Today is Juneteenth, named in honor of the 19th day of June 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger of the United States Army, newly arrived on Galveston Island, issued a declaration that the Emancipation Proclamation would be enforced in Texas.
I’ve heard it suggested that communications were so much slower at the time that most Texans were not even aware of the Proclamation, but this is simply not true. News traveled by telegraph and newspaper nearly as quickly then as it did a century later, and the Proclamation had been issued nearly 30 months earlier. There might at most have been some naïve hope among some slave owners that Texas, having been largely spared the fighting, might for at least a while longer remain an outpost of slavery, but General Granger soon made it clear that wasn’t to be.
A more serious myth is that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves, an oddly common misconception that I’ve written about before in 2012 and in 2015. It’s even sometimes claimed that Lincoln had not even intended for the Proclamation to free the slaves, since it applied only to the areas in rebellion as of the end of 1862. If Lincoln had been serious about ending slavery, the myth goes, he would not have exempted the four slave states that never seceded, and in any case the Confederates states would not have obeyed an order from Lincoln to free their slaves. This is all kinds of nonsense packed into an impressively small space. The whole legal basis of the Proclamation (see below) made it impossible to apply it to areas not in rebellion, and the Proclamation was an order not to the Confederate states to free their slaves but to the United States Army, Navy, and Marines to do so, which they did starting the very first day the Proclamation went into effect, 1863 January 1.
Lincoln strongly opposed slavery, but as he pointed out (for example in his fourth debate with Douglas in 1858 and in his first inaugural address in 1861), the Constitution gave the federal government no authority to end slavery in the states in which it was practiced. He hoped that the remaining slave states would eventually do away with it themselves, as other states had already done, but at the federal level he called only for an end to slavery’s westward expansion, that being unambiguously within the powers of Congress. Even this was enough for his election to prompt seven slave states to secede and form the Confederacy in the months before Lincoln was inaugurated. A further four slave states seceded soon after.
The war, which the South launched with its attack on Fort Sumpter in Charleston harbor in April of 1861, changed things. It was an established principle that military forces could seize enemy goods and chattels (such as wagons and crops) in furtherance of the war effort, and the second Confiscation Act of 1862 gave the president explicit authority to apply that principle to chattel slaves. On 1862 September 22 Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation giving the rebellious states 100 days’ notice that he would order the freeing of slaves in states that did not return to the Union. None did, so the first day of 1863 he issued the final version that listed the areas still in rebellion, declared the slaves there permanently free, and ordered the military and naval forces of the United States to free them in fact.
On that same day, 1863 January 1, at least a few hundred slaves were freed, mainly on the sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. Then as Union forces advanced further into the Confederacy they freed thousands upon thousands more, many of whom made their own way to the Union lines in pursuit of liberty, and in the end nearly 4 million former slaves were free men, women, and children.
One of the most noteworthy military actions to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation took place on 1863 June 1, when United States Navy gunboats and about 300 United State Army soldiers staged an extraordinarily successful raid up the Combahee River. (For details see this article.) The soldiers, a company known as the South Carolina Volunteers, were former slaves. The operation was planned and carried out not by a military leader but by a famously courageous and brilliant volunteer spy named Harriet Tubman, who had previously helped run the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to Canada.
Tubman’s image was scheduled to replace that of Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill this year, but a little more than a year ago Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that for supposed technical reasons the redesign had been postponed until 2028 at the earliest and might not feature Tubman. For some reason, however, there would be no such problem releasing new versions of the $10 and $50 bill sooner than that. It’s widely assumed that the “technical reasons” were actually objections from then-President Trump, who during the 2016 campaign attacked putting Tubman’s image on the bill as “political correctness.”
Yet another myth is that Juneteenth marked the end of legal chattel slavery in the United States. But the Emancipation Proclamation only emancipated existing slaves; it did not and could not outlaw slavery, and again it could not apply to the slave states still in the Union.
Of the four slave states that never seceded, Maryland outlawed slavery in 1864 November and Missouri in 1865 January. Both states already had large numbers of free black men and women. Slaves in Washington DC had been freed (with compensation to their owners) by an act of Congress signed into law by President Lincoln 1862 April 16. The new state of West Virginia came into existence as a free state, a condition for its admission to the Union in mid-1863. At the end of the war there were slaves left only in Delaware, Kentucky, and a few other places exempt from the Proclamation. Slavery finally became illegal and the remaining slaves freed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
This is not a simple story with a happy ending. After the war, and especially after the end of Reconstruction, many former slaves (and their children and descendants) fell back into de facto slavery by other names. In some areas, for example, many black citizens were falsely convicted of crimes and sentenced to labor on private plantations. Many more were denied the right to vote or acquire an education, and Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and inequality. Even after the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, the Civil Right Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, American citizens of African ancestry were and remain less than entirely free, and much injustice still exists no matter how much we might hope otherwise.
But that’s no reason not to celebrate the progress that has been made, and Juneteenth is an appropriate time to do it.
(Updated 2020 June 24 and July 1 and 2021 July 4 with some additional details and attempts to improve wording.)