Carl M. Cannon: Frederick Douglass' July 4 Challenge Answered by Obama's Election





[Carl M. Cannon is the senior Washington correspondent for PoliticsDaily.com.]

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall, memorably described the Declaration of Independence as a "promissory note" that had guaranteed freedom to Americans of every color. Redeeming that note required a bloody Civil War. Redeeming it fully required a Second American Revolution -- the civil rights movement.

A century and a half ago, the logic and morality of that great struggle for equality was framed indelibly by a black man who asked a haunting question that challenged a nation's conscience, and rang through the decades. Frederick Douglass spoke on July 5, 1852 to an audience of abolitionists who had come to Rochester, N.Y., to hear the acclaimed orator – himself a runaway slave – address the meaning of America's great national holiday. In reference to its most memorable line, the speech is usually called "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?"

Its official title, however, is "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." And the uncomfortable implications it explored did not end with Emancipation. It took America more than 100 years to lay Jim Crow to rest; some of its vestiges are with us still. This Independence Day, however, African-Americans can gaze upon the residents of the White House and see faces that resemble their own.

This first Fourth of July when blacks in this nation can say – must say – to their children that the cherished national adage about any American growing up to be president is literally and demonstrably true. Barack Obama did not get to the White House on his own, as he frequently acknowledges, and he owes so much to so many, none of them any braver or more prescient than Frederick Douglass.

During the first half of the 19th century, many preeminent abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison did not look in the Constitution or the Declaration for their salvation. (Garrison once celebrated July 4 by burning a copy of the Constitution.) Was not slavery codified in that document? Was not the Declaration, for all its high-flying prose, written by a slave owner?

Douglass looked beyond all that. Siding with prominent abolitionists in Congress, including Ohio's Joshua Giddings and former president John Quincy Adams, Douglass cited the promise of the American Revolution and the nation's founding documents as soaring rationales for freeing the slaves. He extolled the memory of the patriots of '76. What was wanting, Douglass believed, was not the founders' resolve nor their writing – but the fortitude of their children and grandchildren. Americans, he avowed, had become content to celebrate the Fourth of July with firecrackers and speeches instead of finishing the hard work of freedom begun by their ancestors.

And this was how Douglass began his great speech, extolling the bravery and wisdom of the framers. Even in this opening section, however, his use of pronouns sets the stage for what is to follow. "Your nation," he calls the United States. "Your fathers," he says in reference to the nation's founders.

Then suddenly: "Pardon me," he says, as if to begin the speech anew. "What have I or those I represent, to do with your national independence?"

It took a great deal to answer that question. And with all due respect to John McCain – and every other 2008 presidential candidate – it was still being answered as recently as Nov. 4 of last year. Perhaps the election of Barack Obama has answered that question for all time. If so, one of the patriots whom we ought to toast this Independence Day weekend is Frederick Douglass, the American born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore to a white father and a black field hand named Harriet Bailey...

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