From Principles to Reality: Juneteenth

Sam Hales
19 June 2021

America is truly exceptional and is among the greatest forces for good in the history of humanity. America is not only a set of principles and ideals, but the application of those principles and ideals overcoming the flaws of human nature and self-interest. Few other sets of ideas or nation has so positively effected humanity as the application of our founding principles and ideals and Juneteenth is a perfect way to celebrate our struggle to turn these principles into reality.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States lay out a set of ideals and principles by which men and women should live with each other and in relation to their government. The Founding documents also lay out goals that the nation should strive for such as holding certain truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are not only recognized as rights, but as goals for the nation, people and the government that serves them.

With the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution not a single Founding Father believed that we had fully achieved these goals. In the real world, a vision based on principles does not become reality overnight. That is why they set up a government that would enable us to march towards those goals and deal with challenges along the way. The Fourth of July is the day we celebrate those rights, principles and ideals. It is the day we celebrate what our Founding Fathers brought to the world. They brought to the world the ideas and actualization that governments derive their just power from the people and serve the people. Also, that just governments have limitations on their powers and that citizens have rights that should be protected from the tyranny of government and from the powerful within the society. Once again, these are original ideals as a basis for a national government and as Americans we should be rightfully proud of this tradition even though we realize when they were established reality fell far short of those ideals.

When America was founded through these charter documents and the government that followed, we as a nation were far from living by these ideals. A large minority of the population was enslaved with no rights. Women did not have the right to vote. Laws arose that persecuted homosexuals. In short, as a nation we fell short of our ideals.

In certain circles today it is popular to believe that slavery was unique to America and that somehow that it was a uniquely American institution. This is a terrible misunderstanding of slavery, history and America. In many ways, the slavery in America can only be seen as the immoral act it is because of the founding of America. Prior to the founding of America there were few countries that had the legal foundation on which to challenge slavery. And the few countries that did have this legal foundation were all in western Europe. Britain was exceptionally important in the struggle to end slavery. Additionally, there were few moral codes across the world that condemned slavery. When our Founding Fathers wrote our charter documents and did not specify that these rights and principles did not only pertain to one race they defacto stated that they pertained to all races and men. When they stated that all men were created equal that created the legal foundation by which slavery became unamerican and illegal. That is a powerful truth and has been the basis of most if not all of our powerful Civil Rights leaders throughout our history. A great example of this is when Martin Luther King in his “I have a dream speech” says,

“In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

The portion cited above is approximately in the 3-5 minute portion of the video below.

It is clear that MLK is pointing back to the founding charters and is saying that we still have a gap between our principles and our reality. So, with this understanding that from our very beginning there has been a gap between principles and reality we turn to closing that gap.

As soon as our nation was founded on these principles, slavery became an original sin that the nation struggled with from the very beginning. Slavery was an institution built on self-interest and power. The slave owners’ wealth was based on slavery and they had the power to keep these Americans in slavery and to threaten the union itself. So, the institution of slavery persisted because it was vital to the perceived self-interest of the slave holders and due to the power they had to defend it. As America aged it continuously came back to this friction between those who saw slavery as a terrible sin and a violation of our American principles and those whose self-interest were in defending slavery and had the power to do so. As the decades passed this friction grew so intense that the country finally came to Civil War over the issue between our national principles and ideals and the reality of self-interest and power of the slave holders. The nation paid the cost of 364,511 Union soldiers dead ( to move our nation closer to our ideals and principles as laid out in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The fact that our principles and our belief in those principles motivated ourselves as a nation to pay such a huge cost in blood to bring our principles one step closer to reality should be a point of pride. It is our willingness to take on that struggle that is the basis of why Juneteenth is going to become a great American holiday.

July Fourth is the day to celebrate our ground-breaking and world improving principles that America and our Founding Fathers brought to the world. Juneteenth is the day for us to celebrate our willingness to pay any price to make those principles a reality. We did not wage the Civil War because it would win us (the Union) wealth or conquer for us resources. The Union waged the Civil War to defend our Union and the principles upon which it was built. And, in accordance with those principles, slavery was unacceptable and that we were willing to pay a huge price to end it and bring reality closer to our principles.

Now, even with the victory of the Union and our principles in the Civil War, we as a nation failed to follow through and the evil of Jim Crowe gained the upper hand and we failed to once again make our principles fully reality. Though much progress had been made with the emancipation of the slaves and the future 13th Amendment the country once again fell short. We allowed Jim Crowe to once again create a gap between our principles and our reality. Into this gap stepped the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and leaders such as Martin Luther King. MLK took up the cry and the struggle of making America live up to our principles of equality for all people.

There are some who argue that slavery is in America’s DNA. There are some who argue that slavery and our struggle to end it show the evil that is America. I see it completely the opposite. When America was founded most of the world lived in one form of enslavement or another. For most people in the world they had no rights. The overwhelming majority of the world lived in abject poverty and under the whims of the powerful. Our Founding Fathers broke with that world and laid down a governmental framework based on the rights of individuals and the self-evident self-worth and liberty of all men and women. But, because we live in the real world, when they founded our nation there were vestiges of the pre-rights, pre-liberty world ruled by the powerful that remained. Slavery was chief among the evils that remained in America of that old world. From the very start America struggled to live up to our principles as a nation and Juneteenth is a day to celebrate our willingness to struggle and sacrifice for what is right. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the wonderful and rightful final ending of slavery in America and our march towards achieving a life based on our principles. Happy Juneteenth, America! Step by step we will make our beautiful principles into reality.