This Fourth of July, a Wellesley Political Scientist Recalls the Words of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass
Photo provided by Hulton Archive/Getty
July 3, 2017

Independence Day—­­­­a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—means different things to different people. For Wellesley associate professor of political science Laura Grattan, whose work focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity, and culture, it’s a day to reflect upon one American man’s fight for freedom. That man is social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, Frederick Douglass.  

Grattan, associate professor of political science, says, every year around this time, she rereads Douglas’ searing speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” Douglas tells his White audience, “Above your national tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”

Frederick Douglass (February, 1818 – February 20, 1895) became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, after escaping from slavery in Maryland—and was nationally known for his captivating oratory and insightful antislavery writings.

According to Professor Grattan, today the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—including disproportionate numbers of Black, Latino and indigenous peoples. And, she says, our current presidential administration aims to tighten policing and surveillance of the nation's streets and borders.

Grattan points out that at times like these, Douglass insists, "scorching irony" is needed. "For me, this holiday is a time to honor the legacy of dissent that we have inherited from the abolitionists of Douglass' day, and to recognize that today's activists—at Standing Rock, in the Movement for Black Lives, in the #Not1More deportation movement—are the ones leading the ongoing struggle for freedom in this country."