I just got an email notice that my Wall Street Journal will not be delivered on June 20 in observance of Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday. Some will be unsettled at the rapid accession of Juneteenth to federal holiday status, but this is fitting, for which I see a particular reason.
Slavery has been dubbed America’s original sin by some, but I do not favor that expression. The idea of original sin carries an idea that it cannot be undone, that it is inherent to you, like the idea of sinfulness of the sexual act by which biological human beings are conceived.
Seeing slaery as original sin gives too much deference to slavery and racism. They are blatant transgressions of the creed on which the nation is conceived. They are literally un-American ideas and practices, deep sins that must be eradicated from our national life. True, at the time of national conception, Americans practiced both, extensively. But today we hang the practitioners on the petard of what many of them undersigned – and drafted, in Jefferson’s case – in 1776. We knew it as sin then. The “flesh was weak” among the ruling population, but sin it was. As the nation developed, it slowly, and painfully, moved toward our stated identity and ethos. Marking the end of slavery, in formal fact as well as proclamation, commemorating a huge step toward convergence with our principles, is itself a big step toward living by our creed.
So, while any African American might rightly take special joy in Juneteenth, it is not an African American observance. Such a step toward realization of our principled creed is to be celebrated by all, in our undifferentiated national identity. No government action comes without politics. But it is a point of legitimate pride for every American that this nation can move mortal humans to realize America’s self-evident yet profound truths. From time out of mind peoples feared or hated those deemed as “other,” and exploited wherever power allowed them to do so.
The promise of a nation founded on principle, on faith in all people, simply as people in their exercise of rights, has long been seen as an unrealistic ideal. A whole philosophical view of human nature says that interests, fears, and power will always prevail when push comes to shove. So the concept of a nation conceived on a principle will always face skepticism, even ridicule, of the jaded. Juneteenth says that at least one nation can move toward that ideal, in which people live together, each in pursuit of good life by their own best lights, regardless of any physical or historical features. That nation is America, and we have only just begun. A Joyous Juneteenth to all of us.