Juneteenth and the Universalist Principles of the American Revolution

Far from being somehow at odds with July 4, Juneteenth celebrates the greatest achievement of the principles of the Revolution and Founding.


Today is the first official nationwide commemorations of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday in honor of the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Several of the few congressional Republicans who opposed Juneteenth argue it might somehow detract from Independence Day on July 4, or promote left-wing identity politics. For their part, some on the left may see it as a condemnation of America's history of slavery and racism, or even a celebration of black nationalism.

In reality, however, the abolition of slavery was the greatest achievement of the universal principles underlying the American Revolution, and a rebuke to ethnic nationalism and separatism.

Abolition was only achieved thanks to a multiracial movement that emphasized the universality of the right to liberty, and the moral arbitrariness of distinctions based on race.

Josiah Wedgewood's famous 1787 image created for the antislavery movement.

It is no accident that the antislavery movement was also accompanied by what historian Kate Masur calls "America's First Civil Rights Movement," which sought equal rights for blacks that went beyond simply abolishing slavery.

As Masur and other scholars have documented, both black and white abolitionists routinely cited the universalist principles of the Founding in making the case for abolition and racial equality, even as many of them also criticized the Founders (and later generations of white Americans) for their hypocritical failure to fully live up to their own principles. From early on, critics of the American Revolution denounced the contradiction between its professed ideals and the reality of widespread slavery. "How is it," Samuel Johnson famously wrote, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

While the hypocrisy and contradictions were very real, so too is the fact that Revolution and Founding made abolition possible, in part by giving a boost to universalistic Enlightenment liberalism on both sides of the Atlantic. I summarized some of the reasons why here:

Far from retarding the abolition of slavery, the Revolution actually accelerated it. Its triumph gave a big boost to Enlightenment liberalism, which inspired the First Emancipation in the US (the abolition of slavery in the North that became the first large-scale emancipation of slaves in modern history), and boosted antislavery movements in Europe, as well….

Had the Revolution been defeated, Enlightenment liberal ideology would have been dealt a setback in Britain and France, too. That would have set back antislavery movements there, as well. It is no accident that many antislavery leaders in Europe were also sympathizers with the American Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette was just one of the most famous examples of European liberals who actively backed both.


For all their failings, the Revolution and Founding paved the way for abolition. That happened in large part because they were the first large-scale effort to establish a polity based on universal liberal principles rather than ties of race, ethnicity, or culture.

Those principles are at the root of most of America's achievements, of which the abolition of slavery was perhaps the most important. They are also what enabled America, at its best, to offer freedom and opportunity to people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds from all over the world.

Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation whose belated enforcement Juneteenth celebrates—put it best in his famous speech on the Declaration of Independence and its implications for slavery:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects…. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them…

They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.

The success of the antislavery movement's appeal to liberal universalism has been a model for later expansions of freedom, as well—including equal rights for women, the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, and the struggle for same-sex marriage. It is a model that advocates of migration rights would do well to emulate today.

The work of fully living up to the ideals of the Founding wasn't completed in Lincoln's time, and it remains seriously incomplete even now. But Juneteenth commemorates perhaps our greatest step in the right direction. And it reminds us that further progress towards liberty and equal rights depends on emphasizing the same principles that made abolition possible.

NEXT: Why the Texas ACA Suit Was Always Destined to Fail (Even on a 6-3 Court)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Several of the few congressional Republicans who opposed Juneteenth argue it might somehow detract from Independence Day on July 4.”

    People who dismiss this idea have not looked up traditional Juneteenth dishes. They leave hot-dogs and hamburgers in the dust.

    I’d never made strawberry syrup before.

    1. Juneteenth is a holiday of shame and of self criticism for our nation. It celebrates a victory by America haters. It is a Chinese Commie Party method. Self criticism.

  2. Had the Revolution been defeated, Enlightenment liberal ideology would have been dealt a setback in Britain and France, too.

