Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

I enjoyed the discussion and historical side trips produced by Rep. Kim Fiorello’s May 15 explanation of why she supported the bill to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. No one seemed to quarrel with her conclusion, but columnist Alma Rutgers and letter writer Greg Darak took great umbrage at some of her reasoning along the way. The result of the combination was a tour de force of American state documents, touching on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address — not always accurately.

At first, it seemed to me strange to designate Juneteenth as “Emancipation” Day or “Freedom” Day. It is a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was effective on Jan. 1, 1863, some 30 months earlier than Juneteenth. That would seem to make it something of a nonevent. But apparently it wasn’t to the folks in Galveston, halfway down the Texas Gulf Coast. Their very distance away expresses the power of the reach of the proclamation.

The proclamation, like most things, was not without its flaws, but they do not diminish its importance: It had a political purpose as well a moral and humanitarian one, and it did not cover all slaves. The key phrase was partially quoted by Rep. Fiorello, but it deserves full treatment to honor its Lincoln-esque cadence: “That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free …”

The political purpose stemmed from the fact that at that time Secretary of State Seward was concerned about the possibility of Britain’s diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. He felt that if such a proclamation were issued, it would go a long way toward keeping British public opinion against the South. The question of who was covered was more complicated. Lincoln had consistently held that the president alone could not abolish slavery; there was no express authority to do this. His personal position was against slavery, but he knew that, had he run as an abolitionist in 1860, he would have lost. Public opinion in the north still had a long way to go.

So he dealt with the matter as a war power, available to him as constitutional commander in chief of the armed forces at a time of insurrection, to use against the opponent. The proclamation was carefully drawn to apply only to slaves in the Confederate states and places under Confederate control. It did not free the slaves held legally in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia or Maryland, which remained in the Union, or Washington, D.C., for that matter. They would have to await the 13th Amendment. Despite its flaws, it was a glorious call to arms, unmasking the very purpose of the war.

So, Juneteenth — bring it on!



Richard G. Bell lives in Hamden.



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