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The significance of national remembrance
Making the anniversary of an event a federal holiday is important, and not just for symbolic reasons. It means that on this one day we stop to think about something, recognizing its significance in the life of our country.
Juneteenth marks the end of slavery, an institution of unspeakable evil that had lasted in America for almost 250 years. To really think about slavery - to allow your heart and mind to take in what it meant in terms of sheer human cruelty, suffering and hopelessness - is to bear a profound emotional weight. An appropriate weight. For this was the world as it existed at that time.
During his younger years, Abraham Lincoln is said to have passed by the excruciating sight of a slave sale. As with many, for him it was the visceral experience of seeing enslaved people in chains, or whipped, or heartbreakingly separated from their loved ones, or any other such horror, that set him on a gradual path to a commitment to abolition. He is said to have remarked, “If I have ever have a chance to hit it, I’m going to hit it hard.”
Hit it hard he ultimately did, of course. It is said that anywhere from 600,000 to 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War, approximately equal to the total of American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. What began as a presumed skirmish expected by many to last no more than six weeks, became America’s most devastating war and lasted from 1861 to 1865.
Lincoln did not expect to win a second term at the presidency, for his insistence on full unconditional surrender on the part of the South - including the full emancipation of the slaves - was at that point an increasingly unpopular position among many in the Northern states. The grief, plus the exhaustion of war, made voters open to the idea that if the South would simply return to the Union, they could keep the institution of slavery and a reunified country could begin to repair. That was the position of Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 election, and it was a position many pressured him to adopt.
Yet he would not.
To Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence was America’s guiding principle. And if all men are created equal - if that was to be our national creed - then, slavery could not stand. “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” he said. And he asked the country to stay the course; to rise to the angels of its better nature, to pay whatever sacrifice was necessary, in order for this scourge to be eradicated from American soil.
Lincoln did win the 1864 election; the Civil War did end with the complete and total surrender of the Confederacy; and the institution of slavery was abolished from the United States.
On Juneteenth, we honor that.
In allowing ourselves to imagine the weight of slavery, we can also allow ourselves to imagine the moment of its end. Primarily in the South of course, but elsewhere as well, four to five million formerly enslaved people came at last to learn of their emancipation. In the words of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." It took two more years of bloody Civil War to clench the deal - to defeat the Confederacy militarily - but it came to pass.
Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, followed on April 9. Lincoln’s assassination was on April 15.
On June 19th of that year, the last Confederate community of enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, received word that they had been freed. The formal announcement was thus made to all Americans, black and white, that here in these United States the institution of slavery would be no more.
We should never forget the meaning of this day. Of all the things in our national history, its meaning should be taught to our children and etched on our hearts. It is a part of who we are.