    That strikes me as substantially overestimating the importance of the US in the global conversation at the end of the 18th century. Myopia, it happens to the best of us.

    For completeness, Somersett’s Case predated the US declaration of independence by 4 years.

    The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

  3. Hi, lawyer dipshits. The Revolution caused slavery and the Civil War. Lawyer oligarchs were upset by their tax bill’s doubling from 1% of GDP to 2% of GDP. That increase went to endless military campaigns to protect their lands from Indians, anyway. The lawyers were too stupid to understand that.

    Had we stayed a British colony, slavery would have ended in 1833, by law. The liberation would have been enforced by a sheriff, not by the hideous slaughter of 600000 Americans (like 2 million today). Race relations would have been resolved 150 years ago. We would have been a nation like Canada, not extreme and crazy.

    Good job, lawyer assholes.

    1. Hi, Ilya. You said, “…including equal rights for women, the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, and the struggle for same-sex marriage. It is a model that advocates of migration rights would do well to emulate today.”

      Each of those hideous mistakes compounded the death count by orders of magnitude greater than the Civil War. You fucking lawyers are mass murderers by stupidity. Now, you are still oblivious to your toxicity.

      Let me translate for the idiot lawyer dipshit. Equal rights for women = millions of dead babies; civil rights for blacks = destruction of the patriarchal black family that survived extreme stresses for centuries = 5000 excess murders/year X 50 years = 250,000 dead black guys; gay rights = no contact tracing or quarantine of HIV = 30 million dead of AIDS around the world.

      Good job, oblivious lawyer assholes. Nothing is stupider than the lawyer. No lawyer is stupider than the Ivy indoctrinated lawyer. No Ivy indoctrinated lawyer is stupider than one that sits on the Supreme Court. This hideous competition for stupidity has killed millions of people. The American lawyer killed more people than any tyrant.

  4. All of American history is one long argument over the definition of “men” in the phrase “all men are created equal.”

      1. The Fourteenty Amendment has “persons” and “citizens.”

  5. I don’t think that’s all American history has been about black freedom and equality, but it would be remiss to leave it out.

    Beyond just the history, as can see with MLK Day and now Juneteenth, our struggles with the rights of blacks has become part of our Founding myth.
    And I think that’s great. We’re more resilient and clear-eyed than those other countries with their hagiographic foundings. We have as part of our shared heritage that we struggled and struggle to better ourselves.


    1. We’re more resilient and clear-eyed than those other countries with their hagiographic foundings.

      Hello, this must be your first time in the comments section of the Volokh Conspiracy. Welcome!

      1. VC does not speak for all of America, thank goodness.

    2. So are you just talking the talk, or are you frying the chicken and making the strawberry soda?

  6. My primary objections are two:

    Was some other federal holiday removed, or do federal employees simply get yet another day off?

    Juneteenth celebrates the day a white general told blacks they were no longer slaves. Much better to celebrate blacks helping themselves:

    * Harriet Tubman’s birthday
    * Nat Turner’s rebellion
    * The day the slaves took over Amistad

    Nat Turner certainly was no paragon of virtue, killing women and children pretty indiscriminately; but the whites enslaved women and children indiscriminately too, so it’s kind of a wash.

    But I think all would be better choices than the day white men rescued blacks.

    1. The holiday developed organically by black people themselves in the South. The historical event itself is just the hook for what the holiday is actually about: freedom. There were competing days too, such as Emancipation Day in January. But this one grabbed a hold of the culture and spread.

    2. If the narrative you get out of Juneteenth is that blacks had nothing to do with getting their freedom, you should maybe do some more research.

      1. Also, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this guy is white…and telling black people how exactly they we’re supposed to celebrate the end of slavery.

