Today some Americans will be celebrating their independence a bit
early. That's because June 19th marks the day slaves in Texas first
heard of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.
The curious thing about "Juneteenth," as black Americans refer to
it, is that Lincoln's executive order took effect on Jan. 1, 1863,
but Texas slaves did not hear about it until Union soldiers landed
in Galveston Bay on June 19, 1865. Talk about better late than
That freedom was proclaimed in 1863, but delayed as a practical
reality for two more years, is not an anomaly in American history.
In fact, this nation was born of a similar experience.
In their Emancipation Proclamation of 1776, more commonly known
as the Declaration of Independence, American colonists proclaimed
their right to govern themselves. But that right was not secured
until the surrender of Cornwallis more than five years later.
Liberty proclaimed in word but secured by fits and starts is the
American fact of life. Democracy has never been a risk-free
proposition. To paraphrase the Federalist Papers, men are not
angels, nor are they governed by them. Even a well-designed
constitution can only do so much to guide majority rule toward the
protection of everyone's rights. In short, government by consent of
the governed is only as good as the opinion of the citizenry and the
rulers they elect.
That's why Juneteenth should be celebrated only in light of that
greater Independence Day, the Fourth of July. Without the Spirit of
'76, there would be no Juneteenth. And no one knew this more than
Abraham Lincoln, who called the principles of the Declaration of
Independence "the definitions and axioms of a free society."
Some might question this praise of Lincoln. After all, his
Emancipation Proclamation only "freed" slaves under Confederate
control, leaving those in the Unionist, "border" states still in
bondage. Moreover, Lincoln himself noted that his "paramount object"
in the Civil War was "to save the Union," not "to save or to destroy
To some, this priority of preserving the constitutional union
belies his reputation as the Great Emancipator.
But Lincoln believed he had no constitutional authority over
slavery where it already existed. And as president he was sworn to
uphold the rights of slave owners under the Constitution, including
the notorious fugitive slave law of 1850. …