Frederick Douglass, one of the most brilliant minds in history, had many praises for the US and its founders. However, he experienced the nation more fully than any of them, beginning his life a victim of the totalitarian fascism they practiced and promoted, which Douglass called “worse than death”, and ending it a statesman and a friend of President Lincoln. Thus his understanding and analysis of the complex country and its culture is more complete and balanced than most. Known as a dazzling orator, he had this to say in a 4th of July address in 1852:
[T]he character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July. Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.
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 denunciation 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 the United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women and children, as slaves, remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the star-spangled banner, and American Christianity. Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun.
Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men.
You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation-a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen, and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against the oppressor; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse.
Soon after this speech and the tumult that followed, Douglass would note how the war against the South was almost entirely based on preventing division of the empire, with actual anti-slavery, humanitarian sentiment only inspiring a minuscule minority of whites. He cheered the destruction of chattel institutions, but his knowledge that this destruction was driven far less by humanitarianism than practicality regarding maintaining the empire meant he would be horrified and disheartened, but perhaps not entirely shocked, to see slavery continue, again with the official blessing and participation of the North, after the South was subdued and infrastructure was rebuilt.
Historian and Wall Street Journal contributor Douglas Blackmon documents how slavery remained official US policy up to the early 1940s, and Amnesty International and various scholars document how it continues today, with many black men still slaving on cotton fields under a provision of the 13th amendment that maintains slavery as a still ‘legal’, multi-billion-dollar per year industry.
As an example of the power of the religion of US nationalism, I cite an attorney friend and graduate of the nation’s number one top law-school, who in conversation mentioned that the 13th amendment ‘abolished slavery’, and that every law-school student studies this in depth. I interjected that the amendment abolished slavery with an exception for people convicted of ‘crimes’ (ie loitering or marijuana possession). The attorney’s response was: “I didn’t know that.”
The 13th amendment is two sentences. What does it say about US culture that a graduate from the single top law-school in the country today does not know that the 13th amendment carries an exception?
It says Frederick Douglass is right.
Full text of the 13th amendment:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Robert J. Barsocchini is an internationally published author who focuses on force dynamics, national and global, and acts as a cultural intermediary for the film and Television industry. Updates on Twitter. Author’s pamphlet ‘The Agility of Tyranny: Historical Roots of Black Lives Matter’.