        1. Is it reasonable to celebrate a date almost six months before slavery fully ended? Outside of Texas, I mean, because Juneteenth was when it ended in Texas. Delaware isn’t entitled to celebrate until early December, when their last slaves were emancipated by the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. (Or maybe Delawareans only get credit for February 12, 1902, when they finally got around to ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.). Or maybe we need to look to June 14, 1866:

          1. “Is it reasonable to celebrate a date almost six months before slavery fully ended?”

            Perhaps you should avoid the provenance of Christmas Day.

          2. Yes, a lot of people forget that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in Confederate territory, the slave states that didn’t secede got to keep their slaves until the 13th amendment was ratified.

        2. Where exactly did I tell anyone how they should think or what they should do?

          1. Much better to celebrate blacks helping themselves:

            * Harriet Tubman’s birthday
            * Nat Turner’s rebellion
            * The day the slaves took over Amistad

            Literally right there in your comment dude. This is your suggestion of what would be better to celebrate.

        3. Since skin color suddenly matters, it would behoove you to report your own skin color before denigrating others’.

          Shall I call you a BLM Antifa proggie for the idiocy shown by your racism? I shall tell you now that I am close to an anarchist and despise government. Now your turn.

          1. I’m white. But I’m not the one out here suggesting BETTER things to celebrate the end of slavery than one of the celebrations that developed organically in black communities.

      2. Perhaps you need to read the actual comment, and references to Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and the Amistad.

        Or maybe you just prefer knee-jerk stupidity as your legacy.

        1. Juneteenth celebrates the day a white general told blacks they were no longer slaves.

          That announcement was the culmination of a whole bunch of other events. Your simplistic reading is ridiculous.

  7. Celebrating the Civil War as ending slavery is a bit rich, considering all northerners really wanted was to enforce union against southerners’ wishes, no matter how poorly those wishes were represented, and considering the Constitution itself was illegal under the Articles of Confederation, and the convention was a lie in that regards. The first 13th amendment was a last desperate attempt to get the seceding states back into the union by enshrining slavery in that constitution, and Lincoln said he would rather have union with slavery than disunion without slavery.

    1. “considering the Constitution itself was illegal under the Articles of Confederation”

      Sort of mooted when unanimity of the 13 states was achieved in 1790. Unanimity was the requirement of the Articles. There was a window of two years between New Hampshire (9th ratifying state of the Constitution), and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (as it was known until last November) when the Constitution was considered by the 9 states as their constitution, but four more states came on board by 1790, reaching unanimity of amendment of the Articles.
      If no one contested the abandonment the Articles, and adoption of the Constitution then, who now has standing to complain, and before what court? Is there a secret government in exile that has been hiding for the past 230 years?

      1. What it really shows is that government promises aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

        Sayeth the The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union:

        The Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.

        Ipso facto QED and PDQ Bach to boot!

      2. “Sort of mooted when unanimity of the 13 states was achieved in 1790.”

        As I recall, unanimity was achieved by means of a naval blockade of Rhode Island.

        So, said unanimity wasn’t precisely voluntary.

        1. So, just mostly peaceful and unanimous.

        2. Soon you will get the revolver to the side of your head if you don’t comply. So says a well known psychiatrist from Yale who dreams of such a day….

    2. And then the war went on and abolitionism became the dominant view in the North.

    3. enforce union against southerners’ wishes,

      Against which southerners’ wishes, exactly?

    4. Yes but the Just Cause Myth lives on, fervently pushed by nitwits and serving the nationalist agenda by design.

  8. Definitely a day worth celebrating. And if they had named it Juneteenth Freedom Day that would have been fine. But “National Independence Day” was already taken, on July 4th.

    1. I see by the U.S. Code that “Independence Day” is labeled as a holiday.

      “Juneteenth National Independence Day” is now also a holiday.

      Like a “birthday” (there being more than one holiday tied to a birthday), there can be more than one “independence day.”

      A day honoring the independence of slaves from slavery being such a day as is one for the country as a whole.

