With the creation this week of Juneteenth as a national holiday, I have seen several posts that, though meaning well in celebrating the day, have made mistakes about the history. Even my own college wrote that because the slaves in Texas had not heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, they were not free until federal troops arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865. Instead of my usual routine of making a historical comparison, I want to take time this week and clarify the Emancipation Proclamation and its role in Juneteenth. I also want to give a warning of a trend that I do not see as helpful in national healing.
I know this is a minor issue, but there is no connection between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth. The reason is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves. If you are confused by this, trust me, you are not alone. It is one of the most misunderstood executive orders ever given. The same President Lincoln who had promised in his Inaugural Address that he had no plans to free any slaves and, even if he did, he did not have the power to do so, had a change of heart by the summer of 1862.
Having endured a string of military losses by that August, Lincoln knew he needed to do something to shake things up. He now realized that this would be a much longer war than he had originally anticipated. Also, by that summer, Lincoln, who hated the institution of slavery, had been receiving a great deal of pressure to do something about slavery from abolitionists in his party and he had been considering issuing an emancipation order. What made him nervous was that the order might hurt the war effort from Democrats, especially the border slave states like Missouri and Kentucky that had stayed loyal to the Union. Once Lincoln decided to issue the order, he needed to wait for a military victory, so it looked like he was making the proclamation out of strength, not desperation.
Finally, on Sept. 17, 1862, Lincoln got the victory he needed. Though it is hard to call the Battle of Antietam a victory, Robert E. Lee’s forces were turned back from Maryland. That was enough for Lincoln. Five days later he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The order stated, “All persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” As good as this order seems, there is a real catch. Only slaves who were in states in rebellion were set free. In other words, the order did not apply to slaves in states like Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware where Lincoln had authority. The order applied only to slaves in states where Lincoln did not.
As I stated at the beginning, the Emancipation Proclamation did not really free anyone. Slaves could now free themselves. If slaves could run away to northern lines or to the Union Army, they would be free. Prior to this, Lincoln had ordered the army to return all runaways. Even if slaves in Texas had heard about the Proclamation, it would have made no difference. They were no freer than slaves in any southern state.
So why issue the Proclamation if it did not actually free slaves? First, it was done as a military effort, which was the way Lincoln justified the legality of the order. Slaves in the fields allowed for more men to join the Confederate armies. If slaves could now be considered free and could run to Union lines, then the South would be deprived of a valuable military resource. Secondly, the order was meant to be an encouragement. Though the order was issued in September, it was not going to take effect until January 1, 1863. The idea was that if any state (Lincoln was gambling on the border states like Arkansas and Tennessee) rejoined the Union before January, then their slaves would be protected. So, the document that we associate with freeing slaves was actually a way to protect it.
When we talk about Juneteenth instead of mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation, we need to mention the 13th Amendment. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order. As such, it could and probably would have been overturned if Lincoln had lost reelection in 1864. There was also a good chance that the courts would declare the Proclamation unconstitutional, as most executive orders should be. To guarantee freedom for slaves in all the states forever, he pushed for the 13th Amendment, which did free the slaves. The Amendment was passed in Congress on Jan. 31, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered his army (only his army, not the Confederacy) on April 9. News of the surrender did not instantly reach the west. General Kirby Smith, who controlled Texas, surrendered May 26 and finally Stand Waite in Indian Territory surrendered June 23. During that time, on June 19, Texas slaves heard that the war was over and that slaves were now free. Had they known about the Emancipation Proclamation earlier, it would not have mattered. It was the end of the war and the 13th Amendment that made them free.
Finally, one quick thought. The official name of this new national holiday is Juneteenth National Independence Day. While I completely support this as a holiday, I believe the name is intentionally packed with political divisiveness. Just two weeks after Juneteenth is our nation’s actual Independence Day. Though I try to stay away from conspiracy theories in this column, it seems as if this name is an attack on our nation’s history. Many names could have been used. I would have voted for Emancipation Day, but naming it Independence Day seems as one more attempt to minimize what our Founding Fathers did in 1776. Yes, our Founders owned slaves, and yes, this nation was built upon the backs of slaves, but it is still the greatest nation on Earth. Yes, it took a hundred years for Jefferson’s words on equality to ring true – and let’s celebrate that day – but let’s not forget that first we had to create the nation and then we could try to live up its principles.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.