Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Guest Post: Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July and the American Dream, 1852

File:Frederick Douglass c1860s.jpg

I hate to be "that guy" on a day of national celebration, pointing out the gross inequities and hypocrisies of an otherwise free and prosperous country. Frederick Douglass had no such qualms, however, in his scathing "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" delivered in Washington D.C. on July 5th, 1852, excerpted here:

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 cruelly 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; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Is this sentiment only limited to historical American hypocrisy regarding the slave trade, which President Abraham Lincoln abolished after a bloody civil war? Nay - Susan B. Anthony was not to be outdone, with the National Woman Suffrage Association's "Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States" just 24 years later.

As I continue my series on Incarceration in America, here are a couple articles more, food for thought, on this day of liberty. Freedom isn't free - literally and figuratively:

Probation Fees Rise, Firms Profit and the Poor Go to Jail - NYT

Teen on American justice: 'I'm dead' - Sentenced to 162 years in Jail


  1. Just out of curiosity, should the poor be allowed to not pay their fees or show up to court dates? If Gina's ticket bore the wrong date there is a simple fix. Show up to the court on the date of your ticket. When they say you are not on the docket but have already been found guilty show the ticket. If they then give you a problem, well then I feel bad. However, my experience is a mess up on a ticket = all charges dismissed....

  2. Stephen, it's interesting that you mention that - I just came back from spending the weekend in Boston, where they have little U.S. Constitution books on sale in the gift shops. I read parts of it as a follow-up on a lot of the constitutional jargon that's been thrown around over the past few weeks, and in the section on how the government can fund the judicial system, it explicitly states that fees should not cause "undue hardship" upon the accused/defendants. So in fact it may be outright unconstitutional to charge poor people, who are often unemployed as well, these sorts of fees. Some sort of cap needs to be established, and definitely as being poor in America becomes more common (statistics point to this trend) more people will suffer "undue hardship" as a result of court and legal fees.