A woman, wearing a protective mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, walks past a mural in tribute to Frederick Douglass on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in the South End neighborhood of Boston. Credit: Charles Krupa / AP

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Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.

The Fourth of July is coming. One of my favorite things about the holiday — besides parades and picnics — is listening to the Declaration of Independence being read on National Public Radio. Varied voices chime in, reading the document’s discourse on the purposes and limits of government, its complaints against the British and the separation of the colonies from the crown.

Penned in 1776, the document has not been confined to one moment in time. That is part of its greatness and its complexity.

The Declaration of Independence has long been used to press for change beyond the sort of freedom it sought and for whom, giving it greater meaning for today’s arguments about American values and history.

In 1777, a petition by slaves addressed to the Massachusetts Legislature mirrored the Declaration’s language and logic, contending they had “in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right” to freedom.  

Meeting in 1848, women’s rights activists issued a Declaration of Sentiments stating that “all men and women are created equal” and hold the same rights laid out in the document declaring independence issued 72 years earlier.

To appreciate the Declaration in American history, there is no greater guide than Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist leader. While appreciating its ideals deeply, when asked to speak about it for the Fourth of July in 1852, he delivered a searing oration that laid bare the borders of the document’s concerns and called on the public to act for broader liberation.

Like all who praise it today, Douglass recognized the centrality of the document to the American founding and its future, calling it “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny.”

However, while Douglass loved the Declaration of Independence he also lambasted its limitations.

He told those assembled that their “high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”

And so after asking “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Douglass answered it was “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.”

Douglass further called upon his listeners to recognize what they should do, saying “To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time.”

When Douglass spoke these words, it was 11 years before President Abraham Lincoln freed enslaved people in states at war with the United States and, later that year, stood at Gettysburg and called for “a new birth of freedom” propelled by “increased devotion” by “us, the living.” Two years later, in June 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed in 1863 (the occasion on which Juneteenth is based) and six months after that, slavery in the U.S. was ended with the Thirteenth Amendment.

In 2021, we continue to grapple with declarations of freedom and independence, what defines American values and how racial injustice is part of our legacy and present. As Douglass advised, “the important time” is still “now.”

Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...