June 19th, also referred to as “Juneteenth” or Freedom Day, marks the day in 1865 that Union soldiers finally read the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved African Americans in geographically isolated Galveston, Texas. Celebrated widely throughout the South and in a growing number of cities across the country, the holiday now commemorates the end of slavery and the struggle for post-war civil rights in the United States.
Arguments that the accomplishments celebrated on Juneteenth represent a rejection of America’s irredeemably racist founding are becoming increasingly pronounced. Such sentiments have been abetted by the recent publication of the New York Times 1619 Project—which aims, in the words of its director and creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, to “reframe the country’s history,” by tracing the founding of America to 1619 (the year the British first brought African slaves to Virginia), rather than to 1776 (the year the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence announcing the birth of the American people).
In reality, however, Juneteenth is not a deviation from, but the fruition of America’s organic law. The seeds of Juneteenth were sowed on July 4 in the Declaration’s pronouncement that “all men (meaning all human beings) are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Through the inclusion of this principle, the Declaration became more than a critique of British rule, rather it became a manifesto setting forth a universal standard of justice that could be used to evaluate any government. This standard, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and other Founding documents, was rooted in the notion of a “transcendent law of nature” that can be discovered from a self-evident or common-sense view of nature. That is, in observing one human being in relation to others, there is no inequality between individual human beings that is so great as to mark out one as the natural ruler over another. Although many inequalities exist, all human beings are equal in their freedom and in the inalienable rights of personhood that flow from that freedom.
Throughout history, slavery and discrimination have hardly been unique to America, but what is unique to America is its foundation in universal principles that gave animus to the charge that slavery is a violation of the laws of nature and the inherent freedom and equality of human beings.
In fact, according to historical records, nearly all of the leading Founders spoke openly against slavery as a violation of the principles of the Revolution. Yet the complete fulfillment of these principles was thwarted for a time—in large part due to a lack of political capacity. Human beings, though rational, are fallible and often close their minds to what is true and just in their pursuit of private gain and other personal motives.
Nevertheless, in spite of strong political forces, particularly in the South, seeking to maintain and expand the institution, the Declaration became a force for abolition. Prior to the Revolutionary period, for example, slavery was legal in all thirteen of the American colonies, but in the years leading up to and following the Revolution a majority of the original states abolished the practice. New York’s abolition law was intentionally scheduled to take effect on July 4, 1799 in recognition of the direct connection between the principles of the Declaration and abolition.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, prominent politicians seeking to preserve the institution of slavery and expand it into territories where it had previously been forbidden began to wage a full-scale assault against the principles of natural human equality and inalienable rights. Some like Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens and South Carolina Senator and former Vice-President John C. Calhoun called the Declaration a self-evident lie. Others like Senator Stephen Douglass and Chief Justice Roger Taney claimed that the Declaration’s principles were only meant to refer to white men—an argument commonly echoed by academics today.
During this period, Abraham Lincoln played a vital role in recalling the importance of the Declaration’s equality principle, its direct application to slavery, and its implications as a just standard for the American regime.
A century later, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. likewise recognized the magnificence and power of America’s organic law and called on the nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.
Today, as the country is wracked by division and strife, we would do well to remember that though slavery and racial discrimination are rightfully recognized as a tragic stain on our country’s past, we can still find reason to esteem and identify with America and its promise of liberty and justice for all.
Christina Villegas is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of a forthcoming reference book on Modern Slavery.