Juneteenth ; American Democracy in Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

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 never.

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 slavery."

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. …

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