Why Juneteenth Is a Uniquely American Holiday

Friday is the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, which marks the day slaves in Texas found out that they were freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Professor Lucas Morel, head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to discuss the significance of the holiday, what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished, how he thinks it should be celebrated, and more. Listen to the podcast, or read the lightly edited transcript below.

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Rachel del Guidice: I am joined on The Daily Signal Podcast by professor Lucas Morel, who is the head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University. Professor Morel, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Lucas Morel: Glad to be here.

Del Guidice: Well, it’s great to have you with us. So Friday is the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which is known as Juneteenth. So can you start off, professor Morel, by speaking about the significance of this day?

Morel: Sure. Juneteenth, as you can tell by the name, is a commemoration of emancipation but it’s a peculiar one because, as most people know, when [President Abraham] Lincoln emancipated slaves and rebel-held territory in states, that was Jan. 1, 1863. Well, this Saturday’s not Jan. 1, it’s June 19.

What happened is, not in 1863, ’64, but in June of ’65, June 19 of 1865, is when slaves in Texas first heard that the president, Abraham Lincoln, had emancipated slaves two and a half years earlier.

So on June 19, Gen. Gordon Granger, who was the commanding general in the Texas District, he was in Galveston Bay and announced from his headquarters—and had it announced at other locations in the area, including black churches—he had it announced that slaves are all free, to put it simply.

So, … I say, it’s peculiar because, yes, it commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, but these slaves in particular heard about it two and a half years later.

So better late than never, that’s for sure. And the lateness I should hasten to add was because there weren’t many Union soldiers, there weren’t many Union troops in the latter part of the war in Texas. That was the furthest, maybe not the furthest, but one of the furthest reaches for the war effort and so word just simply didn’t get to them.

Del Guidice: For those who might need a refresher, obviously, the Emancipation Proclamation was all about the freeing of the slaves, but are there any other things about that you would like to draw out that’s maybe less talked about?

Morel: Well, what I actually like about Juneteenth is it’s a very American holiday, if you will. And what makes it American is like our, if you will, first Emancipation Proclamation, which was not Jan. 1, 1863, but July 4, 1776, we declared something to be true, manifestly true:

All men are created equal, that they’re endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We declared that to be a self-evident truth on July 4, 1776, but we had to fight, fight not just for days or months, but for several years.

In fact, until the surrender at Yorktown in 1781, and then formally ending the war in late 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, that was when we finally got to secure in practice a freedom declared many years earlier.

In a way, Juneteenth replicated what the founding of this country actually did many years earlier during the Revolutionary War.

So when I say it’s distinctively American, it’s a way of saying that there are things that are true, true by nature, but in terms of their actual practice, and exercise and enjoyment, these things, shall we say, are secured by fits and starts.

And so like July Fourth, which we celebrate as our Independence Day, we may have declared all men created equal that day but nobody in America was actually enjoying their freedom on July 4 or July 5. It took a war to secure that and then to establish not the principles but the structures of government, government by consent and the practices of self-government in order to make that truth a practical reality.

Del Guidice: So what about Juneteenth? Do you think that is especially relevant that Americans should keep in mind … on Friday when people celebrate?

Morel: Yeah. I think it is worth commemorating. I don’t know that it should—it certainly shouldn’t replace July Fourth for any American, black or white.

I think every American should be taught both holidays, both the reasons for both occasions and the similarities between them.

But what I wouldn’t want happen is to have Juneteenth be a holiday that is equated with July Fourth or somehow held in reserve for only black American citizens.

The last thing we need right now in this country in 2020 for crying out loud is more occasions for division, separation, distinctions of some groups of citizens over and against others. That’s a fundamental contradiction to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.

We need to do more to emphasize what we have in common, not these superficial things that we have that are different. …

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I guess I would say, in short, unless we understand Juneteenth as directly connected to July Fourth, understood within the context and background of making the promise of July Fourth a reality for all Americans, I don’t think it would be especially productive. That’s my take on it.

Del Guidice: In the past, professor Morel, how has Juneteenth been traditionally celebrated and how would you encourage people today to celebrate?

Morel: Yeah. Well, one thing to think about is, how did the holiday get started?

