It's very American to celebrate the day independence was simply declared with fancy, hypocritical words than when it was actually won. The Revolutionary War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, with terms "exceedingly generous" to the former colonies, on September 3, 1783. That's still grilling season but it's a little too close to Labor Day.

If just saying you're free made you free in more than the existential sense, then I'd personally celebrate the day in September 1848 when Frederick Douglass published an open letter in his newspaper, The North Star, reading for filth the asshole who'd previously held him in bondage. It's far more personal than Thomas Jefferson's beef with the British.


The long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation which unhappily subsisted between you and myself, leads me to hope that you will easily account for the great liberty which I now take in addressing you in this open and public manner. The same fact may remove any disagreeable surprise which you may experience on again finding your name coupled with mine, in any other way than in an advertisement, accurately describing my person, and offering a large sum for my arrest. In thus dragging you again before the public, I am aware that I shall subject myself to no inconsiderable amount of censure. I shall probably be charged with an unwarrantable, if not a wanton and reckless disregard of the rights and properties of private life. There are those north as well as south who entertain a much higher respect for rights which are merely conventional, than they do for rights which are personal and essential. Not a few there are in our country, who, while they have no scruples against robbing the laborer of the hard earned results of his patient industry, will be shocked by the extremely indelicate manner of bringing your name before the public.

[ ... ]

I have selected this day on which to address you, because it is the anniversary of my emancipation; and knowing no better way, I am led to this as the best mode of celebrating that truly important events. Just ten years ago this beautiful September morning, yon bright sun beheld me a slave—a poor degraded chattel—trembling at the sound of your voice, lamenting that I was a man, and wishing myself a brute. The hopes which I had treasured up for weeks of a safe and successful escape from your grasp, were powerfully confronted at this last hour by dark clouds of doubt and fear, making my person shake and my bosom to heave with the heavy contest between hope and fear. I have no words to describe to you the deep agony of soul which I experienced on that never-to-be-forgotten morning—for I left by daylight. I was making a leap in the dark. The probabilities, so far as I could by reason determine them, were stoutly against the undertaking. The preliminaries and precautions I had adopted previously, all worked badly. I was like one going to war without weapons—ten chances of defeat to one of victory. One in whom I had confided, and one who had promised me assistance, appalled by fear at the trial hour, deserted me, thus leaving the responsibility of success or failure solely with myself. You, sir, can never know my feelings. As I look back to them, I can scarcely realize that I have passed through a scene so trying.


The salty missive asked Auld about the current condition of Douglass's family, who were still in Auld's "possession." This included his three sisters, his only brother, and his 80-year-old grandmother.

Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them.

Douglass's grandmother wasn't actually turned out into the cold once she was no longer in service. She just died of old age, never experiencing freedom. Douglass would later issue a retraction on this point, as this greatly offended Auld, who nonetheless kept the rest of Douglass's family enslaved.

Four years later, Douglass dismissed the Fourth of July holiday with justified bitterness at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn ... Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today." Ye Olde Fox News probably attacked Douglass as a spoiled elitist who wasn't suitably grateful to America, which had given him the opportunity to escape slavery and become famous.

Black Americans have for generations celebrated our own, actual Independence Day — June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved people were “freed." Juneteenth is finally a federal holiday, so maybe I should let everyone else celebrate the Fourth of July in peace. But the Revolutionary War lasted only seven years and the British mostly left America alone, with a few notable exceptions such as the War of 1812 and the 1960s British Invasion. Black people's war for our freedom will never end so long as we live and breathe in America.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

We're no longer slaves, but Douglass's words are no less true. Perhaps I've live to see a fourth of July when that's no longer the case.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."

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