As July 4th 2020 approaches, I want to blog about two great and historic speeches. The first was given in 1828 by a founder of the feminist movement, orator, advocator for women's rights, abolitionist and defender of rights for all. Frances Wright was born in Scotland and educated in England from the age of 2 and when 16 returned to Glasgow to stay with her great uncle who was a philosophy professor at Glasgow College.
The second speech was given in 1852 at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York by an escaped slave, most famous abolitionist, orator and statesman - Frederick Douglass. He spent some time in Scotland promoting his anti-slavery message and you can read more about his connections to Scotland where he lived and worked in Edinburgh in 1846.
The first speech was given at New Harmony Indiana by Frances Wright on July 4th 1828. It takes the patriotism, nationalism and concepts of liberty traditionally celebrated in the US on this day of independence and re-frames these to make a broader argument for progressive change arguing powerfully for the importance of rights for all humanity, and the evils of both slavery and the degredation of coloured citizens. Engagement with the political process is the responsibility of all who are able to vote armed with will and knowledge. Frances argues that to create this change is within the potential of an independent republican America democracy in contrast with a non-democratic and monarchical Europe.
“The great national and political revolution of '76 set the seal to the liberties of North America. And but for one evil, and that of immense magnitude, which the constitutional provision we have been considering does not fairly reach -- I allude to negro slavery and the degradation of our coloured citizens -- we could foresee for the whole of this magnificent country a certain future of uniform and peaceful improvement. While other nations have still to win reform at the sword's point, we have only to will it. While in Europe men have still to fight, we have only to learn. While there they have to cope with ignorance armed cap-a-pee, encircled with armies and powerful with gold, we have only peacefully to collect knowledge, and to frame our institutions and actions in accordance with it.”
The second speech was given by Frederick Douglass on July 5th 1852, 24 years and 1 day later than Frances Wright's speech. He was reflecting what July 4th meant to the slaves of America and the hypocrisy of the declaration of independence’s claim of liberty for all while the institution of slavery continued.
As America and the world starts to look closely at the endemic racism and discriminatory practices that exist within all society, the desire and need for change is mounting. The necessity for this change as well as the means for achieving this is so important. The oratory of Frances Wright, while powerful, persuasive, insightful and necessary did not result in change until a civil war decades later; and women did not obtain the right to vote nationally in the US until a century later. This speech reminds us that change can be slow, but it has to start somewhere - but progress can be achieved. Democratic societies allow change to happen so perhaps not a bad place to start to move society forward is to vote for positive development remembering that this was not a possibility for Frances Wright.
Frederick Douglass’ speech reminds us that hypocrisy can sit within political and religious institutions for decades. The wrongness of certain acts must be cried loud and clear -
“We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
His hope at the end of this speech was that an increasingly globalised world of commerce would end old models of empire. Perspectives from a more enlightened world would shine a light on the wrongdoing in the US and force a change that he thought was inevitable. Change did come eventually, but not enough. Slavery still exists around the world in different forms. Racism and the degradation of people on the ground of race, colour and other characteristics continues.
As Barack Obama argued on the 7th September 2018, speeches alone will not change society -
“. . .progress wasn’t achieved by just a handful of famous leaders making speeches. It was won because of countless quiet acts of heroism and dedication by citizens, by ordinary people, many of them not much older than you. It was won because rather than be bystanders to history, ordinary people fought and marched and mobilized and built and, yes, voted to make history.”
Voting is essential, and certain candidates for political office may be more or less reflective of these attitudes and committed to change. In addition, all institutions and all nations must look hard within themselves and ask themselves difficult questions. If the racism, inequity and inhumanity is deliberate - condemn this as wrong. If ‘‘accidental,’ it is just as incumbent on us to recognize those wrongs and move to correct them.