Juneteenth. So what is THAT? In a year’s time, we’ve gone from only a small percentage of people have even heard of that colloquialism referencing one town in Texas’s tradition to now it’s a national holiday? You’ll hear that it’s the date the last slaves were freed, found out they were free, or some version of that, but as usual, that’s not all the information or the whole story. And since you’ll see it everywhere for at least a few days, you should know the ACTUAL history of it.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all the slaves, or so we have all been taught as children. Well, not quite. The Civil War was not a popular war, in the North especially. It was the deadliest war in American history (because Americans were fighting both sides), it was long, expensive and though there WERE a lot of abolitionists in the North there were also still quite a few slaves and slave owners, including generals on both sides of the war. This was the world they lived in. There were no migrant workers, no minimum wage jobs, and slavery had existed as the means of labor since the beginning of time. Slavery was and is an abomination, but we can look at the past (and present in many places) and know something isn’t right also knowing it just was how it was.
The issue of slavery in the new America had been a matter of debate since the nation’s founding. Several states had outlawed the slave trade and some slavery entirely before the American Revolutionary war was even begun. Once the war ended and the business of creating the best country the world has ever known began, those states demanded that abolishing the slave trade be paramount in the debate over the Constitution or they weren’t signing it. The Southern states, who relied on slave labor for their entire economy and the bulk of the economy for the whole nation – doesn’t make it right, just makes it how it was, were reluctant but every state was necessary to form the new nation and compromises had to be made, demands met.
The South wanted their slaves to then count as citizens for representation in the new government as they were agrarian and had lower populations. Several Northern states with vocal abolitionists, like Pennsylvania, said no, slaves are going to be citizens or they are property, it can’t go both ways, and the South would have to pay taxes on property, which is where the 3/5 Compromise came from – making the number of slaves count at 60% for representation AND taxes had to be paid on their value; additionally, ratification of the Constitution required all states had to agree the slave trade would be made illegal in 20 years. On January 1, 1808, it became a federal offense to bring slaves into the new USA.
The new American country was war-torn, with a fledgling military and a new continually evolving government, and was still at odds with Britain. Yet, the states continued to fight over slavery because it’s been an issue since the start. America is the ONLY country in all of world history where slavery was an issue at its founding. The only one. It’s the principles of liberty and self-determination that would eventually free the slaves, and these are uniquely Christian, uniquely American values. When the European slave traders stopped buying slaves from Africa, the chiefs wanted to know why. A major source of their income dried up quickly and it was how they kept their enemies in check… but that’s a story for another time.
But, in America, the battle over slavery’s role went back and forth, sometimes in the legislatures and sometimes through slave uprisings which the South especially feared. The straw that broke the South’s back was indeed a tariff. Taxes. The thing which had started the American Revolution, unfair taxation, would YES be the spark that starts the War Between the States. The South produced the majority not just of America’s but the WORLD’s cotton and they needed to keep their slaves to do it, but they couldn’t produce and manufacture yet. Though the Industrial Revolution had begun, and in time would have probably made slave labor obsolete (my opinion, not fact) it wasn’t in force in the South yet. Manufacturing in the North and in England used Southern cotton to create their own businesses but the Southern states were doubly taxed because they had to buy the goods at a higher price once they were made. So, like their forefathers not quite a hundred years before, they left the Union. And the North came after them. The war was fought to punish the South for its insolence. Rebellion. Rebels. The war had been a long time coming.
As the war dragged on, the Northern states grew weary of it, and Lincoln, worried about the possibility of European interference as well, used the Emancipation Proclamation to help tie a moral cause to the war and draw a distinction between the Northern and Southern causes. BUT it only declared free the slaves in the Southern states. In 1863 he signed it, but the South was its own country. They didn’t listen to his laws. He may as well have declared slaves free in Mexico. The Emancipation did NOT free slaves in the border states and it did not free them in the North. It was largely symbolic. It was a good symbol, but if it truly was to FREE the slaves it would have applied to the states he actually was governing. I’m not impugning Lincoln, he was a man of his time in an impossible situation, quite likely the worst an American president has ever faced. He did what he thought he could given the information available to him and the sensibilities of the time.
As the war waged on, the North destroyed the South. The war was fought from two postures – the Northern generals wanted the South punished and brought back in line, and the South, of whom only about 7% owned slaves, were defending their homes and wanted to be left alone. Like many wars, it was truly a rich man’s war fought by the average and the poor men, but they were defending their homes, and a man will fight for that. The manufacturing power of the North was too powerful and ruthless. They wanted this war done.
When the South surrendered in May of 1865, Texas was still fighting the war. This happened a lot in history. News traveled SLOW, and often wars waged on beyond the “surrender”. So, finally, the news made it to a town in Texas that the war was over and Lincoln had freed the slaves back in 1863, and of course, that would be a day the people in that place would want to remember. But Texas as a whole, like the other states, and like the border and Northern states to whom it didn’t apply, wasn’t following any laws written by Lincoln back in 1863 just because an announcement was made.
When marking significant dates to ourselves, it makes sense that the day the news was brought would be culturally significant to Texan slaves. However, it didn’t matter what some announcement said, it would take the grueling Reconstruction period including militarization by the North to enforce the new orders, and the slaves were not “free” until EACH state created new state constitutions AND was re-admitted to the Union under the condition of ratification of the 13th (and 14 and 15th) amendments which once and for all outlawed slavery. For Texas, that was in 1869, and they were readmitted and became an American state again in 1870. EVERY STATE was different and you can look up the dates they outlawed slavery and when their state constitutions were rewritten. And THAT is the date the slaves were freed in each state.
In Texas, slave communities created celebrations where they commemorated the day they found out they’d been freed by the Emancipation. And out of respect for so many of its citizens thinking it was important, Juneteenth became a state holiday in 1980. It’s fine for regions to celebrate traditions of whatever they want, but with the hindsight of history, it’s good to look back once the emotion of the present has been washed away and look at what really happened. Slaves would not have known all that information, most citizens wouldn’t have known all the information, in fact, most modern-day people who have access to the information don’t avail themselves of it. So, while it’s actually the ratification of the 13th amendment that freed the slaves, and subsequently the 14th and 15th that made them citizens and gave the black men the right to vote (LONG before white women), those dates aren’t on our calendars in any historic way.
But, that’s the history; do with it what you will. When the cause is liberty in any form, we should always fall on that side, but it’s good to have the facts straight.