Frederick Douglass bio and Postcards to Voters

Today is the 4th of July. After reading outside on the patio for a short while this morning, I’ve spent the heat of the day inside our air-conditioned bedroom, trying to keep the dogs cool and ushering them outside for short, closely supervised bathroom and exercise breaks. So much for the Dog Days of summer.

Frederick Douglass

I’m currently reading David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, a weighty brick of a book I checked out and returned to the library several times before making time to read. Yesterday, I read the chapter in Blight’s book that discusses Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” which seems more relevant than ever this year.

Great Hall

Blight accurately interprets the speech as a classic American jeremiad: a speech intended to provoke and spur listeners to action and repentance. In it, Douglass argues that Independence Day means nothing to slaves who lack the freedom it celebrates:

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 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.


This year, I find myself wondering what the Fourth of July means to migrant children detained in squalid holding pens, citizens in gerrymandered districts denied the full power of their vote, or homeless and suicidal veterans fighting PTSD while our draft-dodging President entertains himself with military parades.

Eagle, clock, and portraits

Today I celebrated the Fourth of July by doing two things that I consider to be my civic duty. First, I spent some time writing Postcards to Voters. Voting is an important way to preserve freedom, and encouraging Florida voters to enroll in Vote-By-Mail is one way to get-out-the-vote one person (and one postcard) at a time.

Light fixtures

Second, I spent some time with the Mueller Report, which I’ve committed to read in 10-page daily installments over the course of the summer. In today’s installment, I read Robert Mueller’s indictment for Russian social media meddling, which the Washington Post edition includes in an appendix of supplemental materials. It feels important to understand what the Russians did in 2016 and how easy it was to mislead voters with fake news, sham social media profiles, and even in-person rallies organized from afar and designed to energize some voters while discouraging turnout among others. It’s easy for nefarious agents to mislead gullible constituents; being savvy and thinking critically are also part of our civic duties.


July 4th is when we celebrate America’s birthday, but every day it is our job as citizens to defend democracy by doing the work of engaged citizens. This means educating yourself: read books and understand history. Vote and encourage others to do so, too. Pay attention to the news and hold your elected officials accountable. These are the gifts any one of us can give Uncle Sam on his birthday or any other day.

Nevertheless, Ida B. Wells persisted

This morning, National Public Radio announcers read the Declaration of Independence aloud in its entirety, as they do every year. Like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a document I read in high school and occasionally quote in passing, but it’s not something I have frequent occasion to re-read.

For this reason, today I made a conscious point to listen to the entire Declaration as I was doing my morning kitchen tasks, marveling at the foresight and bravery of the Founding Fathers in penning (and signing their names to) a document that is both radical and treasonous. The United States started as a bold experiment. Could colonists with a range of backgrounds and opinions be trusted to create a civil government by, of, and for the people? Could democracy be the noblest form of crowd-sourcing, or would mob rule rule?

Where the women are strong

Yesterday I took a day-trip to Northampton, MA, a town which boasts of its strong coffee and strong women. In a downtown card shop, I saw a retail shrine to female bad-assery. Alongside “Nevertheless, she persisted” plaques were portraits of early feminist icons emblazoned with the caption “Bitches get stuff done.” One of the bad-assed bitches included in this display was Ida B. Wells, who faced persecution and death-threats to publish a 1900 pamphlet entitled Mob Rule in New Orleans that describes a nadir in American democracy, when lynch mobs replaced civil government.

Any serious, clear-eyed student of American history can recite a litany of wrongs supported by (or at least tolerated by) the majority, such as slavery and white supremacy, the murder and relocation of Native Americans, and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. You’d have to be ignorant, deluded, or both to insist that the majority always gets things right.

Bitches get stuff done

And yet…they say arc of history is long and bends toward justice. We no longer keep slaves, women now have the right to vote, and children no longer work in factories. Democracy is a work in progress–too often, populism becomes a popularity contest, and a jury of one’s peers can fall prey to peer pressure. But compared to monarchy, democracy is infinitely preferable as long as the voice of the many takes care to hear and heed the still, small voice of reason.

Only in Northampton:  pussyhats for sale.

Given a choice between one ruler and a collective of the ruled, I’ll opt for the latter. The whole notion of checks and balances rests on the belief that when one group is blind, deluded, or self-serving, those deficiencies will be called out and corrected by others. We all have our blind spots, bigotries, and biases, so I can shed light on yours and you can shed light on mine.

What this means, then, is we need more voices, not fewer. Instead of giving way to complacency or defeatism, citizens in a democracy need to use their voices. Dissent is indeed patriotic, but it needn’t be noisy, violent, or crude. Individual conscience is a small but insistent inkling that worms it way from mind to heart to gut, and our collective conscience should be no less persistent.