Frederick Douglass: A True American Prophet
By Jonathan L. Walton
The 4th of July is a high and holy day on America’s civil religious calender. It is a time for Americans to read patriotic speeches by the “founding fathers,” extol the virtues of “sacred” documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and unite our voices with the national hymns of Francis Scott Key and Julia Ward Howe.

Moreover, today we will hear, explicitly and implicitly, the theological doctrine of American exceptionalism proclaimed from both ecclesial and secular pulpits. Just as John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared America to be a “City on a Hill,” many will continue to elevate America as the moral arbiter of the world; God’s divine voice and example in all matters of freedom, justice and democracy.

But there are also those who have used the 4th of July to indict this nation concerning the incongruence between her self-professions and actual social practices. Famed abolitionists and American statesman Frederick Douglass is an example. Before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 4, 1852, Douglass offered what many consider one of the greatest speeches of the century.

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” illumines the hypocrisy of a nation unable to check and challenge itself concerning its own moral hubris. True to form to the jeremiadic tradition, Douglass’ address transcends the particular topic of chattel slavery and the historical moment of its delivery. Douglass directs us back to the founding principles of this nation, even as he calls Americans to critically examine our own perverse dealings with one another as well as the world. This is what made Frederick Douglass, unlike those who sat at the helm of political power, a true American patriot. Rather than ignore or gloss over the travesties of this nation, Douglass was willing to uncover and confront them. And if we, too, are committed to America, we would do well to do the same.