Before Frederick Douglass: William Watkins Speaks for Black Americans on Independence Day. July 4, 1831.
I live to see another Anniversary of American Independence, a day peculiarly dear to the white inhabitant of the U. States, and one by no means uninteresting to your colored and neglected countrymen.
Twenty one years before Frederick Douglass delivered his timeless address, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?,” teacher and activist William Watkins, writing as “A Colored Baltimorean,” penned his own bitter reflections on the “Anniversary of American Independence.”
Watkins confessed that he could not bear to witness the day’s festivities. They too painfully underscored the gulf between white Americans and their black counterparts when it came to natural rights. He chose on that day to withdraw.
On this great festival of civil and religious liberty, while ten millions of freemen are celebrating in “festive songs of joy” the magnanimous achievements of the “departed great” … while they are proclaiming in tones of thunder, from centre to circumference of this widespread Union, the “self-evident truths,” that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights … I, feeling the injustice done me by the laws of my country, retired from the exulting multitude … to contemplate the past and the present as connected with our history in the land our nativity.
Published in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, Watkins wrote in 1831. It was a moment filled with despair and hope in equal measure. His despair was a response to the rise of a colonization movement and black laws — schemes aimed at so degrading the lives of former slaves that they would seek refuge in Liberia, Canada, or the Caribbean. Watkins’ hope was rooted in a budding social movement, that of abolitionism. There, he found seeds of a radical vision that might remake the place of black people within the United States.
In his home city of Baltimore, Watkins was wrestling with disappointment. With fellow activists Hezekiah Grice and James Deaver, he had founded the Legal Rights Association, together aiming to establish the citizenship rights of former slaves. The Association had put tremendous faith in a legal claim. That effort largely failed. Still, July 4th prompted Watkins to revisit his aspirations for black citizenship.
The Declaration of Independence is our advocate, and we hope it will yet be ascertained, whether or not the Constitution of the U. States secures to us those rights which the Declaration so freely accords.
The full text of his speech makes an argument for recognition based upon black achievements since the Revolution or, as he put it, “our own virtuous conduct, industry and economy.” Citizenship had been earned, with the nation having been built on African Americans’ “unremunerated labor” contributing “to the education of their sons and daughters — to the erection of your colleges and your temples — we have given ministers to the church and legislators to the state.”
Watkins closing words included a query that only time would answer.
And why, I emphatically ask, should we not enjoy those rights which all must confess have been wrested from us without the shadow of a crime? What evil could possibly accrue from the adoption, by the white people of this nation, of a liberal, just, and humane policy towards three hundred thousand of the home-born citizens of the United States?
Watkins final question would remain unanswered until Civil War nearly dissolved the nation. The Reconstruction era’s constitutional revolution would guarantee all black Americans the citizenship for which he long-before advocated. Watkins himself would not live to see the culmination of his efforts. He migrated to Canada in 1852, despairing of the prospects for former slaves in the United States, and died there six years later, in 1858.
You can find the entirety of Watkins’ letter here: A Colored Baltimorean [William Watkins,] “Mr. Editor,” Genius of Universal Emancipation, July 1831, 2–3. This essay is derived from my book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum American, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.