  9. Bravo! Another jewish revisionist history opinion. Slavery was not an issue for the common folk, just the upper crust who could afford to purchase the black skinned labor force, marketed by jews. Slave trade from Africa to US was jewish monopoly. Slavery was not abolished at the founding because of jewish control of slave trade. Confederacy was formed because the federal government was living off the taxes of cotton, a jewish run industry based on cheap production feeding European market. All jewish controlled trade.

    Lincoln never advocated eliminating slavery, he just wanted the revenue to feed the federal coffers, lest the north have to pay for its own services.

    All a pack of lies by Ilya. Just more marxist ideology to upset a society, the hallmark of jewish parasitic behaviour. Time to expel the jews? True freedom?

  10. If you thought the left had any intention of governing from anywhere except extremist positions, think again REAL AMERICANS. The made up holiday of “Juneteenth” is nothing more than a day to shove identity politics down your throat and complain about an archaic institution that has had no real impact on anyone alive for more than a century.

    1. Yeah it’s made up. They made it up to celebrate the end of slavery. You wouldn’t need a holiday if that hadn’t happened (or if slavery hadn’t happened).

      So if slavery hasn’t had an impact on American society for a century (never mind that former slaves were alive well into the 50s), why was Jim Crow ended in the 60s? Seems like those things are directly related.

      1. If the best you can come up with is that somebody late into their advanced age, who might have touched the last year or two of slavery was alive 80 years ago, that is not helping your cause too much. Neither is you generally talking about anything related to the cause, but that particular point is not going to help your argument either.

        1. No. They were alive less than 70, even 60 years ago person who is good about math. And way to dismiss the clear historical link between slavery and Jim Crow, which clearly is in living memory and whose effects didn’t suddenly end in 1965. In addition to being racist, you’re just not very smart at all.

          1. I tend to find people who lack intelligence make up for that by throwing around accusations centered around such a lack of intellect. It is a coping mechanism and one to which I am sure you are very familiar.

    2. All holidays are made up, numbnuts. They don’t grow on trees.

      1. What’s Christmas, if not fir the trees?

      2. Most have significant historical roots that can be linked back to some momentous occasion. Here you have what was historically a local/regional celebration in a niche community. But now we have a national identity politics day (on top of the various months already dedicated to those identity politics).

        1. Most have significant historical roots that can be linked back to some momentous occasion.

          Yes, like Juneteenth.

          But unlike Jimmy’s “Christmas,” which celebrates something that never actually happened.

          1. Juneteenth is a local or maybe regional holiday based upon a limited event with no historical roots relevant to the nation as a whole. it was inflated and conflated last year by cultural marxists taking advantage of an incident involving the arrest of a drug fuel man who met an unfortunate demise. That is all it is and all it ever will be.

            1. Jimmy the Dane is an ignorant racist. That is all he is and all he ever will be.

              1. Never let it be said that I won’t admit when I made a mistake. That’s not all he is; he’s also an ignorant anti-semite, who uses nonsensical Nazi slogans like “cultural marxist.”

              2. I love how thinking Juneteenth is a local holiday with no national significance is enough to get you called “racist” these days. The left wing commenters on here used to be at least a little bit more articulate. Now they just gaslight and throw out slurs.

                1. Thanksgiving was a local holiday with no national significance. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery, which was pretty significant to the nation.

    3. Open wider, Jimmy. I’m not tired of shoving. Not nearly.

      Are you tired of getting stomped in the culture war? You should have tried to be a better person.

    4. Shorter Jimmy the Dane: “Black people aren’t real Americans.”

      1. Classic strawman. Nothing beats unfounded accusations of racism. Hence why the word has absolutely no real meaning.

        1. They’re entirely founded. You literally said above that blacks weren’t real Americans. You called them a niche community. You described the emancipation of black slaves as of no relevance to the nation as a whole.

          You described the commemoration of the end of slavery as an “extremist position.” (Despite the fact that the bill doing so passed unanimously in the Senate and 415-14 in the House.)

