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The Saving Principles: Colin Kaepernick vs. Frederick Douglass

July 8, 2019
The Saving Principles: Colin Kaepernick vs. Frederick Douglass

For the mainstream media and its heroes, the July 4 weekend has become a festival of national self-flagellation. This is their new tradition, their way of celebrating the holiday: churning out another round of hot takes on why America is not such a great country, why the American Revolution was a mistake, and above all, why the Declaration of Independence is sexist and racist.

This year, that perverse form of commemoration was both started and ended by semi-retired quarterback turned “woke” celebrity Colin Kaepernick. He started the whole thing off by pushing Nike, which foolishly chose to chain their brand to his, into cancelling a special Fourth of July edition sneaker adorned with the Betsy Ross flag, which is suddenly considered a symbol of white supremacy. Nobody was really able to articulate a good reason, but I guess a few white nationalists decided to appropriate it, and it seems they have departed their mothers’ basements to live rent-free in everybody’s heads. Kaepernick then capped off this year’s celebrations by posting an excerpt from a famous 1852 speech by the former slave and abolitionist firebrand Frederick Douglass, which offers a stinging rebuke to America:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. . . . There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Given what Kaepernick has said in the past, I am reasonably certain he does not intend this to be taken in the past tense. He means it to apply today.

Senator Ted Cruz responded to Kaepernick by describing that quote as taken out of context because “Douglass was not anti-American.” He then encouraged us to read the whole speech.

Cruz is right on both counts. The speech is definitely worth reading, and its message is the opposite of what Kaepernick and other admirers on the left imagine it to be.

Douglass certainly offered a blistering assessment of the nation’s continued tolerance of slavery.

The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

That rebuke was absolutely necessary circa 1852, and Douglass was the man for the job. But these passages are usually quoted to reinforce the contemporary left’s claims that racism and slavery are the essence of America’s meaning and history and to use America’s moral failings as a means to discredit America’s ideals as such. They are used to dismiss the Founding Fathers’ talk about freedom and individual rights as mere excuses for the oppression of others. This is the only explanation for why so many people who rail against “cultural appropriation” elsewhere are happy to let a handful of white supremacists appropriate our nation’s first flag.

Yet Douglass’s own approach was the exact opposite.

He began his speech with a tribute to the achievements of the Founding Fathers.

The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. . . .

They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!

When he says, “Mark them,” he means to hold them up as an example for Americans of 1852 to follow, particularly on the issues of racism and slavery. He is referring not just to their personal example of courage, but to the principles for which they fought. He returns to this theme in his discussion of the Declaration of Independence:

I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

Douglass understands those principles not just as some vague references to “democracy.” He praises the Founders because they “had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts.” If there is anyone who has experience with the evils of absolute power, it is a former slave.

It is only from this perspective of admiration for American ideals of liberty and individual rights that Douglass presents his claim against America on behalf of a people deprived of those rights.

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?. . . Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! . . . 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.

This reads like an indictment of his audience for their indifference to the crime of slavery, and that is certainly how Douglass intended the speech to be taken when it was published and widely distributed as a pamphlet. He hearkens back several times to the prophets of the Old Testament, and his role in the middle section of the speech is much the same. He is a visionary declaiming against the wickedness of his fellow countrymen and calling on them to repent.

What is especially bracing is his confidence in the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of slavery’s apologists, so that he contemptuously spurns the necessity even of arguing against them:

The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.

This is the context for and purpose of his fiery rhetoric.

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. . . .

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Yet this scorn was not intended for his immediate audience. That would have been strange, because he was speaking to his allies: the ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society in New York. He was invited by their treasurer, Julia Griffith, who was his friend and fundraiser. So this speech was actually an appeal to patriotic white Americans, whom Douglass intended to mobilize precisely by appealing to their patriotism.

Every nation faces the question of how to retain a sense of patriotism while acknowledging the errors, crimes, and misdeeds of the past. The solution is to incorporate into our pantheon of national heroes the reformers and visionaries who moved the nation to redress those injustices, This is precisely what we have done with Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. We make it a source of national pride that our country was home to great men and women who helped us overcome that history.

America has one additional advantage, which is the real heart of Douglass’s speech. He calls on America to seek redemption, not by overturning our founding ideals and institutions, but by being true to them. For example, he eloquently defends the Constitution against the claim that it is a pro-slavery document.

I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory. . . . In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them?. . . Take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

This is why Douglass ends his speech on a note of optimism, expressing a “hope” based on “drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”

Douglass’s scathing denunciations of American crimes are no longer timely. Whatever sins America is still guilty of are infinitesimal compared to the vast crime of slavery. Try reading his searing descriptions of its brutal inhumanity, and then look at contemporary America, where a modern-day firebrand such as Kaepernick has the luxury of spending his time fighting against a Politically Incorrect shoe.

It is the rest of Douglass’s speech that is far more relevant to our era. At a time when the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence are increasingly ignored and attacked, both from the left and from the right, we need to remember Douglass’s appeal to the “saving principles” of individual rights and political liberty.

They are saving principles, indeed. They saved us in the Civil War. They saved us when Martin Luther King, Jr., appealed to them in his crusade against segregation, both in his most famous speech and in a later sermon where he expanded on his “dream” by explaining that it was “the American Dream” and could be “found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence.”

Those principles will save us again if we follow Frederick Douglass’s advice to “be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.