July is the month when Americans celebrate the signing and then the announcement of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. While this July 4th was one of the most peculiar in the country’s history because of fears about and government restrictions on social gatherings due to the coronavirus, it is nonetheless one of the great cultural events each year throughout the United States.
Besides the coronavirus, however, another crisis has affected and influenced the atmosphere surrounding the 4th of July, and that has been accusations and actions by some demonstrators (radical “activists”) that the American Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie because of the taint of racism in the form of slavery from the beginning of the country’s history.
Liberty and Slavery Confronted Early America
Calls have been made to upend America and its institutions, root and branch, for nothing ever said or done is redeemable due to its “original sin” of race-based slavery. It is not as if others long ago did not point to this and warn about it. For instance, the 19th century American abolitionist Frederick Frothingham delivered a widely circulated public address on April 16, 1857 in Portland, Maine on the “Significance of the Struggle Between Liberty and Slavery in America.”
Frothingham said that he prayed, “Every loving mother would teach her children to revere the name of Liberty, and every father would swear his son at the altar as a foe to Slavery.” Alas, he said, the reality was that in 1857 liberty had fallen in people’s affections while slavery no longer aroused the degree of indignation that it once did in the North.
He reminded his listeners that in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers had landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and “Strong of heart were they, men of religion, filled with an awful trust in God and an indomitable love of Liberty.” But the year before, in August 1619, “the unconscious waters of Chesapeake Bay bore and gave their sunny welcome to a sadder freight than that which the Plymouth Bay received. A dark slave-ship sailed to Jamestown with its freight of 20 human souls, stolen from Africa.” There was “no sympathy for the woes of those broken-hearted men; but work, work, work, in a service harder than that of the children of Israel of old under the taskmasters of Egypt.”
From National Independence to Individual Freedom
The spirit of Liberty shone brightly enough over time that “the great struggle for national independence began to dawn,” even though as yet, “The day of struggle for a higher independence [from slavery] had not begun to dawn.” This sentiment of liberty had spread to such a degree, and was so “strong and noble . . . that it found expression in that magnificent paper, certainly to be forever treasured by every American—yea, by every man that loves his brother-man—the Declaration of Independence” with its emphasis on “fundamental truths” of the universal and inherent right of every person to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
“America became free,” Frothingham said, “and the struggle for the independence of man began to dawn. The two principles [of liberty and slavery], which had flowed silently side by side for a century, now began to be found incompatible.” These two diametrically opposed ideas came face-to-face in the debates leading to the establishment of the U.S. Constitution. “Northern delegates, and the Noblest of the Southern, held out against Slavery. South Carolina and Georgia were as firm as a rock on its behalf.” And, thus, the South’s “peculiar institution” was left intact to eat away at the soul and character of the new country.
The Idea of Liberty at War with Slave Power
But in spite of the “evil deed done,” Frothingham did not consider the country to be beyond redemption, nor did he scoff at those among the Founding Fathers who failed in their own personal deeds and in their implementation of a new country to do away with this sin against God and nature. The belief and spirit of Liberty still persisted in people’s thinking and actions. Explained Frothingham:
Slavery was odious to the best and greatest of minds. It will be only necessary to mention such names as Franklin, Madison, Patrick Henry, Jefferson and Washington as its foes. The love of Freedom was strong in the public mind. The celebrated Ordinance of 1787, passed in the same year as the present United States Constitution, was adopted by a unanimous vote. It excluded slavery from the then Northwest Territory. Energetic measures were taken to procure emancipation. The result was that gradually Slavery was abolished or died in the Northern States.
The South fought back with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and with the denial of trial by jury for any person declared to be a slave. And the domestic slave trade among the Southern states continued to grow and prosper with the end of the importation of slaves from other countries after 1808.
At this point, Frothingham was reaching his own time of the 1850s, with “The two Ideas now fairly face to face, the one [liberty] strong in the strength of truth and right, and the other [slavery] strong in the flush of success and the pride of power and will.” He feared that the slave states were more unified, more certain and determined than the free states in the North or West, especially with the extension of slavery with the incorporation of Texas following the U.S. government’s “most cowardly and wicked of wars—the war with Mexico.”
Liberty’s Challenge Against Slavery
Who could know the future in 1857, and Frothingham wondered if it would be Liberty or Slavery that would prevail? But he told his audience that “The Declaration of Independence, indeed was given forth and that Declaration was that Slavery must die.” He did not see an America born into an inescapable “sin” with the importation of slaves in 1619. No, it is clear from Frothingham’s words that in his mind America had two heritages, one that looked to the past with the institution of slavery when it was brought into those colonies on the eastern shores of North America.