          1. Dude’s full on Stormfront now, just posting wake up white people posts and then claiming it was all a joke to own the libs.

            1. Search the thread for yourself. I NEVER said wake up white people or anything to that even closely. Same with the made up accusation I somehow said black people were not real Americans. That never happened either. Sure I said it was a niche holiday of no real nation a significance which is true.

              You have to make up lies to frame your opponents because that is the best that you can do. And it just makes you look foolish.

  11. Why is a holiday focused on black people named using broken English? Seems kind of racist.

    1. Because that’s what they called it?

      1. “They” being whom, exactly?
        Most of time it was referred to as “Emancipation Day” – a name used internationally, actually – and there are actually a bunch of different ones in the US.

        Naming a national holiday after the broken slang nickname used by a small number of people in one state seems like a terrible idea to me. “Emancipation Day” was clear, understandable, and descriptive.

  12. They *had* to squeeze “Independence Day” into the holiday’s name. I think this is unfortunate.

    On the plus side, this holiday bubbled up from the people, it wasn’t made up by government officials.

    And whatever the case today, the people who originated the holiday obviously had no problem celebrating a white general informing them they were free. Indeed, both blacks and whites ended up fighting (and dying) for freedom. A rainbow coalition of freedom lovers, at least for the time needed to get the job done.

    Lord forbid we have a Nat Turner Day, he had a just cause to rebel, but his actions should be deemed war crimes (killing unarmed civilians). Sadly, these war crimes were a defining characteristic of the rebellion.

    As for the USA being a non-national nation, it would be better to say that the American nationality/ethnicity evolved to become more and more coextensive with the growing body of new citizens. Originally the the ethnic Americans could, in protesting the intolerable oppression they experienced as British subjects, refer indignantly to their “consanguinity” with the British. Then over time, those newly-grafted into the American ethnicity (including blacks) actually accepted the ideals of the founding ethnicity and added some new elements which didn’t involve spitting on the founding group – or at least not on the ideals they professed – as noted, violations of American founding ideals were all the more galling because of the violation of professed principles, just as to the American Revolutionaries, violations of their rights as British subjects was particular galling because they had previously thought they had been guaranteed the rights of British subjects.

    Open-borders in the current political context actually doesn’t require immigrants to even pretend to ideological or blood kinship with the founding group. Back when, blacks cited Crispus Attucks, Poles cited Kosciuszko, Italians promoted Columbus, Germans had von Steuben, all to reaffirm their connection with the polity they were joining.

    1. Ah yes, Juneteenth, a great time to shit on current immigrants for not being like former slaves were.

      1. Happy Juneteenth to you, too!

        And your summaries of my remarks are so accurate and spot-on it’s uncanny.

        1. Your last paragraph is not exactly cryptic, chief.

          1. Yes, it was fairly plain and clear, including the part where I explicitly advocated, in those precise words, that we should “shit on” immigrants.

  13. And while there were Enlightenment ideals among the Founding non-birthing-people (f/k/a Fathers), it was, as I understand, the *Scottish* enlightenment, which called itself the Common Sense School – not (Lord forbid) the icky French Enlightenment. And this Scottish philosophy was propagated by Presbyterians at Princeton – not modern PCUSA Presbyterians, but pious Presbyterians who believed in a God who held nations to account.

    So while you can’t exactly deny the Enlightenment influences, it didn’t stop the revolutionaries from, say, calling fornational days of prayers and fasting for national sins. While liberal by modern standards, these guys were, by modern secularist standards, inbred fundamentalist hicks.

    1. liberal *by the standards of the time*

  14. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that Presidents are entitled to declare new federal holidays on their own authority. Ought to properly require legislation, in as much as it has actual legal implications.

    Declaring it as a surprise on a Thursday, when the holiday would be on Saturday, so that the federal government had to shut down without warning the very next day, just adds to my unease.

