In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester titled, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. I think of it every summer when enthusiasts around here get drunk and let off fireworks. I’ve been thinking of it this week as we prepare to vote.
I say ‘we’ but I won’t be voting; I can’t; I’m not a US citizen. I am a legal resident of the US (next month I’ll have been living here 19 years) but deep down I’m English.
England as a polity is mature; we’ve had a sense of Englishness for well over a thousand years, since at least Alfred the Great. England knows itself. The United States of America, though, is young, still finding its feet.
When Frederick Douglass spoke, 156 years ago, the country was an infant:
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.
The United States is no longer an infant; it’s a teenager. Its mind, its will, its self-image is in flux. Like a teen, the US is donning and doffing identities–singular superpower, nanny to the world, bully, fundamentalist nation, isolationist, party-goer, peace-keeper, free trader, world leader–faster than a teen changes hairstyles. Just as teens one day wake up and find themselves in their 20s, with a house, a job, and real responsibilities, the River USA will one day find it has carved itself a channel and its course will be set.
You, the voters, are the only ones who can build banks or dig channels and direct the course of this river. Only you.
(This post prompted by Colleen Mondor.)