Black Americans needed nobody’s permission, the newly freed enslaved men and women, they didn’t ask anybody to determine what day of the year they should celebrate, whom they should honor, what they should revere. They made those judgments for themselves because they were human beings equally entitled to do these sorts of things as anybody else.

… I was about to say ever since Jan. 1, 1863, but in fact, as early as Sept. 22 of 1862, when Lincoln preliminarily announced in a hundred days he was going to emancipate slaves and territory that was … still in rebellion, we can go back even further to April of 1862 when slaves were finally freed in the District of Columbia.

Ever since those moments and episodes of freedom and progressive freedom occurred, black Americans have been commemorating their freedom and emancipation in this country.

So what you have across American history starting, as I say, as early as 1862, in various months and certainly after Jan. 1 and then June 1965, a couple of years later, you could have had among blacks in certain cities and eventually in certain states in this country really trying to figure out what is the best day to commemorate the abolition of slavery in this country.

Was it when it happened in D.C.? Was it when it happened in all the territories? In fact, June 19 of 1862. Was it when Lincoln first announced he was going to emancipate slaves, Sept. 22, 1862? Was it on the day of Jubilee, Jan. 1, 1863?

And so what we call Juneteenth, over time, commemorated not simply the emancipation announced on June 19, 1865, in Galveston Bay, Texas. June 19 also commemorated Jan. 1 when Lincoln freed slaves in rebel-held territories.

So throughout American history, to bring this full circle, black Americans, and then joined by their white fellow citizens and neighbors, they have been celebrating emancipation on various days of the calendar, which I would say is all to the good.

Del Guidice: Well, professor Morel, we can’t talk about Juneteenth without mentioning a book you just released called “Lincoln and the American Founding.”

Morel: Thank you.

Del Guidice: Can you just tell us a little about it?

Morel: Yeah. This is a short introduction, but a scholarly introduction, to what I believe is Lincoln’s most formative influence on his political thinking, his rhetoric, and his actions as a citizen, an engaged citizen, and as a president.

Everybody knows that Lincoln loved Shakespeare, the poetry of Robert Burns. He knew the Bible inside and out, even though he wasn’t a conventional Christian, he didn’t pledge membership at any church, he did faithfully attend and actually rented a pew for his family when they lived in Springfield, Illinois.

We know all of these various influences and see them in his writings especially, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, the K2 and Mount Everest of his speeches. But I would say if I had to put my finger on one formative influence in Lincoln’s political thinking, it would have to be the ideas of the American founding.

So what I did in my book is I took a chapter on key aspects of the founding and showed how they directly influenced Lincoln’s thinking and practice.

I have a chapter on George Washington, the indispensable man. He is the founder of founders. So, to what extent did Washington’s example and words shape Lincoln’s thinking about American politics?

Then I turned to the summum bonum for Lincoln, which is the Declaration of Independence. Starting in the 1850s and through the rest of his public career, there is no document, there are no words that he quotes and refers to more frequently than the Declaration of Independence, especially the second sentence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and you guys know the rest.

Then I have a chapter on the Constitution. So if the Declaration of Independence spells out the aims or ends, the purposes for which America exists, the Constitution represents its means, the structures and operations politically of a free people.

And what did Lincoln learn about and appreciate about the Constitution?

Now, as soon as I bring up the Constitution, especially in this day and age, people think of, “Ha, that wasn’t written by one guy, it was written by a bunch of guys, just like the Declaration of Independence.”

But it required much more significant compromises and, in particular, a compromise with what I call our preexisting condition, the existence of slavery, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.

So I have an entire chapter devoted not just to Washington, not just to the Declaration, not just to the Constitution, but to slavery.

What did Lincoln learn from the Founders about slavery? How did they deal with slavery in the Constitution? What did Lincoln understand about that? What did he actually value and appreciate about that? What prudence did he see in the way they dealt with slavery at the time, as they were trying to get their sea legs, as it were, as a free people? How did they address the issue of slavery, which was the massive, fundamental contradiction to their small republican way of life?

They understood it was a contradiction, how did they address it? Lincoln thought, “You know what? We can learn from this and address it in our day.”

In the mid- to late ’50s … whites, not just south, but north of the Mason-Dixon line, were being tempted, not to go out and buy slaves themselves, but to become indifferent about the future of slavery in the country, especially in the federal territories.

