On June 19, 1865, just two days before the first day of summer, the Union Army marched into Galveston, where US General Gordon Granger announced that the 250,000 slaves in Texas were slaves no more.
Even though Granger’s Army arrived in Galveston more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House (and John Wilkes Booth had assassinated Lincoln), the only legal basis to declare slaves free in mid-1865 was the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln two-and-a-half years earlier, on January 1, 1863.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery throughout the United States, would not be ratified until December 1865, nearly six months after Granger’s famous march through the westernmost state of the Confederacy.
News of being emancipated from slavery was sweet music to the ears of the men, women, and children who had never experienced freedom. Before Granger’s announcement, they didn’t know they were free. And Texas plantation managers and slave drivers didn’t bother to tell them.
Still, Granger’s announcement was true. Even though Lincoln was dead, his Emancipation Proclamation was still in force – because the war was not yet officially over – applying to all rebellious states, including Texas, all the way down to the Gulf Coast town of Galveston.
Those men, women, and children who had been slaves, who were told on June 19th of their freedom, celebrated that anniversary for many years after. Over time, their families joined in celebration, and friends, and many others who simply love freedom and loathe slavery, calling their annual remembrance “Juneteenth,” which is now a federal holiday in the United States, rightly so.
Juneteenth is an important reminder of the drama-filled tragedy of the American abolition of slavery.
The drama was evidenced, to borrow from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, by “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” as well as “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” that would be “paid by another drawn with the sword.”
The sad and sorrowful story of slavery in the United States is difficult to study. It is ugly. It is dark. Coming to grips with just how cruel human beings can be to one another can send a person spiraling into the depths of depression.
Within that same story, however, there is goodness. There is a light. There is a reason to be hopeful.
The story of the American abolition of slavery is tragic precisely because of the self-evident moral and political truths upon which America was founded.
Most people throughout most of history—most cities, nations, tribes, clans, and cultures—ignored the problem by chalking slavery up as something traditional, part of the way things always had been. Or worse.
Many people didn’t think the problem of slavery needed solving because they didn’t view slavery as a problem. Rather, they viewed slavery as a positively good thing, a source of pride, something to be celebrated and spread.
The Americans, however—born into a world in which slavery and slave trading were global enterprises—were uniquely destined to confront the gross immorality and injustice of slavery. The moment they declared their own political independence upon the self-evident truth of universal, natural human equality, slavery became a glaring, unavoidable problem in America.
Unlike all other previous regimes, in the United States, embracing slavery as something good required rejecting the fundamental principles of the American regime. And, embracing the principles of the American Founding required condemning slavery as fundamentally wrong, which in turn required getting rid of slavery altogether.
That slavery had to become a problem in America reveals much about the goodness of America. After all, unjust people living in a regime of injustice don’t wring their hands with concern over how to abolish unjust slavery. Good people living in a good regime based on the good principles of justice, do.
The result of the American Founding was the greatest, fastest, most sweeping anti-slavery movement in history. Within two generations after the Founding, at costs in blood, sweat, and tears that most people today cannot imagine, the Americans abolished within the United States that ugly ancient practice that had existed for thousands of years elsewhere in the world.
The tragic and triumphant story of abolishing slavery in America is a story of theory and praxis, thought and action. 1776 represents the idea of freedom. 1865 is the act of abolishing legalized slavery. That act required Lee surrendering, which happened in April 1865, and the 13 Amendment, which was ratified in December 1865. Between those pivotal historic events stands Juneteenth, a reminder for all of us today that to live as an American is to live freely.