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By William H. Benson

The Parallel Lives


Roger Williams VS. Cotton Mathers


Frederick Douglass’s Speech, July 5, 1852

Photo of a statue portraying Frederick Douglass by J Dean on Unsplash

At the inception of America’s Revolutionary War against King George III and Parliament, certain Pennsylvania Quakers urged a policy of abolishment of slavery within their colony.

In 1775, a Quaker named Anthony Benezet founded the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first abolitionist society in America.

In May 1776, delegates at the Second Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia, called for the creation of thirteen new state governments, and allow colonial governments to dissolve. By 1777, all thirteen had formed their own governments, without much opposition.

On March 1, 1780, Pennsylvania’s state government passed the Gradual Abolition Act, the first extensive abolitionist act ever in the states. Slaves born after that date would receive their freedom when they turned twenty-eight.

Thomas Paine was serving then as clerk to Pennsylvania’s legislature. He too was a Quaker and slavery disgusted him. He may have assisted in writing the Act’s Preamble.

“We conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our Power, to extend a Portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us;

“And a Release from that State of Thraldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every Prospect of being delivered.

“It is not for us to enquire, why, in the Creation of Mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the Earth, were distinguished by a difference in Feature. It is sufficient to know that all are the Work of an Almighty Hand.”

The remainder of the northern states followed Pennsylvania’s lead by passing legislation that was either immediate or gradual emancipation, but none of the southern states.

In 1799, the state of New York passed a gradual abolition law, and in 1817, its members set the date for final emancipation for July 4, 1827.

On July 5, 1827, New York’s former slaves, some 4600 of them, celebrated Emancipation Day, their first day of freedom, with a parade down Broadway in New York City. Like Juneteenth in Texas, the fifth day of July bears special significance in the state of New York.

On September 4, 1838, a twenty-year-old runaway slave from Maryland, who took the name Frederick Douglass, arrived in New York City, now a destination city for slaves fleeing the south.

A staunch abolitionist, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York in 1847.

Members of Rochester’s “Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society” invited Frederick Douglass to speak in the city’s Corinthian Hall on July 4, 1852. He insisted upon July 5. Some 600 people arrived.

His speech’s title, “What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July?”

“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty is an unholy license; your national greatness is swelling vanity;

“Your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants is brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality is hollow mockery.

“Your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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.

Throughout the speech, Douglass draws upon a rhetorical device called irony, the stark contrast between what people see on the surface and what lies underneath, hidden away.

July 4, Independence Day. July 5, Emancipation Day, both days to rejoice.

Incarceration of celebrities and a president

In 2022, a jury convicted Elizabeth Holmes, founder of biotech firm Theranos, of four counts of defrauding investors. A judge sentenced Holmes to 11 years and 3 months in prison. The film producer Harvey Weinstein was declared guilty of inappropriate relations with...

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Desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957

Last time in these pages I discussed the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, out of Topeka, Kansas. It attempted to rollback the premise that, if schools were “equal” in quality, then they may remain “separated” between blacks and...

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Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

In Topeka, Kansas, on February 20, 1943, a black girl named Linda Brown was born. When still a child in the early 1950’s, her father, Oliver Brown, was required to drive Linda to an all-black school five miles across Topeka, when an all-white school, the Sumner...

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Memoirs and mothers

In 1995, the author David Pelzer’s book, “A Child Called It,” was first published. In it, he claimed that his mother beat him, starved him, terrorized him, and banished him to the garage, where he slept on a cot. Gruesome beyond words, the book sold 1.6 million copies in five years.

I read it then and thought throughout, “No mother would do that.”

In 1996, Frank McCourt’s book, “Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir,” was first published. In it, he listed his impressions as a child growing up in poverty-stricken

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Thoughts on College Bowl and University Challenge

The quiz show, “College Bowl,” was first broadcast on radio in 1953, 71 years ago. The show transitioned to television in 1959 and stayed there until 1970. Its first host was Allen Ludden, the future husband of Betty White. He hosted the show until 1962 when he left...

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4th Amendment: Sections 4 and 5

Two weeks ago in these pages, I looked at the second and third sections of the 14th Amendment. Today I continue with its two final sections, the fourth and the fifth. Section 4 clarifies which debts the U.S. Federal government will honor as valid. The first sentence...

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Older Posts

4th Amendment: Sections 2 and 3

Last time in these pages I looked at Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Today I continue. The last phrase in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment declares that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” All races are equal...

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14th Amendment, Section 1

In early 1866, the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction in the 39th Congress wrestled with the idea that they must write a 14th Amendment to address certain issues: Who is a citizen? How does the country’s laws apply to former slaves and slave owners? Will...

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Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

In December of 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suggested a plan to reinstate the seceded states back into the Union, his “Ten Percent Plan.”

He would permit each Confederate state to form a new state government after ten percent of the voters in a state took loyalty oaths to the Union and recognized the former slaves’ freedom.

Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 9, 1865, his successor, former Vice-President Andrew Johnson, decided to run with Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1866, the Southern states

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Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley and Billy Lee

Two African-American slaves from the eighteenth century: Phillis Wheatley and William “Billy” Lee. The first a woman, the second a man. The first a poet, the second a valet. The two received their freedom from their respective owners, and they each knew George...

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National Freedom Day and Black History Month

National Freedom Day and Black History Month

On Feb. 7, 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a professor of history, announced that he would celebrate and highlight for the first time ever a single week devoted to African-American history, and he called it “Negro History Week.”

He selected the second week in February because of its proximity to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, Lincoln on Feb. 12, and Douglass on a day in February.

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Frederick Douglass’ “Slaveholder’s Sermon”

Frederick Douglass’ “Slaveholder’s Sermon”

On May 11, 2017, the newly-elected U.S. President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as chair, and Kansas State’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair.

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William Benson

One of University of Northern Colorado’s 2020 Honored Alumni

William H. Benson

Local has provided scholarships for history students for 15 years

A Sterling resident is among five alumni selected to be recognized this year by the University of Northern Colorado. Bill Benson is one of college’s 2020 Honored Alumni.

Each year UNC honors alumni in recognition for their outstanding contributions to the college, their profession and their community. This year’s honorees were to be recognized at an awards ceremony on March 27, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak that event has been cancelled. Instead UNC will recognize the honorees in the fall during homecoming Oct. 10 and 11……

Newspaper Columns

The Duodecimal System

For centuries, the ancient Romans calculated sums with their clunky numerals: I, V, X, L, C, D, and M; or one, five, ten, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000. They knew nothing better.

The Thirteenth Amendment

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and by it, he declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s Proclamation freed some 3.1 million slaves within the Confederacy.

The Fourteenth Amendment

After Congress and enough states ratified the thirteenth amendment that terminated slavery, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law declared that “all people born in the United States are entitled to be citizens, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” The Act equated birth to citizenship.

The New-York Packet and the Constitution

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian, published her newest book a month ago, These Truths: A History of the United States. In a short introduction, she describes in detail the Oct. 30, 1787 edition of a semi-weekly newspaper, The New-York Packet.


Mr. Benson’s writings on the U.S. Constitution are a great addition to the South Platte Sentinel. Its inspiring to see the history of the highest laws of this country passed on to others.

– Richard Hogan


Mr. Benson, I cannot thank you enough for this scholarship. As a first-generation college student, the prospect of finding a way to afford college is a very daunting one. Thanks to your generous donation, my dream of attending UNC and continuing my success here is far more achievable

Cedric Sage Nixon


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– Extra Times


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