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And so Lincoln says, “Hey, I think the Founders were right about seeing how wrong slavery was. … They didn’t think they could get rid of it right away. But what were the structures and what were the ideas that they thought over time would allow us to wean ourselves off of this peculiar institution?”

So a very important chapter of this book is this chapter that deals with Lincoln, the Founders, and slavery. And then I have a concluding chapter that deals with this concept that is very much in the news today, which some people refer to as original intent.

It became front-page news … during the impeachment of President [Donald] Trump, when, all of a sudden, not just conservatives but political liberals were deciding, “Hmm, maybe the Founders do have some important things to tell us about impeachment.”

All of a sudden we became students of the Constitution, students of the debates over the Constitution. What did they mean? And what were their discussions? And how did they vote? And how did they define high crimes and misdemeanors? And all that sort of stuff.

What was Lincoln’s view of original intent? If we understand what the Founders did, does that mean we have to follow them? How do we know whether it’s worthy of following?

Ultimately, I conclude that Lincoln thought we don’t follow the Founders because they were first.

After all, if they were first and were wrong, for example, if we were talking about a different Constitution, say, the Confederate Constitution, would we say, “Well, that’s the Constitution and black people are supposed to be ruled by white people”

I’m like, “No, that’s wrong. How about we reject that idea and erect and follow a good one?”

Lincoln looked to our past and … he held onto the things that he thought were worthy of holding onto.

And interestingly enough, to that extent, he’s conservative because he’s interested in conserving, holding onto an older way of thinking about human nature, rights, equality.

But he’s liberal in the sense that the things he’s holding onto point to freedom. They are about liberation, they are about emancipation, they are about securing what everybody possesses by nature. And that’s the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that. Speaking of slavery and President Lincoln, there’s a statue right now in Boston, which depicts Abe Lincoln freeing a slave and there’s a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation statue in Washington, D.C.

And right now, the statue in Boston is a hot topic of controversy. There’s petitioning for it to be taken down. What’s your perspective on this whole situation?

Morel: Yeah, that is a statue that, how to keep this brief? That is a statue that has been controversial since it was first erected.

A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t know that that statue exists because it’s in Lincoln Park, which is 10 blocks behind the Supreme Court.

So when people visit D.C., they think once they get to the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court, and the Capitol Building, and then the Mall, and, of course, they’ve already done the Lincoln Memorial, good for them. They think they’ve seen everything, or maybe go to some galleries.

Ten blocks behind is a part that was set apart for this statue, a statue that was erected and paid for completely by black Americans. And the pedestal was paid for by the U.S. Congress.

When that statue was dedicated, the most famous abolitionist next to William Lloyd Garrison was the keynote speaker and that was Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was heard to have said he did not like the posture of the slave because he was in a kneeling or crouching position. And Lincoln was almost like Father Abraham rendering his hand over this newly freed slave represented by broken manacles on his wrists. Almost like giving him a benediction.

Douglasg was heard to have said, at least some stories have said that he wanted the slave in a more manly posture. Have him erect and standing, rather than crouched, almost like a sprinter at the blocks ready to leap into his freedom.

Frederick Douglass wanted him, after all it’s 1876, he wanted him standing. But he didn’t say that at the time in his speech.

He gave one of his most rousing and, in some respects, controversial speeches because it’s both a eulogy to Lincoln, 11 years after his assassination, but also it contains a lot of criticism because Douglass gives this speech from the perspective of an abolitionist.

So suffice it to say that is a statue that has been controversial ever since it was erected.

I don’t know when they brought the one over to Boston. I don’t know when that occurred.

But it was April of 1876, they actually declared a holiday for the District of Columbia so federal employees could attend a ceremony where President [Ulysses S.] Grant and members of the Supreme Court, members of the Senate and the House, and other federal employees and, of course, citizens of the District and surrounding states were present. Very important day. So that statue has always had controversy.

Now, the good news here, at minimum, is, as far as I know, that statue in Boston has not been defaced, in other words, people haven’t sprayed graffiti on it or thrown paint, or tried to pull it down.

At least in Boston, they’re doing things the tried and true, … the decent American way, which is, “Let’s have a conversation, let’s discuss it. Let’s figure out. If we don’t want it in the square, where should we move it?”

