OPINION: Kerry McDonald - Why You Should Read 'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?' to Your Kids

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

The Declaration of Independence created a vision for a free and flourishing society that continues to inspire. It was a document that reflected how things could be and not how they were, for slavery was widespread throughout the American colonies at the time of its writing and would remain so for nearly a century more. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were rights reserved for some early Americans but not all.

This darker side of America’s Founding is something we must also share with our children. Fortunately, the powerful words of Frederick Douglass, the famous orator, abolitionist, and author who escaped from slavery in 1838, provides an opportunity. In what is considered one of the greatest abolitionist speeches, Douglass presented “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York, while American slavery was still ubiquitous. He asked:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Despite this deserved excoriation, Douglass reminded listeners that American exceptionalism could be what ultimately led to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. He held up the US Constitution as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” and indicated that slavery, in addition to being immoral, was also unconstitutional.

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Kerry McDonald, an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute, and the senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. is author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Traditional Classroom. She lives with her husband, and four children in Cambridge, Mass.