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The Promise of Juneteenth Calls Us Back to America’s Founding Principles

June 18, 2021

June 18, 2021
By Timothy Sandefur

Juneteenth, the nation’s newest federal holiday, is the annual celebration of the eradication of slavery—a day for all Americans, whatever their race, to remember the horrors of that institution and to rejoice at the liberation of which so many of our ancestors dreamed. And these days, it’s a particularly needed reminder of the struggles our nation has endured in living up to our founding principles and how we must always strive to live up to them even as the very core of the American idea is disparaged.

The day gets its name from June 19, 1865, the day on which Union General Gordon Granger announced to enslaved Texans in Galveston that President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed emancipation in the south. In General Order Number 3, General Granger declared that

in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

As historian Annette Gordon-Reed notes in her new book, On Juneteenth, the order’s language is revealing. Where Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had only specified that “that all persons held as slaves within [the Confederate] States…are, and henceforward shall be free,” Granger’s language specified what that meant: that black and white Americans were to enjoy with “absolute equality” the rights of “person” and “property,” and that this included the right to “work for wages” and to possess and safely enjoy their “homes.” Less than a year later, Congress would adopt the first federal Civil Rights Act, using similar language: “All persons,” it said, “shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens…” And when that Act was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who called it unconstitutional, Congress swiftly overrode his veto and wrote a new constitutional amendment that would yet again make clear that “all persons” would be entitled to the protection of “life, liberty, and property.”

In other words, emancipation built in the fundamental principle that each individual owns himself and has the right to use his skills to make a living and enjoy the fruits of his labors—a principle “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” and specifically in the Declaration of Independence. All people are created equal—meaning that none is presumptively entitled to tell another how to live his life; all people enjoy an inalienable right to liberty—meaning that their lives belong to them and not to others, and that they enjoy the ultimate moral entitlement to choose how to dispose of their faculties, their minds, their ideas, their personality, their skills, their knowledge, and their hopes and dreams. Finally, all people are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their own labor—rather than having what belongs to them taken away, whether by criminals, or by a government that claims to be doing them a favor.

This deeper significance of Granger’s words seems especially relevant today, when we are constantly besieged by the voices of those who claim that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation, whose legal and political institutions are rooted in white supremacy. That was precisely the assertion that the Union fought to destroy. And as Gordon-Reed observes, the idea that black and white Americans could live together as fellow citizens respecting each other’s rights was precisely what Confederates denied—and what racists would continue to deny in the years after the war. “The fear of the black imagination was strong all throughout slavery,” she writes. “Seeing that black people could exist outside of legal slavery put the lie to the idea that blacks were born to be slaves…. [Jim Crow] was designed to prove that blacks could not operate outside slavery.”

Today, that same idea—that black and white Americans cannot coexist as equal citizens under our Constitution, because it was designed to perpetuate white supremacy—serves precisely the same interests. This notion, which goes by various aliases today (Critical Race Theory, for instance), is in reality nothing more than fear of the vision of equality articulated in the Declaration and in General Order No. 3—a fear cloaked in cynicism and pseudointellectual jargon, but fear nonetheless. When activists say, for instance, that “objectivity” or “punctuality” or “literacy” are elements of white supremacist culture, they are simply repeating the same old arguments for racial caste and hatred their ancestors uttered a century and a half ago, and denying all over again that black people can be, or have ever been, fellow citizens with the same right to opportunity as white or Asian or Hispanic Americans. They may call themselves “anti-racist,” but what they offer is just the reverse side of the same counterfeit coin.

The promise of Juneteenth is just the opposite. It calls us back to the principles of our nation’s birth—principles we originally celebrated on July 4, and which were not abolished but fulfilled by the testament that came later. It asks us to reflect on the long and sometimes awful struggles to make a those principles a reality in our own day. It’s a day to relish our freedom to run our own lives. It’s a day for “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners…to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” and to laugh away those who think themselves too smart to believe in it. Paul Laurence Dunbar summed it up in his poem “Emancipation”:

Fling out your banners, your honors be bringing,
Raise to the ether your paeans of praise.
Strike every chord and let music be ringing!
Celebrate freely this day of all days.

Few are the years since that notable blessing,
Raised you from slaves to the powers of men.
Each year has seen you my brothers progressing,
Never to sink to that level again.              

Perched on your shoulders sits Liberty smiling,
Perched where the eyes of the nations can see.
Keep from her pinions all contact defiling;
Show by your deeds what you’re destined to be.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.



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