But at nearly the same time in 1620 with the Pilgrims at Plymouth, another heritage carried over from Europe and especially England, that of a liberty that looked to the future. Absolute kings, plunder-based aristocracies, and systems of power and privilege were set aside with the vision and hope of a new society based on the freedom of the individual secure in his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. Where human associations, whether personal, commercial, or political, were based on voluntarism and self-government.
Frothingham saw the emergence of “the final struggle between Liberty and Slavery. Slavery has disappeared from Europe. The European nations, except for Spain, have freed their slaves abroad. In Russia it is very different [serfdom] from ours and approaching gradually freedom. Slavery now awaits only America’s decision to disappear from the earth and for the emancipated nations to chant one great triumph completed. . . . Liberty or Slavery, which will you have? Humanity waits breathless on the answer” from America.
In just a few years the answer was given with the end to slavery in America as the result of a costly and destructive Civil War. Not that slavery was the only reason for that Civil War. When Frederick Douglass gave an address at the unveiling of the Lincoln-Freedman’s Monument in Washington, D.C. in 1876, a statue that has recently caused so much controversy and demands that it be torn down or removed, he made it clear that in his mind Abraham Lincoln was a president for “the white man.” That Lincoln, though personally an anti-slavery advocate, would have tolerated continuation of the institution if the southern states, then in open rebellion, would have ended their secession and returned to the Union. That ending slavery was a means of gaining greater abolitionist support and trying to weaken the ability of the southern states to resist.
Imperfect but Still Great Were the Founding Fathers
Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass considered Lincoln a great man to admire and honor with a statue, because it was still the case that under his determined resolve and leadership slavery had been brought down and millions had been liberated from their bondage. (It has recently come to light that Douglass disliked the depiction in the monument of a freed slave on his knees before a standing Lincoln, being demeaning to the black man who should also be shown as standing tall as an equal human being.)
The idea of there being two initial and conflicting principles for the soul and future of what became the United States was also implied in Frederick Douglass’s famous speech on July 5, 1852 on, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” As a runaway slave himself and a brilliant spokesman for those still in chains in the South, he told his audience that it was ironic and cruel to ask those still in bondage to hail a document that failed to include in practice those that its noble principles said should be free and equal as well.
And, yet, after reminding those listening to him of all the brutal and hypocritical ways the ideas specified in the Declaration of Independence were denied to millions in the South, he closed his remarks by saying that he drew encouragement from the Declaration precisely because of the “great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
It was for this reason, as Douglass said at the start of his 1852 remarks, “It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. 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. . . .”
The American South 75 Years Ago
The enemies of liberty today insist that current race relations in America are not much different than they were 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 50 or 75 years ago. What, then, shall we use as a comparison to see if this accusation is true? In 1948, noted American journalist Ray Sprigle (1886-1957), who wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published a 21-part series in that newspaper, “I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days.”
Having won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for uncovering that Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, Sprigle decided to make Northern white readers aware of the humiliations, indignities, and brutalities under which black Americans lived in the Jim Crow South. Being white, Sprigle had to devise a way to “pass” for black not only in the eyes of white Southerners but in the black communities that he visited, to find out how blacks living in the South saw their lives. He “tanned” his skin and traveled with a black companion affiliated with the civil rights movement to gain entree into black society from Georgia to the deep delta South. Sprigle fooled virtually everyone with whom he came into contact, black and white.
So, what was it like to be black in 1948 America in the segregated South? Traveling in that part of the country by train meant that a white policeman would stop you from entering the station if you tried to use the entrance reserved for whites. You traveled in separate train cars and had to eat behind a curtain in the dining car so white passengers wouldn’t have to see you.
Leaving a train station, you had to find black cab drivers to take you to where you wanted to go. Separate hotels, separate restaurants, limited or no access to public parks or restrooms. Taking care not to bump into any white person on the street, and most certainly no white woman. Even making a telephone call required you to be careful about your tone and words in talking to the live telephone operator from whom you were requesting assistance in making a call.
Racial Tax Fleecing and White Thuggery
“Separate but equal” education meant little or no public schooling facilities for black children in many parts of Jim Crowland. The facilities that did exist were often dilapidated, poorly or not equipped for learning, and almost always located in the most inconvenient places and certainly away from white schools and neighborhoods. To add insult to injury, it was not uncommon that in counties where the majority of the population and taxpayers were black, they would see their tax dollars redistributed to build and maintain new and quality educational facilities for the white children in their areas. This was made easier to manipulate due to the fact that many black citizens who attempted to get on the voting rolls risked physical harm if they persisted.
