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America: A Work in Progress

When the statue of Frederick Douglass was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol on June 19, Vice President Joe Biden quipped that Douglass was “one of my favorite Republicans.”

As the 1,700-pound, 7-foot bronze figure of Douglass, set on a marble pedestal, joins other American champions there – and as July 4th celebrations are planned tonight – it’s worth remembering the long line of patriots whose actions today would get them attacked as socialists, heathens or worse.

The 4th of July is a fine time to recall the nation’s Founders and other American heroes in the context of extremists’ criticisms of taxation, immigration, “voter fraud” or other supposed “infringements” of citizens’ rights. After all, a people’s representative government has been empowered since the ratification of the Constitution that today’s Tea Partiers claim they hold dear. The U.S. Constitution reads in part: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, … to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; … to borrow money on the credit of the United States; to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, … to establish an uniform rule of naturalization…”

Of course, the Founders included slaveholders, wealthy merchants and leaders who didn’t see women as equals, which shows how the American Revolution celebrated this week remains a work in progress. Such “unfinished business” was put into perspective in 1852, when the brave African-American abolitionist and writer that Independence Day weekend addressed the Rochester, N.Y., Ladies Anti-Slavery Society.

Douglass’ remarks in Rochester focused on slavery, but they should echo in today’s offices and factory floors, farm fields and retailers, mines and fisheries, schools and, yes, homes, where few Americans consider themselves “wage slaves.” That’s a term not used much anymore. Wage slavery is given to mean the circumstance where someone’s livelihood depends on wages paid by another who controls the work. Similarities between wage labor and outright slavery were noted as far back as Aristotle. So the parallel between Americans held in the bondage of slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation and the common situation of laboring for others whose power determines destiny – unless collective bargaining affects the relationship – is there.

Douglass said, “Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this Republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. 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.

“They were peace men,” Douglass continued. “But they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men, but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance, but they knew its limits. They believed in order, but not the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final,’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation.”

But “the blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” Douglass added. “Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; … your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; … your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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.”

However, Douglass concluded, “I do not despair of this country. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened.’ I, therefore, leave off with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage, whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

America: A work in progress. Happy Independence Day.  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.