    Aside from that, it doesn’t particularly irk me, the event itself seems minimally worthy of celebration.

    1. The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday, the House passed it on Wednesday, Biden signed it on Thursday, it was observed on Friday.

      Who could possibly think that was a rushed process?

      1. Ah, so there was a bill. Well, then, at least I needn’t be concerned about Biden having done it on his own say-so.

        1. Yeah, but not knowing what you were talking about didn’t stop you from attacking Biden.

          1. I’ve got a life. I saw the press conference only because I was sitting at the pediatrician’s office with my son for his checkup, and for some unknown reason he didn’t want to watch Phineas and Ferb.

            In some ways it’s actually more disturbing that the entire legislature rushed into this, than that one old guy who’s visibly deteriorating did. But at least it’s a different sort of disturbing.

            1. Maybe you should try reading newspapers instead of getting all your news from Fox?

  15. Not racist Brett Bellmore claims that the end of slavery is minimally worthy of celebration.

    1. If we want to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, we should be honest about when that was. It sure wasn’t in June 1965.

      1. Uhhhhhh is that what you think Juneteenth is about? 1965?

    2. Yes, it meets the minimal hurdle of being sufficiently noteworthy to not be an absurd basis for a federal holiday. Of the hundreds of events that clear that hurdle, I’m not sure *I* would have picked this one to add to the roster, or even felt the need to add the the roster to begin with.

      But doing so wasn’t obviously a crazy thing to do.

      1. “Of the hundreds of events that clear that hurdle, I’m not sure *I* would have picked this one to add to the roster, or even felt the need to add the the roster to begin with.”

        That’s because you’re a racist.

        1. Why do conservatives voluntarily speak publicly about race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, or similar subjects? Have they no self-awareness or self-preservation instinct?

        2. Like that accusation carries any sting, after a couple decades of the left using it as a content free epithet. I’m not the race obsessed one here.

  16. Of course it’s easy to look back now and say the founders should have abolished slavery when they set up the republic. But it cost 620,000 deaths when slavery was finally abolished, and that was when the population of the North had achieved a 3-1 advantage, as opposed to 1791 when the South’s population was actually higher.

    Trying to end slavery as part of the Revolution would have guaranteed failure for both efforts, rather than the success of the Revolution setting the stage for eventual Abolition.

  17. I still haven’t heard how people’s ribs, wilted greens, devils food cake, and strawberry soda turned out. Are people gonna get with the spirit of this thing or not?

  18. Maybe Replacement Theory was right after all. Seems they are doing a good job of tearing down statues and historic holidays to replace them with made up holidays.

    1. Weird. I accuse him of spouting Nazi slogans above, and then scroll down and find him spouting additional Nazi slogans.

      Still waiting to learn what a non-“made up holiday” is, though.

      1. Juneteenth is a Chinese Commie example of the method of self criticism. We are remembering a shameful act of the nation. It is a Trojan Horse for what comes next, reparations and lawyer enrichment.

        1. Freeing slaves was a shameful act?

      2. Non-made up holidays are days that celebrate the accomplishments of real white people, like Christopher Columbus, Jesus, and Judah Maccabee.

      3. If you bothered to read the thread above you would learn my objection is that the holiday has no national, historical significance and only gained national prominence when pushed by the extreme left a year ago. Nothing about that is “racist” or “nazi” it is the truth.

        1. Amazing anyone could think you racist when you post like this.

          1. Actually no there is nothing racist about presenting actual facts.

            1. Columbus Day has no national, historical significance. That doesn’t seem to bother you.

              1. Nice try troll. Columbus was father of the Western world and the whole reason you are here today is because he got into a boat which set off a few hundred years of colonization.

                Now let’s compare that to the made up holiday juneteenth. Slavery was already over and so was the war. All that it does is mark when some troops came into a town and told people seriously they needed to really let their slaves go. Maybe that day is worth a mention by the local mayor, but nothing more….

Please to post comments