On July 4, 1854, a large crowd gathered in Framingham, Mass. and bore the blistering heat of a summer sun to hear the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Standing under an American flag, "Union down," and "draped in black," Garrison produced a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law and set fire to it. According to a report in his own newspaper, The Liberator, there was a "unanimous cheer" from the crowd.
Garrison wasn't done. He then held up a copy of the United States Constitution. Saying that the Constitution was "an agreement with hell," Garrison burned that, too.
The Liberator reported that shouts of approval were "mingled with a few hisses and wrathful exclamations." For some, the otherwise great Garrison had gone too far.
This week, as we celebrate the nation's 242nd birthday, few will mark the words and deeds of Garrison, one of the nation's great radical abolitionists. Instead, they will focus on the less-radical but just-as-important words of Frederick Douglass in his famous "Fifth of July" speech of 1852.
"I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!" Douglass said in 1852. "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common." His most powerful line may have been this one: "This fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
What makes Douglass's speech more worthy of our collective memory than Garrison's is that it wasn't a dead end. Douglass did not burn or otherwise reject the Constitution, if for no other reason than the act would have moved him further away from his goal of inclusion for people of African descent. By burning the Constitution, Garrison was indicating that he was not a part of political America, a position he held publicly as early as 1839 when he announced in front of a crowd that he equated voting with sin; he kept that view until 1864, when he cast a vote for Lincoln.
But Garrison's decades-long rejection of voting was also a benefit of his white privilege. The central difference between Garrison and Douglass can be reduced, with little exaggeration, to the following: Garrison spent much of the antebellum era trying to drop out of an evil America; Douglass spent these same years trying to enter it.
Much like Henry David Thoreau's trip to his little shack, Garrison's journey away from American politics left him isolated. We must remember, however, how much easier dropping out of society must have been for Thoreau and Garrison than it was for Douglass. When Thoreau went to Walden, he took many meals at Emerson's house; when he refused to pay taxes, his aunt paid the fine. When Thoreau and Garrison left society, they knew that, as white men, they would be welcomed back.
While Douglass here was telling his listeners and readers that he could not celebrate the Fourth of July, later in the speech he left open the possibility of doing so in the future. Unlike Garrison, who accepted the promise of the Revolution but not the Constitution, Douglass, in this speech and others mourned the loss of the Revolution's and the Constitution's idealism.
Soon after Douglass's fifth of July speech, he underscored his faith in the political world with his endorsement of a political party. After years of following Garrison's policy of not supporting parties, Douglass through his newspaper, The North Star, endorsed, albeit uneasily, the Free Soil Party. Douglass's endorsement of the Free Soilers and later the Republicans represented a political stance that would vex him through old age, as generations of party men would never fully come through for African Americans.
But Douglass was a longtime advocate for black and women's suffrage; to advocate not voting, not joining politics, not hoping for at least incremental change, would be hypocrisy. As biographer William S. McFeely wrote, "there was not a great deal of point in having the vote if it was not to be used."
Unlike Garrison, Douglass avoided the pursuit of the pure when one party was clearly better than the other. On America's birthday, as we peer ahead to November's election, Douglass's lesson of pragmatism and political engagement in troubled times is timely and important.