Jul 4

Reflecting on Independence: From History to Hope in Philadelphia

by: Chad Eric Smith

On this 4th of July, as we relish the barbecues, fireworks, and joyous gatherings, let’s take a moment to reflect on the profound history of Independence Day, especially as it pertains to our beloved City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.

Philadelphia is no stranger to the birth of freedom and democracy. Indeed, our city holds a unique and pivotal place in the annals of American history. It was here, in the sweltering summer of 1776, that 56 individuals, the nation’s Founding Fathers, convened in Independence Hall. There, they penned their names to the Declaration of Independence, a transformative document that would forever change the course of history.

In those storied rooms, the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” echoed for the first time, giving birth to a new nation conceived in the ideas of liberty and the proposition of equality. 

John Trumbull's 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence, depicts the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Second Continental Congress

However, as President Obama stated in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech on March 18, 2008, “The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.” [1]

Then Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama delivers his speech 'A More Perfect Union,' in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008. Matt Rourke/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, gave a famous speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York. In his speech, Douglass reflected on the meaning of Independence Day in the context of the continued existence of slavery in the United States. His speech underscored the gross irony and hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence with speeches, parades, and grand displays while, at the same time, a significant portion of its population remained in chains. [2]

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 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—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

- Frederick Douglass

J.C. Buttre / Wikimedia

For Douglass and millions of other Americans, Independence Day highlighted the stark contrast between America’s ideals and the harsh reality it practiced. His speech is widely regarded as one of the most powerful anti-slavery speeches in American history.

As we think back on the 247 years between the first Independence Day in America and the day we celebrate it this year, we recall the power of commitment of successive generations of Americans who protested and fought for their rights, both in public spaces and courtrooms, enduring a civil war, practicing civil disobedience, and always facing significant risks. Their collective efforts aimed to bridge the disparity between our nation’s cherished ideals and the actual state of affairs.

And we must continue to fight for those ideals today, as our rights continue to be threatened and even taken away. Currently, the US Supreme Court is making ruling after ruling that undermines established laws that safeguard all Americans from discrimination. This includes the protection of racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, people practicing religion, women, and LGBTQI+ communities.

So, the fight must continue. The idea that all people are created equal can only be self-evident if we live up to that truth. And we must fight to maintain the sanctity of truth itself because there are those fighting just as hard to gaslight the public, remove access to history from our schools and libraries, and manipulate or distort historical facts to serve a particular ideological purpose or agenda.

At Mural Arts Philadelphia, our murals, created in partnership with communities throughout the city, tell a vibrant story of Philadelphia’s past, present, and future. Like the Declaration of Independence, they speak to our shared experiences, hopes, and dreams. They are a testament to our great city’s resilience, diversity, and creativity. They beautify, inspire, and empower. 

As you celebrate this Independence Day, we encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the beautiful murals that grace our city. They reflect our city’s rich tapestry of cultures, traditions, and histories, all while pointing towards a future of possibility and hope. Continue to learn about the past to be better equipped to fight for a better future. 

From all of us at Mural Arts Philadelphia, we wish you a Happy Independence Day filled with joy, reflection, and, of course, beautiful art. Enjoy the fireworks, the food, and the camaraderie. Let the spirit of those, past and present, who fight for a more perfect union, inspire and guide us all.

Fourth of July fireworks in Philadelphia. Photograph by Tongshan/Getty Images

Last updated: Jul 4, 2023

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