Or, I don’t even know if they’re contemplating destroying it, but I think they just want to relocate it.

… The cause of Boston could, again, interestingly enough, become the cause of America. The good news about Boston is they’re showing the way, they are leading the way in America about how we do things.

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This is one thing I hope people take away from my book, which is, in the United States, it’s not just what, it’s how.

It’s not just, “What is the justice we want to secure?” There are also American ways of securing that justice. There are ways that actually reinforce the rule of law that we all benefit from. And there are ways that subvert and undermine and overturn the rule of law. Nobody wins in that environment.

So at least in Boston, even though I would disagree with the relocation and the removal of it, I do agree with their method, if not their objective.

I presume that the follow-up question would be, “Well, if you agree with what Bostonians are doing to determine whether they should relocate or even destroy that statue, the follow-up question would be, why would you disagree with the decision to remove that statue?”

And this is what I would say to that: We have to remember the history of the statue, and this goes back to Washington, D.C., and the original statue was funded almost entirely by black Americans, and the nation’s representatives in Congress made their contribution as well to the pedestal and the setting apart of what became known as Lincoln Park.

If we understand that history, we understand that the statue exists not to represent the full flowering of the manhood and womanhood of black Americans. It represents an expression of gratitude by black Americans for a white president at a time when racial prejudice existed throughout the country and who didn’t care about that and decided to do what he thought was the right thing on behalf of this beleaguered racial minority.

It was an expression of blacks for what a president, the highest political officer of the land, decided to do in a very trying time, a time of war, to do the right thing by the enslaved black men and women of this country.

So to have Lincoln bestow, … and I think in the left hand is a curled up copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, this benediction over a crouching slave—and if you look at the statue carefully, the slave is depicted with the sinews of his muscle, it’s almost like a sprinter at the blocks. He is about to embark on his freedom.

The only thing, if you will, that had been holding him back were these chains and the chains are represented as broken chains. And so he is freed and you can see on the face of, yes, a kneeling, crouching, black man, you see on that face a determination to make good on his freedom.

I think that statue, even though Lincoln is not equally presented or depicted with the black man, one is crouching and one is standing, it’s not supposed to represent equality in terms of the full exercise of rights in 1876. It’s supposed to represent a particular episode, a significant pivotal episode in American history when the president of the United States finally said:

We are not going to return escaped slaves. In fact, we’re going to protect them. We’re going to secure their rights and we’re going to do what we can as far as it is within the executive department’s ability to secure the exercise of their rights.

And for that, I think to remove that statue would actually be to reject the reason why the statue was installed in the first place, which was an expression of gratitude on behalf of black America for what a significant white American did, who had the power to do something and actually used it.

Del Guidice: Thank you for that, professor Morel. And finally, what do you think Abraham Lincoln would say about the country if he were alive today?

Morel: How much time do you have? He would be sorely disappointed. In so many ways, he would be disappointed that it is 2020 and still we haven’t been able to overcome the irrelevance of race in our politics and in our culture.

He would be disappointed that, politically, we still have not treated all human beings, all American citizens as equal.

He would be disappointed that we have lost, apparently, a common way of speaking about ourselves as fellow citizens. We have lost a common definition of justice, a common definition of rights, a common definition of equality.

Some of us in this country … , ironically enough, in an attempt to get rid of racism, think that accenting race and accenting this or that part of every diverse identity is the key to securing one’s rights when, in fact, in my opinion, it only leads to greater division, greater fracturing, and what some have called a “cold civil war.”

We need to find a way to look at each other and notice our differences, male [and] female, black and white, native-born and immigrant.

We need to be able to not pretend we don’t notice the differences, but recognize that those differences are irrelevant in terms of what every citizen should receive from their common government.

Color for Lincoln, just like for Frederick Douglass, it was not the criterion, should not be the criterion of anyone’s rights under the Constitution. And so he would be disappointed that we have lost a way of speaking about and understanding ourselves as fellow American citizens.

And part of that in great measure, I think, is because we have lost an accurate understanding of the American founding, what they actually believed, and what they actually attempted to do, and in certain respects, failed to do with regards to making sure our practices live up to our professions.

Del Guidice: Well, Professor Morel, thank you so much for joining us on The Daily Signal Podcast. We appreciate having you.

Morel: Appreciate coming here.

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