Why Juneteenth and July 4 Honor Different Kinds of Freedom
Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of America’s enslaved people, has been celebrated 157 times. It was made a federal holiday in the United States last year.
Yet, the Fourth of July was, in fact, already Independence Day. You might wonder why we needed another Independence Day if we had already established one. As a holiday question, this is also about history. For example, if July 4, gave Americans independence, then why was Juneteenth needed?
Both holidays and historical events are different. The Declaration states that July 4 refers to independence at the national level. It is the dissolution of political chains linking people. Juniteenth is, however, about individual freedom and breaking free from the chains of slavery.
Learn more According to activists who helped make Juneteenth a National Holiday: This is the best way to honor it.
Americans have often blurred these two things together, mostly by celebrating July 4 as though it’s about individual freedom. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy described the Declaration as focused on “the individual liberty of one.” In 1986, President Ronald Reagan praised “the dream of freedom inaugurated in Independence Hall.” Bars use the idea of freedom to draw in happy-hour customers; even President Joe Biden last summer invoked the Fourth of July as the start to a “summer of freedom” to throw off pandemic restrictions. The relationship between July 4, and individual freedom can be complicated and unclear. American colonists were granted some degree of freedom by the Declaration of Independence. These colonists were no longer Crown subjects, but citizens of their respective states and able to govern themselves. For the half million slaves enslaved in the American colonies, freedom was denied them.
On the other side, Revolution did grant freedom to thousands of slaves. The war gave them the opportunity to get out of slavery and live free with the British. The British issued multiple emancipation proclamations, and their practice of freeing enslaved people is the last and gravest charge the Declaration levies against King George: he is encouraging “domestic insurrections,” by which the signers meant slave revolts. The Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris. When that was done, the Patriots won and demanded the release of all formerly enslaved persons. But the Americans continued to pursue this right for many years after the British refused.
These facts may help us to remember that both holidays complement one another, since Juneteenth represents the culmination of the battle for liberty which began on July 4. Many of us are familiar with the belief, first articulated in the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln, that the Declaration of Independence was on behalf of the Union. Lincoln’s view is now virtually unchallenged. But it has prevailed largely because Lincoln’s side won the Civil War. The idea, taken on its merits alone, is not convincing.
Recall that The Declaration is fundamentally about disunion—that is, secession. According to the Declaration, governments are created for specific purposes and derive legitimacy from consent. If they threaten these purposes people can withdraw consent or alter the government. That is precisely what the South was doing, and Lincoln’s response was to deny their right to alter the government and to impose on them an authority to which they did not consent. Do the Declaration of Independence supports those who declare independence? Or do they support those who subvert independence through force of arm? If we’re being honest, that’s not a close call.
It is more like inversion rather than complete that Juneteenth and Jul 4 have a real relationship. The flipside of July 4 is Juneteenth. July 4 celebrates the right of people to form their own political communities and make their own laws—including, if they want, laws that enslave people who are outsiders to those communities. During the Civil War, the Confederates honored July 4 as fervently as the Union and proclaimed themselves “the loyal inheritors” of the principles of Independence Day. In contrast, Juneteenth celebrates the conquest of enslaver government and their destruction, all in the name universal individual liberty.
Learn more Juneteenth Isn’t Just a Celebration of the End of Slavery. It’s also a day to honor the Black Americans who helped create their own freedom.
The Civil War, in the same manner, is the reverse of the American Revolution. The United States recognizes slavery and declares its independence from any nation which has banned it. A nation fights war to prevent it from becoming independent. It offers freedom to those who are enslaved in the United States as part of this war. That’s the Civil War, with the United States as the nation, but it’s also the Revolution, with the U.S. as the states.
The Revolution was won by the states, so we are proud to identify ourselves with those who fought it. The nation won the Civil War, and we generally also identify with the government that defeated the rebels of 1861—though not as strongly or completely as we should. However, this causes a profound instability in American national identity. Lincoln stated that a house divided is not possible and said we can’t be on the same side and be one country. You must choose one side. What we need to ask ourselves is who are the real heroes of the American story: the Revolutionary Patriots, fighting for their states’ independence but complaining that their enemies were freeing the people they enslaved, or the Civil War-era Americans who fought to bring individual freedom to others?
We are more likely to believe what we say about liberty and equality than we are what the Revolution says. The Constitution that was forced upon the South during Reconstruction is the Constitution we believe in, and not the one that 13 other states ratified in the Founding. The Fourth of July does not express our values as well as the Juneteenth.
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