Three hard-hitting Fourth of July speeches
This weekend will not only feature fireworks and barbecues, but also plenty of speeches by politicians and other public figures. Most of these speakers will give their audiences exactly what they expect hear on the Fourth of July: a feel-good address that celebrates the accomplishments of the past and talks about the nation's promising future.
Ronald Reagan (no surprise) was a master of that approach. In his 1981 message on the fourth, he said, "Let the Fourth of July always be a reminder that here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights; that government is only a convenience created and managed by the people, with no powers of its own except those voluntarily granted to it by the people."
But given the many challenges the nation faces at home and abroad, you might hear a very different kind of speech this year. Sometimes, a July 4th speaker decides that the times demand something out of the ordinary. He or she tries to lead listeners in a new direction by challenging, not reassuring, them.
One of the most famous examples is the 1852 fourth of July speech by the African American leader Frederick Douglass. He was invited to deliver the traditional address at Rochester N.Y. annual Independence Day celebration.
As was typical of the times, he delivered a 70 minute stem-winder. He did pay tribute to America's noble aspirations, but he pulled no punches about what was left undone: "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home... Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation's bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!"
Almost 90 years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used somewhat cooler rhetoric, but delivered a speech that also bluntly challenged his audience, on another issue. In 1941, July 4 came at a time when American public opinion was still decidedly isolationist, despite the fact that Nazi armies had occupied Western Europe and were advancing rapidly in Russia, while the Japanese were on the march in Asia.
So instead of warmly invoking the past, he bluntly made the case for taking on the Axis:
"It is, indeed, a fallacy, based on no logic at all, for any American to suggest that the rule of force can defeat human freedom in all the other parts of the world and permit it to survive in the United States alone... It is simple -- I could almost say simple-minded--for us Americans to wave the flag, to reassert our belief in the cause of freedom and to let it go at that... I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship.
And so it is that when we repeat the great pledge to our country and to our flag, it must be our deep conviction that we pledge as well our work, our will and, if it be necessary, our very lives."
So pay close attention to what our politicians say this weekend. The approach they take to their Independence Day address could say a lot about whether they will try to stay the course or lead us in a new direction in the months to come.
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Posted by: MOColorado | July 4, 2010 12:21 PM
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