Two Speeches, Two Truths About America

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's speech on patriotism this week at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence, Mo., stands in sharp relief to Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July oration before the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society in 1852. The two men's remarks, touching on loyalty, race and the country's moral foundation, underscore the difference 150 years has made in the life of our nation.

Douglass, an abolitionist who escaped from a slave plantation, spoke on America's 76th birthday, a decade before the Civil War. He extolled the virtues of the Declaration of Independence -- which he called the ring-bolt to the chain of America's destiny. The principles in the Declaration, Douglass asserted, are "savings principles."

"Stand by those principles," he exhorted his overwhelmingly white audience. "Be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost."

Douglass praised the Founders as statesmen, patriots and heroes who looked beyond their day to seize eternal values. "With them, justice, liberty and humanity were 'final,' " Douglass said.

But even as he noted America's celebration of freedom, Douglass called attention to the presence of millions of enslaved blacks on American soil. He asked the assembled: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?"

"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers," Douglass said, "is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me."

This July Fourth, Douglass declared, "is yours not mine."

Looking at Independence Day from the slave's perspective, he said, he did not hesitate to declare, "with all my soul, that the character and conduct of the nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July."

His speech confronted dark truths: that there was an immeasurable difference between free whites and blacks in chains; that the blessings his audience enjoyed were not enjoyed by all Americans.

"You may rejoice," Douglass lamented. "I must mourn."

A century and a half later, as Americans prepared to celebrate the nation's birth, Barack Obama took the podium in Independence.

Although generations apart, Douglass and Obama have common characteristics.

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