Fellow citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home … it makes your name a hissing, and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government…. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation's bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic: for the love of God, tear away and fling from you this hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty million crush and destroy it forever.
“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (383–84)
In his now famous address on the meaning of the Fourth of July to the slave, Frederick Douglass seeks to delineate the various ways in which the persistence of slavery in a nation that was founded on the virtues of freedom, liberty, and equality produces a national ideology traversed by ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions. Suggesting that the experience of freedom cannot be thought apart from that of slavery, that abstract equality can only be imagined alongside the story of black subjection, he argues that these inconsistencies have two consequences. They derail the course of American democracy, and they leave their most painful and material consequences on the lives and bodies of the slaves without whom the narratives of freedom and equality could never be written. This is why he often refers to the violence, inequality, economic oppression, and racist exclusions that have harmed and devastated so many human beings in the history of America and the history of the world. For Douglass, America finds itself in mourning the moment slavery exists, populations are removed, dispossessed, or exterminated, wealth is distributed unequally, acts of discrimination are committed in the name of democracy and freedom, and rights are withheld—and what it mourns is America itself. As he tells us in his Fourth of July oration, this mourning belongs to the long history of efforts to actualize equality, to realize, that is, the promise of the right to representation for everyone, of an America that to this day still does not exist, which is why it must always be mourned. “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” he writes. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us…. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me… . This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (“What to the Slave” 368).