The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Frederick Douglass would be outraged at Trump’s Fourth of July self-celebration

Anthony Kwakye of Virginia stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial before the fireworks show on the National Mall July 4, 2018.
Anthony Kwakye of Virginia stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial before the fireworks show on the National Mall July 4, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“This Fourth July is yours, not mine,” said Frederick Douglass in his 1852 oration of anger in Rochester, N.Y. Douglass, the great abolitionist, author and former slave, had been asked to speak on the occasion of the nation’s 76th birthday. He told the audience at Corinthian Hall that he could not avoid noting that “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence” being celebrated was not shared by millions of others held in slavery.

“What, to the American slave,” Douglass demanded, “is your Fourth of July?”

Nearly 170 years later, Douglass’s bold declaration and haunting question resonate with new meaning.

President Trump has taken over Independence Day 2019, transforming the traditional celebration on the Mall of the nation’s founding into a salute to his egocentrism, staged with demonstrations of America’s military might, an Air Force One flyover and an address to the nation to be delivered by himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The brave signers of the Declaration of Independence — flawed men but men who, as Douglass said, “staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country” — will take a back seat next week.

This Fourth of July is Donald Trump’s — not theirs, not the nation’s, not mine.

Like the listeners assembled in 1852, we can share in the joy of a strong, independent nation. We can rejoice that the principles of political freedom and justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence are recognized today. As a grateful nation, we, too, can acknowledge our blessings.

But, as with the 19th-century enslaved, it’s also true that the rich freedoms bequeathed by the Founders will not be shared with all within our shores on the Fourth. To the torn-apart brown families seeking refuge along our southern border, to women scorned for wearing hijab, to besieged worshipers in synagogues and mosques, to people of color living in a nation with emboldened white nationalism — to them, hopes of law and justice are faint on Trump’s Independence Day.

Douglass declared to the women and men assembled in Rochester that with all his soul, “the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July!”

Douglass told his Rochester audience that some church leaders claimed to believe “ ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth,’ and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another.” Yet, to those leaders he said, “you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skin are not colored like your own.”

Douglass drew attention to churches and ministers bestowing the approval of religion and the Bible on a system which, under the star-spangled banner, granted white Americans power to hold, hunt and sell black men, women and children as slaves.

What of Trump’s Fourth?

We can expect it to draw some of the white Christian evangelicals who form a big part of his base. They, like their 1852 counterparts, seem to regard the ceremony of church services, the singing of hymns and the thunder from the pulpit as enough. As for sheltering the homeless and the refugee, giving bread to the hungry or providing a toothbrush, soap, towel and a half-night’s sleep inside a safe and sanitary Border Patrol detention facility to a little brown child — these things are not so important to Trump’s collection of Christian elites.

Trump’s salute to himself at the Lincoln Memorial will likely bring forth soulful entreaties to rain down God’s mercy upon the commander in chief and prayers for obedience to Trump’s rule, and little about America’s tired and poor — or, for that matter, defenders of the oppressed.

In July 1852, Douglass took out after those he said “professed to be called to the ministry” who boasted of their love of liberty, the superior civilization over which they presided and their “pure Christianity” — all the while supporting a system that “perpetuated the enslavement of three millions” of their countrymen.

The faithful at Trump’s Fourth of July might be expected to be on fire at the mention of religious liberty, but, perhaps, cold as ice at the thought of liberty for those fleeing their homes because of violence, persecution and hunger. It will be all about him.

On Trump’s day of self-celebration, Frederick Douglass would be outraged, as should we.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Margaret Sullivan: We, the people, have been celebrating July Fourth for decades. That’s how it should be.

Eugene Robinson: Trump plans to turn the Fourth of July into a political rally in honor of himself

Colbert I. King: All these wannabe Democratic nominees are wasting everybody’s time

Dana Milbank: How Trump will remake the Fourth of July to his benefit

Jennifer Rubin: Americans in the age of Trump: Less tolerant