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The Declaration of Independence, which was written by a young lawyer from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson, is on its face, an announcement to the leaders of the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world, of the decision by the British colonies in America to, in essence, separate from the U.K., and from that day forward refuse to recognize and accept British authority.
Indeed, one of the lasting impacts of the document was that it identified the American willingness to fight for what the people believe is right, even in the face of tremendous risk (U.S. 1776). On the other hand, the document was also aspirational in that it clearly laid out what the Framers believed a fair, just, and equal nation should be, and that the new nation would try its utmost to achieve. That is to say, the Declaration of Independence also states, unambiguously, the type of government and country, the newly independent United States plans and hopes to be (U.S. 1776).
So, in that sense, the Declaration of Independence is a “to-do list” of aspirations, Jefferson, and other Framers thought and believed the new nation should work towards. In listing these aspirations, Jefferson, gives voice to several ideas that have come to define the American political system, and what it means to be an American. The impact of this aspirational element on the U.S. has been so significant that it has become part of the nation’s core values. Indeed, ideas such as “all men are created equal”, or that everyone is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is implicitly understood by all Americans, even if they cannot point out where those ideas were originally stated
Conversely, nearly 76 years to the day, after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, Frederick Douglass gave his “What to the slave, is the Fourth of July” speech. Douglass gave the speech during a time when the nation effectively resolved most of its foreign threats, and “re-friended” Great Britain, yet was confronted by a massive internal threat, namely growing tensions between the northern and southern states on the issue of slavery, Frederick Douglass’ lecture examined how far the nation had come towards achieving the aspirations, Jefferson so succinctly stated in Declaration of Independence. For Douglass, however, the nation, at least in terms of the Black American, had completely failed in not only achieving the goals it set for itself achieve, but has actively renounced any intention to even try to achieve them.
Douglass makes this point clear from the very beginning via his rhetorical question of why the hosts thought it would be a good idea to as a former slave to speak about the Fourth of July (Douglass). Douglass, argued why white Americans should hold the Fourth of July in esteem. Namely, because it signifies their decision to rightfully oppose the repressive action of an oppressive British government (Douglass). However, by asking a former slave to provide his thoughts on the date, the hosts showed their ignorance of life in America for the Black and slave communities (Douglass).
In that life, the aspirations of the Declaration were worthless. For Douglass, inviting him to speak could be interpreted as some sort of cruel joke, voice by whites, that while professing liberty, freedom, and justice; implemented and enforced oppression, suppression and injustice. Indeed, as Douglass states himself, “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” (Douglass).
Comparatively speaking, Douglass’ speech can be seen as an evaluation of the promise the Declaration of Independence maybe to the American public. Unfortunately, for Douglass, the document had not lived up to is hopes. Indeed, at least in regards to the Black community, the aspiration made in the Declaration of Independence was just another document focused on statin the rights and privileges were legally denied.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). “The Declaration of Independence.” NARA, 14 Dec. 2018. Web. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration
Public Broadcasting System. “”The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html