American Renaissance

Juneteenth’s Vision of Freedom Expresses American Values Better Than the Fourth of July’s

Kermit Roosevelt, Time, June 18, 2022

Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of America’s enslaved people, has been celebrated 157 times. But it was only made a federal holiday last year, acquiring a new official name: Juneteenth National Independence Day.

And yet the Fourth of July, of course, was already Independence Day. One might reasonably wonder, if we already had one Independence Day, why did we need another? This works as a question about the holidays, but also about the history: if July 4 brought Americans independence, why was Juneteenth necessary?

The answer is that the two holidays, like the historical events, are about very different things. {snip}


{snip} Juneteenth is the flip side of July 4. 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. Juneteenth, by contrast, celebrates the conquest and destruction of those enslaver governments, in the name of universal individual freedom.

In the same way, the Civil War is the flip side of the American Revolution. States that recognize slavery declare their independence from a nation that has partially banned the practice. The nation refuses to accept independence and fights a war to stop it. As part of that war, it offers freedom to people enslaved by the states. 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 states won the Revolution, and we identify with the rebels of 1776. 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. But this creates a deep instability in American identity. A house divided cannot stand, said Lincoln, and we cannot be on both sides of this war and still be one nation. We must pick a 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?

If we believe our own rhetoric about liberty and equality, the answer is that we subscribe to the values of the Civil War rather than the Revolution. We believe in the Constitution that was forced on the defeated South in Reconstruction, not the one ratified by 13 states in the Founding. And Juneteenth expresses our values far better than does the Fourth of July.