Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patiotism by Roger Wilkins
The National Archives/Docs Teach Lesson: The Declaration of Independence is a great site for students and teachers
Fold3: African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War includes several informative essays
The History Guys Radio Interview: Independence Daze: A History of the July Fourth includes interviews with historians Pauline Maier and David Blight (Aired 7-4-2012; Taped 2008)
The Fourteenth Amendment (Thanks to Abby Brendese and her students for this suggestion)