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What to our divided nation is the Fourth of July?

fourth of july
A man waves an American flag as he watches a July Fourth parade in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts July 4, 2014. Barnstable, which is located on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and was first settled in 1639, is celebrating its 375th anniversary in 2014. |

National holidays can mean different things to different people. Like the days themselves, not all personal holiday experiences are created equal. Some treat holidays like any other day. Others seem almost to revere their very existence. Still others find themselves hindered from enjoying a particular holiday because of previous traumatic experiences (personal or otherwise) associated with that day.

In the case of Independence Day, there are some to whom this holiday has inspired mourning rather than mirth. One historic example is that of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. His 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is an excellent example of oratory, well worth reading.

Douglass’s speech is an important part of our national heritage—but not because Independence Day isn’t worth celebrating (as some are wont to say). In fact, those prone to condemn every aspect of American history, as if there was little to nothing noble about our nation’s beginnings, would do well to read Douglass’s speech, in which he says:

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too—great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men…With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times…

[T]he Constitution is a glorious liberty document…[T]ake the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”

The 4th of July is worth celebrating, to be sure. But that is not all it is good for. Special occasions can be opportunities for looking backward (to see how far we have come) and looking forward (to see how far we have yet to go).

Just as there are those prone only to look forward (as if there is nothing to appreciate about our country’s past), so there are those prone only to look backward. In other words, there are those tempted to idolize every aspect of America’s past, as if there was little to nothing contemptible about our nation’s legacy. Such people would also do well to read Douglass’s speech, in which he says the following:

“I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future…

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

Douglass’s speech is a paradoxical and precarious balancing act. Unlike many of the orators of our day, who are prone to simplistic, hyper-partisan posturing, Douglass understood an important reality: like humanity itself, America’s history is filled with decency and depravity, nobility and noxiousness, heroism and heinousness. Pretending otherwise does a disservice to reality. It fails to honor the justice our country has championed and fails to acknowledge the injustices it has ignored.

On the Fourth of July, it is right and good to celebrate where we’ve come from. At the same time, based on what I have heard and read from brothers and sisters in Christ who testify to an undercurrent of prejudice still operating in our land, the Fourth of July is also an appropriate time to mourn over how far we have to go. That some might celebrate while others lament is not, in and of itself, a sign that either is wrong.

Regardless of one’s personal thoughts or feelings toward the Fourth of July, may our words and actions echo these famous sentiments shared by Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at capstewart.com since 2006.

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