Renewing the Fourth of July - This Year

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 4/16/2003
Dear Friends,

I am writing to consult you about a proposal for action focused on July 4, the Declaration of Independence, and Philadelphia, to address the actions of the Bush Administration on foreign affairs and international relations, tax policy, civil liberties, the environment, social issues, and economic justice. I would be very glad to have your thoughts about this proposal, including criticisms. (Please write me at <>)

The proposal emerged during a recent United for Peace and Justice conference phone call to discuss next steps for that coalition.

First, one piece of information: Ben Waxman, organizer for United for Peace in Philadelphia, reported during the conference call that George Bush is now definitely scheduled to come to Philadelphia for observance of the Fourth of July.

The Proposal:

1. That beginning about 2 months before July 4, UPJ and Win Without War, with help from Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, organize thousands of signatures from all over the country and the world for a document that uses the basic form of the Declaration of Independence to arraign George Bush and his government for a series of their actions.

In the language of the Declaration, these actions "evince a design to reduce them [in 1776, the colonies; in our time, Americans, the peoples of the world, and the planet itself] under absolute Despotism." (The Declaration then includes a longish list of such actions by George III and the British Parliament.)

2. That this Declaration, with the names of great notables from around the world and the names of home-town Americans, be published as an ad on July 4 in at least a dozen major regional newspapers as well as the national papers like the NY Times and USA Today. Each ad could include the national/global signers plus the people from that region.

3. That the antiwar coalitions, working closely with labor unions, religious communities, environmental organizations, women's groups, etc. , amd with close involvement of Philadelphia progressives, call for a major demonstration on July 4 in Philadelphia, in which the major event would be NOT individual speeches but the reading of this Declaration, sentence by sentence, by a series of world, national, and local leaders, and some people chosen by sheer lottery from the crowd.

One possibility is that this reading might be followed by the crowd's dividing into groups of five or so people to discuss for 30 minutes what they have just heard, to share their own thoughts on what needs to be done, etc.

A new, more participatory form of the "Continental Congress."

Then the crowd would come back together for music—political songs from "Yankee Doodle" to the newest antiwar songs. (Yankee Doodle was in fact not a nonsense song, as it often seems to us today, but a highly political comment on home-grown guerrilla soldiers vs. the British imperial army. If anyone is interested in that, drop me a note off-list, at <> and I'll explain.)

4. That the July 4 demonstration in Philadelphia then include, if possible, a folk festival of what is best about the many Americas from which we come. Foods, arts and crafts, musics, religious practices, etc. etc.

5. That in regional cities outside the Northeast Corridor—maybe Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco—the same scenario be played out.

Why do this, and what about the objection voiced on the call?

A. July 4 and the Declaration of Independence are the deepest anti-imperial symbols of the American people. What's more, the Declaration had an impact on the culture and politics of other peoples as well. Bush will be trying to coopt its symbolism into support for himself—that's why he would come to Philadelphia, where the Declaration happened. He will be trying to turn it into a top-down "patriotic" boost, rather than a grass-roots radical patriotic symbol and framework for action.

B. The form of the Declaration offers us an amazing opportunity to bring together into a coherent whole and in a form honored by Americans the power grab at home and around the world that the Bush Administration is carrying off: Immense tax cuts for the super-rich, damage to the labor movement, grotesque attacks on civil liberties and reproductive freedom, violence toward the earth itself, as well as the Iraq War and threats of war against Syria, Iran, Korea and econoimic/political threats to "old Europe" and the UN.

C. This form offers the opportunity for those groups in the antiwar movement that feel so inclined and are legally entitled to do this to begin building electoral action out of the street protest and Fax-the-Congress actions that have characterized the movemnt so far. (The Shalom Center will not be among groups that might decide to do this.)

D. Simultaneously and parallel, the already existing institutions of "another America" could strengthen their social and economic ties with each other and with those like them from other countries.

Gatherings in America like the World Social Forum (with both American and world-community participation), made up of people ready to affirm the new Declaration, could connect labor, environmental, anti-war, women's-rights, gay-rights, and similar groups at the grass-roots, not only through meetings of leaders and organizers. Such gatherings could not only discuss and plan future actions but also create the beginnings of an alternate economy (discounts for shopping from agreed groups, a "voluntary tax" for the emerging new community-of-communities, etc).

The Declaration offers us the opportunity not only to denounce what is wrong but also to sketch our vision of a decent society, just as it did for the Continental Congress in 1776. This will not be an easy task for us—we agree more on what we don't like than on what we do. But I think it is possible for us to at least agree on some basics.


I am NOT proposing simply replicating the Declaration, but renewing it in content as well as form. For example, notice the differences here:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the peoples of the earth—

to declare our interdependence with each other and with all the life-forms of the planet;
to assert that our planetary community must be recognized as an active participant in making the decisions that affect our lives;
and to call to account what is now by far the most powerful and most reckless among the national governments, one that has used its enormous power to endanger other peoples and the web of life— then a decent respect to the opinions of Humanity requires that our peoples declare the causes that impel us to create new forms for our society.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all human beings are endowed with equal dignity and worth, that all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to the sharing of community; to peace among all peoples; and to a caring relationship with the whole web of life upon this planet.

Now, the one objection that was voiced on the UPJ phone call:

One participant in the call (it was impossible for me to tell who among the 30-some people) said:
But Frederick Douglass said, "What does July 4 mean to a slave?" and then criticized this appeal to the Declaration as racist. Indeed, the Declaration of 1776 IS racist, and sexist as well, not only for its language but also for the reality it celebrated of the newly "free" colonies.

So of course we must acknowledge that OUR values are not simply those of the Declaration, though they grow in some ways from those values. Not only was the Declaration sexist and racist, but it had little thought for a world of peace and none for a planet in ecological trouble.

But it seems to me those differences are no reason to reject what is valuable about it, just as the Women's Declaration at Seneca Falls in 1848 both honored it and went beyond it.

Indeed, in the very speech by Frederick Douglass that someone on the phone call quoted against honoring the Declaration, Douglass himself actually did honor it. He attacked the failure of America to ACT upon its values.

He gave the speech on July 5, 1852, in a gathering called precisely to honor the Declaration. What he said is amazingly valuable to us not only for its explicit content about the Declaration but for its way of dealing with the contradictions in America, its way for radicals and progressives both to draw on and to go beyond what has been valuable in the American past. It is such a lesson for us that I am quoting several paragraphs, below.

For months we have been scurrying to catch up with an Administration bent on war, empire, shattering civil liberties, subjecting women to a right-wing religious definition of their lives, disempowering the poor and the middle class, and installing what even a New York Times columnist calls a "plutocracy."

If we make decisions now to organize toward July 4, we have time to do a good job at a crucial moment.

Without such a gathering of energy and potential power, we will be liable to fall into fragments of despair.

Shalom, Arthur

Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too—great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory....

...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

... 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour. ...

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.

There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from "the Declaration of Independence," the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness.

But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. —Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. "Ethiopia, shall, stretch. out her hand unto Ood." In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o'er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th' oppress'd shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom's reign,
To man his plundered rights again

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant's presence cower;
But to all manhood's stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his Prison-house, to thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I'll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive —
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate'er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II
Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860
Philip S. Foner
International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950