Juneteenth is more than a celebration of freedom. It’s a celebration of one of mankind’s greatest triumphs: the war against enslavement. It’s a beautiful and moving story, and one all Americans should be proud of.
For countless generations before the birth of the United States, Europeans—and, in fact, the peoples of all the earth—believed that human beings are bound by destiny: born into a caste, to rule or be ruled, to conquer or be conquered. Such thinking had, indeed, left much of the known world enslaved in one way or another. Africans, Asians, and Native American tribes practiced forms of slavery, and Europeans brought slavery to North America, first with the conquistadores who came to capture the Natives, and two centuries later with the traffic in enslaved Africans. By the time Thomas Jefferson began writing the Declaration of Independence, black Americans had been held in bondage for a century and a half.
Never before in history had a society seriously tried to eliminate the institution of human enslavement. Some philosophers had, on occasion, questioned slavery’s legitimacy. But the idea of ending it on a nationwide scale had never been taken seriously. Never, that is, until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It was then that the ideas we call “classical liberalism”—ideas developed by thinkers of widely different backgrounds, in many different countries—climaxed with the declaration that everyone has a basic and ineradicable right to freedom: the right to choose one’s own destiny and work toward one’s own happiness. This was a truly radical idea: something genuinely new in the political world. And it foretold a drastic transformation in society. As historian Gordon Wood put it in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, these principles brought about “a momentous upheaval that not only fundamentally altered the character of American society but decisively affected the course of subsequent history.”
America’s first abolition society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Boston, was founded on April 14, 1775—a week before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. British Quakers followed in 1783, founding their first abolition organization, and new antislavery groups popped up in the years that followed. All were pledged to the same principles of individual liberty and fundamental equality that the Declaration of Independence articulated.
Although the Declaration had established that all men are created equal—and thus that slavery was morally and politically intolerable—American statesmen were stymied by how to actually end it as a practical matter. Some feared that immediate abolition would lead to race war. Others worried that many slaves had been denied the education and skills that would enable them to live in freedom. Still others thought slavery would die away gradually, under social and economic pressures. Slavery was economically wasteful, they believed, and as white people became more accustomed to the idea of respecting the rights of people of other races, attitudes would gradually shift away from slavery. When the founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they gave slavery no legal guarantees, leaving it up to future generations to find a solution to the problem.
Tragically, that did not happen. Instead, southern intellectuals such as John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh began arguing in the 1830s that slavery was actually a good thing. Liberty, they said, was not something everyone is entitled to, but a privilege society gives people it considers worthy. These thinkers opposed the rising forces of capitalism and individualism, seeing them as corrosive to society. “There is too much individuality in modern times,” wrote Fitzhugh. He believed the world should embrace what he called “the oldest, the best, and most common form of Socialism,” which is slavery. By the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln proposed finding a peaceful way to gradually end slavery, southern states were so insistent that it be preserved that they went to war to defend an institution they admitted was contrary to America’s founding principles.
In the war that followed, hundreds of thousands of Americans, of all races and backgrounds, laid their lives on the line to preserve the American Constitution—to secure the ideals of the Declaration—and to end the institution of slavery. Among the most glorious examples of such bravery is that of the black soldiers who took up arms to vindicate their liberty and that of their fellow Americans. They fought to save a country whose people had deprived them of their freedom, because they knew that the vindication of the American Dream was a matter of their own personal concern. This nation, they knew, was as much theirs as anyone’s. And its fundamental commitment held out to all the promise of a life in freedom. Those soldiers knew America was not a “white supremacist” country, but a beacon of hope for all, and they would see that it remained that way. Today, their great-grandchildren, alongside Americans of all races and backgrounds, continue to do their part to make the American Dream a reality.
That’s the spirit Juneteenth celebrates: the willingness of Americans of all races and backgrounds to devote their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to vindicating the principles of freedom—principles true not just for Americans, but for everyone, everywhere, and always. Whether it be the former slaves who advocated for women’s suffrage, or the Jews who marched with Martin Luther King, or the Methodists who spoke out against Japanese-American internment in World War II, there have always been people who bravely demanded their own liberty—and, knowing that freedom is for everyone, who have also worked to ensure that others can live freer, happier lives.
None gave voice to that idea better than a 21-year-old poet who attended the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. He had just published his first book, and he shared a copy with the elderly abolitionist statesman Frederick Douglass. Impressed, Douglass asked him to read a poem to the audience that Douglass himself was about to address. The poet was Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the poem he read was “The Colored Soldiers”:
They rallied to the standard
To uphold it by their might;
None were stronger in the labors,
None were braver in the fight…
Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom,
And they won it dearly, too;
For the life blood of their thousands
Did the southern fields bedew.
In the darkness of their bondage,
In the depths of slavery’s night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning,
And they fought their way to light…
And their deeds shall find a record
In the registry of Fame;
For their blood has cleansed completely
Every blot of Slavery’s shame.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.
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