Destined to Be, and Still Is, an Experiment

Scholars who study religion as a form of human expression talk about exemplars: individuals who are not the founders of a religion but whose lives are icons of that religion, who incarnate the beliefs, practices, and virtues of that religion. An exemplar both reflects the glory of the religion and provides a window of insight into the religion.

If Americanism were a religion, I’d judge Frederick Douglass is among the greatest exemplars of that religion.

Douglass was born into slavery, learned to read, escaped bondage (supporters later “purchased” his freedom), and became arguably the greatest advocate the nation has ever seen for human rights and citizenship for EVERYONE in or who comes to the U.S. He understood the liberating power of the ideas in America’s founding ideals and pressed white audiences to live up to those ideals. Again and again and again. Women and men, human beings of every color, from any nation have human rights that precede governments.

In the last few years, I’ve seen many references to Douglass’s outstanding speech delivered to a white audience, at their invitation, on the meaning of the 4th of July. It is one of those speeches that must be taught in schools—and one that some state legislators in some states might think sounds too much like the bogie of “critical race theory” to be taught.

But fewer people may know about his speech on America being a composite nation, a nation that is destined, is purposed to be a gathering place for peoples from all over the world.

What follows is a series of excerpts from that speech, given in 1869, a year after Congress approved a relatively relaxed policy from immigration from China. That policy would be short-lived; in 1882, Congress passed a highly restrictive policy, the first targeting a particular nationality.

I invite you to read these quotes with the problems of our day in mind: how we think about the nature and destiny of America; how we think about the relationship between human rights and laws; the value of welcoming immigrants; the role of America in a global village and as a global village. (I will not correct of change his 19th century language on the use of “men” sometimes as a stand-in for “humanity” or how he refers to persons from various nations and ethnicities.)

I am especially to speak to you of the character and mission of the United States, with special reference to the question whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men.

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, that nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

Heretofore the policy of our government has been governed by race pride, rather than by wisdom. Until recently, neither the Indian nor the negro has been treated as a part of the body politic. No attempt has been made to inspire either with a sentiment of patriotism, but the hearts of both races have been diligently sown with the dangerous seeds of discontent and hatred.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part.

In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. … Gathered here, from all quarters of the globe by a common aspiration for rational liberty as against caste, divine right Governments and privileged classes, it would be unwise to be found fighting against ourselves and among ourselves; it would be madness to set up any one race above another, or one religion above another, or proscribe any on account of race color or creed.

The next objection to the Chinese is that he cannot be induced to swear by the Bible. This is to me one of his best recommendations. The American people will swear by anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath. We are a nation of swearers. We swear by a book whose most authoritative command is to swear not at all.

We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the sea. We shall mold them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt; negro and Saxon; Latin and Teuton; Mongolian and Caucasian; Jew and Gentile; all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.


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