[“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” This was Frederick Douglass’ comment to gathering honoring the 76th anniversary of American independence (1852). Eight years before the Civil War and two years before “bloody Kansas,” Douglass had already emerged as a leading abolitionist speaker. It’s important to note that he spent the first part of his speech honoring the ideas and framers of the Declaration. But, he said, his task was to address the present. We can honor the spirit of the Declaration today; but let’s also address the present.
In Douglass’ time, the issue that roiled American politics was slavery and the growing effort of the South to maintain control over the political state. Once the Civil War broke out, Karl Marx estimated that freeing the slaves would unleash a gigantic labor movement. In fact, the first national labor union emerged shortly after the end of the Civil War, and the defeat of Reconstruction coincided with the first national strike. It is not fanciful thinking to believe that the Hayes-Tilden agreement that marked the end of the Reconstruction period allowed Wall Street to consolidate power over the re-entrenched planter class in order to turn its attention (in part) to the growing labor movement. Union generals assigned to guarantee free slaves’ rights were withdrawn from their garrisons in the South, along with their regiments, to northern labor targets, especially Chicago and Pennsylvania, and to fight the indigenous peoples of the West.
In our time we are facing another shift. Then it was a shift to industry from agriculture. Now it is a shift from industry to robotics/electronics. The consequence of this shift is the creation of a class of android workers who produce cheaply but do not purchase or eat, and a dispossessed class of unemployed or partially employed humans who can’t afford to purchase. Under the commodity producing societies of the past, if you can’t buy, you are not worthy. But a society which produces an abundance cheaply, but can’t distribute it needs to be reorganized. The new mode of production demands distribution according to need.
On this fourth of July, let’s consider, remember and revere the ideas of the founders, without losing sight of the changed conditions and the need to achieve the new goals of a cooperative society! — Lew Rosenbaum]
A speech given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852
Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:
He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.
The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for me. It is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall seems to free me from embarrassment.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable-and the difficulties to he overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence I will proceed to lay them before you.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. Click here to read the entire address: