Category: America

The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History

James West Davidson writing for Slate
150617_history_Frederick Douglass.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

James West Davidson looks at the meaning and purpose of American Independence Day speeches by examining at Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, for Slate.

(…)

The speech that deserves our notice, and did truly thunder, came not at the centennial but a quarter of a century earlier, in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. Rochester was the epicenter of the so-called burned-over district, a region along the Erie Canal swept repeatedly by religious revivals and reform. There, the former slave and ardent abolitionist Frederick Douglass published his newspaper the North Star. Douglass was a good friend of Susan B. Anthony, whose family farm was located on Rochester’s outskirts. His paper had been one of the few to support the women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848.

So it was natural enough that the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester asked Douglass to provide an oration for Independence Day. Since the Fourth that year fell on a Sunday, commemorations were held a day later. That suited Douglass perfectly, as African Americans had been celebrating the Fourth a day later for over two decades. Many blacks found the idea of joining in the festivities problematic at best, so long as white Americans continued to keep millions of slaves in chains. In any case, white revelers on the Fourth had a history of disrupting black processions. Many blacks made July 5 their holiday instead.

Though he was a newspaper publisher, Douglass believed that the spoken word remained the most effective way to move multitudes. As a boy he had secretly studied rhetoric and parsed the speeches of famous orators, though his first efforts at public speaking were modest. “It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect,” he recalled, “or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering.” Confidence came with time and practice.

Douglass also possessed a sense of humor—“of the driest kind,” observed one listener. “You can see it coming a long way off in a peculiar twitch of his mouth.”Occasionally he dramatized conversations to make a point, provoking laughter when he mimicked the drawl of a Southern planter.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton vividly recalled the first time she heard Douglass address a crowd. He stood over 6 feet tall, “like an African prince, majestic in his wrath. Around him sat the great antislavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor. On this occasion, all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass.”

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … ”

(…)

The Loneliness of Donald Trump

Rebecca Solnit writing for LitHub
Trump

Rebecca Solnit examines the corrosive privilege of the most mocked man in the world for LitHub.

Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.

He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.

Thinking of him, I think of Pushkin’s telling of the old fairytale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish. After being caught in the old fisherman’s net, the golden fish speaks up and offers wishes in return for being thrown back in the sea. The fisherman asks him for nothing, though later he tells his wife of his chance encounter with the magical creature. The fisherman’s wife sends him back to ask for a new washtub for her, and then a  second time to ask for a cottage to replace their hovel, and the wishes are granted, and then as she grows prouder and greedier, she sends him to ask that she become a wealthy person in a mansion with servants she abuses, and then she sends her husband back. The old man comes and grovels before the fish, caught between the shame of the requests and the appetite of his wife, and she becomes tsarina and has her boyards and nobles drive the husband from her palace. You could call the husband consciousness—the awareness of others and of oneself in relation to others—and the wife craving.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions