June 2022: The Special Meaning of Juneteenth

The Special Meaning of Juneteenth and Why All Americans Should Celebrate It.

Many conservatives and Republicans, for many reasons, ignore Juneteenth and discussions related to it. They seem uncomfortable talking about it. Some assume Juneteenth is a historical event to be discussed only by and among people with dark skin color, or by foreigners, or by elites. 

Others think Juneteenth is a holiday owned by progressives, liberals, and Democrats, and they don’t want to support something progressives support.

Then there are conservatives who simply want to avoid anything connected to slavery and racism either because they’re unsure how to talk about those ugly subjects, or they fear being labeled a racist or bigot. 

This study makes the case that Juneteenth is, first and foremost, an American day of remembrance. It should be celebrated and talked about by all Americans, of all colors, ages, and walks of life. Everyone who loves freedom and hates slavery should memorialize Juneteenth every year. 

Conservatives and Republicans, in particular, should embrace and promote the special meaning of Juneteenth because without the Republican Party, Lincoln never would have been elected President, he never would have issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and there would be no Juneteenth. 

 

WHAT IS JUNETEENTH?

Juneteenth is the celebratory name commemorating June 19, 1865, the day the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, and U.S. General Gordon Granger announced to the men, women, and children still in bondage that they were slaves no more.

Some background: In July 1862, during the Civil War, President Lincoln informed his cabinet that he would issue an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln insisted that the only authority he had to issue such a proclamation came from the President’s war powers, as the Constitutional Commander-in-Chief, during a time of open, military rebellion against the government. 

Had there been no Civil War, in other words, he, as President, would’ve had no Constitutional power to interfere with the “peculiar institution” found in slave states.

The proclamation, therefore, as an exercise of Presidential war power, would not apply to the so-called “border states” — Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri — each of which had legalized slavery and had remained in the Union, meaning they had not claimed to secede from the United States, they had not joined the Confederacy, and they were not attacking the United States government.

Lincoln’s cabinet persuaded him not to make the announcement until after a Union victory on the battlefield. That opportunity came following the Union win at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. On September 22, President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all enslaved people in areas still in rebellion would be free 100 days later.

One hundred days later, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation also called for the recruitment and establishment of black military units among Union forces. 180,000 black Americans went on to serve in the army, while another 18,000 served in the navy.

On the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place, during which enslaved and free black Americans gathered in churches and private homes across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, all enslaved people in Confederate States were technically free by way of President Lincoln’s executive order. 

Not all slaves within Confederate states, however, were freed. Even though Lincoln had issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, it could not be implemented and enforced in places still under Confederate control. Many slaves remained slaves long after the Emancipation Proclamation, including slaves in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas. 

It would take two-and-a-half years, until mid-June, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops would arrive in Galveston Bay, Texas, and the Union Army announced publicly that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas. 

Later, in 1979, Texas was the first state to pass legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday. In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday in the United States. 

FINISHING THE FOUNDING

Two and a half months before Juneteenth, on April 9, 1865, in Appomattox, Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 Confederate troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War.

Several months after Juneteenth, in December 1865, Americans ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby abolishing slavery throughout the United States and “any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

These pivotal, historical events of 1865 represent nothing less than a completion of the American Founding. 

Many historians, scholars, and intelligent citizens date the American Founding to the general period that includes the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787-88.

I’m suggesting something quite different. I’m suggesting that the American Founding was incomplete until the passage of the 13th Amendment the abolition of slavery, that the Founding stretched from 1776 all the way to 1865. 

THE AMERICAN IDEA

The United States was founded on what Lincoln once called “an abstract idea.” It’s abstract because it applies to every human being, everywhere,  throughout all time, including those who lived in the past as well as those yet to be born. 

The idea is simple: Every human being has a rightful claim, by nature, and equal to all other human beings, to his own life, liberty, and property, which includes the freedom to pursue that highest of human goods: happiness.  

That “abstract idea” is both descriptive and aspirational, simultaneously. 

It describes a moral truth inseparable from the human condition: Every human being does, in fact, possess equal, individual natural rights. That is why assault, theft, rape, and murder — and slavery — are morally wrong, always, regardless of whether those wrongs are prohibited by the laws or not.

The idea also contains an aspirational goal: Citizens who understand natural human equality and equal individual rights should reform their own laws, public policies, and personal behaviors to align with it. 

Laws should offer equal protection for the equal individual rights of each and every citizen. Public policies, foreign and domestic, should be premised on respect for the equal natural rights of all human beings and should protect the equal rights of those who are citizens. Personally, each individual citizen should govern himself and refrain from violating the equal rights of others. 

The American Founding began with the descriptive part: We Americans announced to the world the self-evident truth of universal, natural human equality. We did not instantly achieve the aspirational goal.

In the early decades of our republic, however, Americans made big strides toward their goal. They treated slavery like a cancer: In 1787 they prohibited the spread of slavery to new federal territories, and in 1808 they prohibited the importation of African slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade, effectively confining slavery to where it already existed, while working to get rid of slavery state-by-state. Between the Declaration of Independence and 1800, a mere twenty-four years, half of the original states abolished slavery.

Never before had a people declared their own independence upon a universal moral idea that applies to all human beings. Never before had so much been done to constrain and eliminate slavery so quickly. The American Founding was the greatest anti-slavery movement in human history, hands down.

SLAVERY AS A “POSITIVE GOOD”

That was not the end of the tragic story, of course. In the 1800s, changes in technology and new business opportunities sparked new economic interests in slavery, while 19th century progressive philosophy and science coupled with rigid Biblical interpretations persuaded many Southerners that slavery was a “positive good” that should be allowed to spread everywhere.

America began with the widespread opinion that slavery was a necessary evil: something to be tolerated, temporarily, because not everyone vested in the business of slavery was willing instantly to give it up, but nonetheless a bad thing that should eventually be abolished as soon as Americans would consent to abolish it. 

By the 1820s and 1830s, however, many Americans, especially Southerners, were celebrating slavery as a good thing, justified by both scientific racism and Christian Scripture. They began mocking the Declaration as a document filled with self-evident lies and untruths. Those same Americans formed a new political party, the Democratic Party, which still exists to this day.

Ever since Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, the Democratic Party and its most influential members have actively opposed the core idea of the Declaration of Independence and the political goals that flow from it, every step of its sad career, from supporting slavery to Jim Crow to affirmation action and preferential treatment for politically preferred classes of citizens.

Even those changes and challenges, however, could not prevent the demise of slavery in America. Through a terrible civil war, Americans — Republicans, in particular — abolished slavery by way of a constitutional amendment, slightly more than four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, and largely because of the Declaration of Independence and the ideas enshrined within it. 

KS-NB ACT AND THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

After gold was discovered in California, in 1848, and the Gold Rush that soon followed, everyone knew there would be great Westward migrations of Americans (and others). 

Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was a United States Senator at the time, and the most influential Democrat in the United States. He was also a crafty crony always looking for inside deals and advantages, and he and his crony friends saw the Gold Rush as the perfect opportunity.

The prospect of millions of people heading West in North America increased the likelihood of the American West finally being connected to the American East by way of railroads.

Douglas promptly secured information from surveyors about where tracks would most likely be laid, and then he and others bought land in the Kansas and Nebraska territories (which were not yet states) on precisely those lines. They knew that the prairie land purchased for pennies would become valuable after railroads were built and towns and cities emerged.

Before railroad tracks could be built, however, territorial governments needed to be formed to protect railroad workers. Forming territorial governments in the Kansas and Nebraska territories required one or more acts of Congress (again, these lands were not yet states). Douglas, therefore, was leading the effort from with the United States Senate to get legislation passed and territorial governments formed as quickly as possible. 

The rub: Key Southern members of Congress would not support Douglas’s effort to form territorial governments in Kansas and Nebraska because an earlier piece of legislation — the Missouri Compromise of 1820 — prohibited slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories (and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the latitude 36° 30′). 

The only way Douglas could get the votes he needed was to repeal the Missouri Compromise and let slavery flow into all federally-controlled territories. And that’s precisely what Douglas did.

Douglas added an amendment to his bill that repealed the Missouri Compromise, Southerner Senators said yes, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law on May 30, 1854.

The outrage against the Kansas-Nebraska Act was immediate and palpable in many Northern states. Millions of liberty-loving Americans were repulsed by the idea of letting slavery spread into U.S. territories. Douglas’s political maneuvering sparked the formation of an opposition political organization that initially called itself the Anti-Nebraska Party. Later, members changed the name to Republican.

The entire purpose of the Republican Party, from the beginning, was singular and focused: Stop the spread of slavery into federal territories by reestablishing the Missouri Compromise. 

The focus on stopping the spread of slavery led many Republicans to study and re-familiarize themselves with the principles of the American Founding. After being formed in 1854, the Republican Party nominated its first Presidential candidate in 1856 — John C. Frémont — and in the summer of 1860 Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, who then won the general election and became the first Republican elected President of the United States.

The Republican Party platform for both 1856 and 1860 opened by reciting the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The Republican Party was the anti-slavery party — it was the freedom party — because it was the only (politically viable) party formed to preserve, protect, and guard the principles of the Declaration of Independence. 

Lincoln, repeatedly, throughout his adult life, opposed slavery precisely because he was devoted to the ideas and the reforming cause of the Declaration. He spoke (and wrote) at great length about the ideas in the Declaration, on many occasions, and in many different venues.

Lincoln loved the American Union because he believed it to be a good Union — at least, so long as the Union remains based on the Declaration of Independence. When the Civil War erupted, in 1861, after Confederates bombed Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s primary purpose, as President, was threefold:

  1. He wanted to preserve the Union and uphold his Constitutional oath to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
  2. He wanted to uphold the authority of elections and political decisions that have been made freely by citizens casting ballots.
  3. He wanted to place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Though he despised slavery, Lincoln did not think in the early part of the Civil War that he had Constitutional authority to free slaves. Slavery, up to then, was entirely a matter for each state to decide and legislate. The federal government had no Constitutional power over slavery in South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, or any other state. 

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln came to view freeing slaves as part of the President’s war powers, as Commander-in-Chief, in a moment of open rebellion and war against the United States. This led him to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and then the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln would be rewarded for his service with a bullet blasted into his brain.

When U.S. General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas, in June of 1865, and announced that all slaves were forever free, he was announcing the special message and terms of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, even though Lincoln was dead and buried. 

There would be no Juneteenth without Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never would have issued the Emancipation Proclamation without being elected President. And he never would have been elected President if not for the formation of the Anti-Nebraska Party — the Republican Party — in 1854. 

Juneteenth never would have happened and it would not be celebrated today, by anyone, if not for Republicans. Juneteenth is a uniquely American event, a holiday that illuminates the cause of freedom, the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln’s great effort to complete the American Founding. Republicans should be happy to celebrate it. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Do conservatives and Republicans avoid discussions about slavery, racial injustices, and related subjects? If so, why?
  • Do Democrats have any moral authority when it comes to discussions about the historic fight to abolish slavery in America?
  • What can you do to teach fellow citizens and young Americans about the connection between Juneteenth and the Republican Party?
  • What can you do to teach Republican politicians about the history of their own party and coach them on how to talk about slavery and related matters in public?
  • Can you articulate three key takeaways or talking points about why Republicans should take ownership of Juneteenth and be proud of it?

Responses

  1. I’ve always wondered what inspired the south’s motivation to defend slavery. I’ve read that there were very few slave owners in the south who owned most of the slaves (given the high cost of owning slaves, and the relatively low incomes of southerners at that time), so it makes sense that the rich would want to defend their interests on economic reasons alone. 

    But what motivated poor southerns to defend slavery? Was it solely the arguments of the “positive good” school of thought? Was it a kind of “states rights” line of thinking? Pride? Culture? It doesn’t seem like a poor/middle class southern had a lot of gain from defending slavery. 

    1. The Southern “honor culture” had much to do with it.

      Poor, uneducated whites didn’t want to be the lowest on the cultural rung.

      As long as poor, uneducated whites could say they weren’t black — and that blacks were inherently, biologically inferior — those poor, uneducated whites weren’t the lowest on the cultural rung. That’s why many Southerners who owned no slaves welcomed scientific racism.

  2. Great study – thank you. My hangup with Juneteenth though is turning it into National Independence Day which at least some of our city councils are trying to do. It’s basically the date that the white man came and let the ignorant black man know that he/she was free. In reality the Declaration declared all people free and it just took time to make that actually happen for blacks and in some ways [not directly related to, but tangential to slavery] women. I can see celebrating it as the end of the civil war, but to celebrate this date as a moment of pride seems odd. Independence Day is big enough for all races and sexes. Your study makes me more comfortable with Juneteenth anyway.

  3. I was turned off when I heard there would be another federal holiday for this and felt it would just be another celebration for a separate group bringing more division. I didn’t give much thought to the historical significance until I read the case study. We should inform others of the importance of Juneteenth and pass on the Tom’s AIER article .This should be a celebration of our founding for all Americans.