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. July 4 is about independence at the national level: dissolving the political bands that connect one people to another, in the words of the Declaration. Juneteenth, by contrast, is about individual freedom: breaking the shackles of slavery.
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. But the relationship between July 4 and individual freedom is complicated and ambiguous. The Declaration of Independence brought freedom of a sort to the American colonists. No longer subjects of the Crown, they were now citizens of their states, governing themselves. But it did nothing for the half a million people deprived of freedom in a much starker sense, the people enslaved by the American colonists.
The Revolution, on the other hand, did bring freedom to tens of thousands of enslaved people. But that was mostly because the war afforded them an opportunity to escape their enslavement and find freedom 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. When the Revolution concluded with the Treaty of Paris, the victorious Patriots demanded the return of formerly enslaved people; when the British defied that obligation, the Americans pursued it for years.
Confronted with these facts, we may reassure ourselves that the two holidays are complementary, that Juneteenth is the completion of the struggle for liberty that started with July 4. Most of us have absorbed the idea, famously articulated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, that the Declaration of Independence was on the side of the Union. Lincoln’s view is now virtually unchallenged. But it has prevailed largely because Lincoln’s side won the Civil War. Considered on its own merits, the idea is quite unpersuasive.
The Declaration, remember, is fundamentally about disunion—that is, secession. The theory of the Declaration is that governments are formed for certain purposes, deriving legitimacy from consent, and that if they threaten those purposes, people may withdraw their consent and alter or abolish 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. Does the Declaration of Independence support the people who are declaring their independence, or those who suppress independence by force of arms? If we’re being honest, that’s not a close call.
The real relationship between Juneteenth and July 4 is closer to inversion than completion. 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.