And there were other things. Especially in the rural areas, blacks at any time could be the target for white thuggery on any number of pretenses, and they could be badly beaten or even killed. Whites-only hospitals meant that a black person with even the most serious life-threatening injuries was likely barred from entering for medical treatment, and black hospitals and clinics were usually few and far between.
Doing Business Black and the Hand of the State
Being a businessman was a unique challenge as well. Since it was considered very easy for a white person to avoid meeting any number of contractual obligations he may have entered into with someone black if he wanted to renege, a black private enterpriser usually had to have a white “front man” in whose name property might be held, and that was certainly true in any number of prosperous and profitable areas and corners of the market in the South. In the countryside, the black sharecropper was often cheated and intimidated to refrain from asking how much of the sale price of a harvested crop should have been rightfully his.
While attitudes and racial dislikes enabled a lot of this to go on, at the bottom of it all were the segregation laws that brought the authority and power of government to bear to keep the black man “in his place.” Without the political and legal system with which to impose this twisted and protected relationship at the expense of blacks, it certainly could not have endured or been as pervasive for as long as was the case.
Indeed, Sprigle was told by blacks he extensively talked to that there were Southern whites who had fewer or none of these prejudices, but the legal barriers and social pressures made it nearly impossible to overcome the visible and invisible walls that made normal, peaceful, and mutually beneficial associations among whites and blacks extremely difficult if not impossible.
The entire experience was a shock to Ray Sprigle:
Frankly, why the Negro doesn’t hate the Southern white is a mystery to me. Give me another couple of months, Jim Crowing it through the South—forever alert never to bump or jostle a white man—careful always to ‘sir’ even the most bedraggled specimen of the Master Race—scared to death I might encounter a pistol-totin’ trigger-happy drunken deputy sheriff or a hysterical white woman—and I’m pretty sure I’d be hating the whole damned white race.
The series was syndicated in a number of other prominent newspapers in the North and caused heated responses from shock to anger—either shock and anger experienced by white readers who had never realized the reality of being black in the segregated South or, alternatively, shock and anger by those upset that anyone should dare to criticize the Southern “way of life.” Sprigle received his fair share of hate mail and threats as a result of reporting on what he saw and experienced as a “black man” for a month.
Anyone who lives almost anywhere in the United States today can only read Sprigle’s series and feel they are reading about some alternate universe. America is not the America of 1948 or even 1968. Legal barriers, restrictions, and prohibitions of the type then existing in the form of the segregation laws of that time are long gone. Using the content of Sprigle’s series as a benchmark, America has become a practically fully integrated and increasingly color-blind society, in comparison.
The Spirit of Liberty Against Slavery and Racism
This is because—and contrary to the ideological propaganda and rhetoric of the Race Marxists and Identity Politics Warriors—America is not and has not been an irredeemable captive of racism as asserted to have begun with the country’s first arrival of slaves in 1619. What admittedly slowly but no less assuredly has chipped away at the racial practices and prejudices of centuries and decades long past is the fact that the spirit of Liberty has continuously and successfully eaten away and eliminated the mindset and mores of that slave past that also was part of America’s history. (See my articles on “The Meaning and Mind of an American” and “Ad Hominems Against Freedom”)
The spirit of liberty is what makes the Declaration of Independence not a racist sham but an enduring expression of the noble idea that all men should be viewed and treated as human beings possessing those individual equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a vision of a free society in which there are no masters and no slaves, but only individuals living their lives in self-governing liberty, following their own dreams and desires, while interacting with all others on the basis of peaceful and respectful voluntary association for mutual gains and betterment.
If racial tensions persist and prevent more of a color-blind society, it is due to the politicizing of human affairs through the modern interventionist-welfare state. Minimum wage laws and regulatory licensing procedures, along with government public housing and the perverse incentives created by redistributive dependency, have helped to keep too many in the black and other ethnic minority communities in isolation outside of the greater mainstream of the society with its dynamic market opportunities and natural integrating processes.
All this, combined with the war on drugs, has kept far too many black man and woman in their “place” through either political paternalism or incarceration by inducing too many to try to find ways to illegally earn income when market channels have been closed off as a result of government policies restricting competitive avenues to a better life.
However you may have enjoyed and celebrated Independence Day in these unusual times, be sure to keep in mind that what that day is really all about is the hope and reality of free human beings in a free world based on the moving and profoundly moral ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence: that individual liberty is natural, moral, and necessary if people are to find personal happiness and fulfillment, along with prosperity.
[Originally posted at the American Institute for Economic Research]