American democracy in theory and practice

Today some Americans will be celebrating their independence a bit early. That's because June 19th marks the day slaves in Texas first heard of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.

The curious thing about "Juneteenth," as black Americans refer to it, is that Lincoln's executive order took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but Texas slaves did not hear about it until Union soldiers landed in Galveston Bay on June 19, 1865. Talk about better late than never.

That freedom was proclaimed in 1863, but delayed as a practical reality for two more years, is not an anomaly in American history. In fact, this nation was born of a similar experience.

In their Emancipation Proclamation of 1776, more commonly known as the Declaration of Independence, American colonists proclaimed their right to govern themselves. But that right was not secured until the surrender of Cornwallis more than five years later.

Liberty proclaimed in word but secured by fits and starts is the American fact of life. Democracy has never been a risk-free proposition. To paraphrase the Federalist Papers, men are not angels, nor are they governed by them. Even a well-designed constitution can only do so much to guide majority rule toward the protection of everyone's rights. In short, government by consent of the governed is only as good as the opinion of the citizenry and the rulers they elect.

That's why Juneteenth should be celebrated only in light of that greater Independence Day, the Fourth of July. Without the Spirit of '76, there would be no Juneteenth. And no one knew this more than Abraham Lincoln, who called the principles of the Declaration of Independence "the definitions and axioms of a free society."

Some might question this praise of Lincoln. After all, his Emancipation Proclamation only "freed" slaves under Confederate control, leaving those in the Unionist, "border" states still in bondage. Moreover, Lincoln himself noted that his "paramount object" in the Civil War was "to save the Union," not "to save or to destroy slavery."

To some, this priority of preserving the constitutional union belies his reputation as the Great Emancipator.

But Lincoln believed he had no constitutional authority over slavery where it already existed. And as president he was sworn to uphold the rights of slave owners under the Constitution, including the notorious fugitive slave law of 1850. But after almost a year-and-a-half of a civil war with no end in sight, he decided to abolish slavery in the rebellious parts of the Union as "a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion."

Only as commander in chief of the armed forces, and "in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States," did Lincoln find the authority and circumstances to emancipate slaves. By this constitutional logic, Lincoln couldn't and therefore didn't free slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Slave owners there weren't rebelling against the Constitution, and so their lives and property - including slaves - were owed its protection just like before the war.

As for the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was a dead letter to slaves behind Confederate lines, Lincoln committed "the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof," to "recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."

This was an engraved invitation to slaves in the Confederacy to escape their rebellious masters and receive the legal protection of their freedom by the government. Goodbye fugitive slave status, hello federal asylum.

Lincoln understood the limits of his power to free slaves. And so his Emancipation Proclamation, while pledging to "recognize and maintain" the freedom of runaway slaves, would require them to make freedom a reality for themselves by escaping into Union lines.

Instead of a "black alternative" to July 4th, Juneteenth should help all Americans build a common understanding of our long-running experiment "to form a more perfect union." Rightly understood, Juneteenth marks not just a national commitment to secure the equal rights of black Americans, but a day to reflect on the right and duty of all Americans to make freedom a blessing to themselves and their posterity.

*Lucas E. Morel, author of 'Lincoln's Sacred Effort: Defining Religion's Role in American Self-Government' (Lexington Books), is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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