Salvo 07.07.2021 10 minutes

Independence Day, Replaced


America’s new regime debuts its first holiday.

One of President Biden’s signature achievements in his first six months in office has been to create a new public holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day, in commemoration of the very last days of American slavery. This new federal holiday, the first since Martin Luther King Day was created in 1983, pushes us to consider the significance of symbols in political regimes. 

Public Holidays and Political Regimes

Public holidays are an essential part of nationhood in that they bind a people to a common heritage. In calling a people to remember their past, holidays also shape their future—they operate, as Burke described political societies more broadly, as “a partnership…between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” In other words, public holidays, by looking “backward to [our] ancestors,” enable us to “look forward to [our] posterity.”

But as nations change, their stories change, and the holidays change accordingly.  New holidays are created and old ones are discarded, marking regime shifts.  October Revolution Day, for example, celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution, was a public holiday in the Soviet Union from 1927 until 1990. After the collapse of communism, the mythology surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution died along with it. October Revolution Day was thus replaced by President Putin with Unity Day, celebrating the 1612 uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian occupation of Moscow.   

This is the context in which we must understand Juneteenth National Independence Day.  Despite the obvious virtues of Juneteenth Day as a private celebration of freedom, we should be more skeptical about the federal codification of that celebratory event. Three background conditions surrounding the passage of Juneteenth National Independence Day make it more akin to a regime shift than a mere celebration of freedom.

A Prescription to Recognize

Juneteenth National Independence Day neither memorializes a national figure nor honors a national practice. Although Juneteenth has been celebrated for over 150 years, these celebrations have been largely regional and private expressions, as part of “Jubilee Day” gatherings, mostly within the African-American community. But Juneteenth National Independence Day takes this close-knit and meaningful private celebration and turns it into a public holiday for the entire country. 

President Biden was thus explicitly normative in his Juneteenth Proclamation: “Juneteenth is a day that should be recognized by all Americans.” It is impossible to imagine this prescriptive statement being made about any other event on the public calendar because previous federal acts codifying holidays acknowledged rather than created social practices.

Contrast President Biden’s statement with President Lincoln’s famous 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, “invit[ing] my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” President Lincoln was inviting Americans to join together in an activity they had privately already practiced, whereas President Biden is instructing Americans that they should be recognizing something that had previously been unfamiliar to them. 

Indeed, Juneteenth National Independence Day is unique in calling Americans to celebrate an event that many did not even know existed until the federal law was passed. In fact, a Gallup poll, conducted less than one month before the creation of Juneteenth National Independence Day, found about one-third of Americans knew “nothing at all” about Juneteenth, and another one-third knew only “a little bit.”

Framed in this light, Juneteenth National Independence Day does not appear to be a call to participate together in the celebration of freedom. Rather, it looks more like a call for one part of the nation to be ruled by another.   

National Wokeness Day

We must understand this prescriptive feature of Juneteenth National Independence Day in light of the social movement that generated the federal act—namely, the “woke” movement led by Black Lives Matter. Before 2019, the only state to recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday was the state the historic event actually involved—Texas—which has formally recognized it as an optional state holiday since 1979.  In 2019, however, in the wake of the rising Black Lives Matter movement, Pennsylvania made Juneteenth a state holiday. And after the 2020 race riots engulfed many American cities, several states followed Pennsylvania’s lead. 

While Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James is certainly right that Juneteenth is not “some new ‘woke’ holiday invented by Marxist academics,” that does not change the fact that Juneteenth National Independence Day—the federal act that makes it a public holiday for the entire nation—is part and parcel of the “woke” movement she purportedly condemns. As the New York Times Juneteenth backgrounder explains, there was little interest in the holiday movement until the “nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans.”

The legal language surrounding the adoption of the public holiday makes clear that this is about race relations in the 21st century, not emancipation from slavery in the 19th century. Indeed, Republican Pennsylvania state representative Sue Helms, in proposing the state bill, explains that the purpose of the holiday is “to highlight education and achievement in the African-American community.” New York similarly proclaims that this public holiday is designed to “celebrate[] Black and African American freedom and achievements.” Virginia likewise declares that the holiday is designed “to recognize the significant roles and many contributions of African Americans to the Commonwealth and the nation.” 

President Biden’s language in his Juneteenth Proclamation is even more striking in that it is transparently future-oriented: “Juneteenth not only commemorates the past. It calls us to action today.” Biden thus urges us to use Juneteenth as an inspiration to “recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice,” because, you guessed it, “there is still more work to do.”

Juneteenth National Independence Day operates the way that “wokeness” as a movement does, by striking at the heart of what Willmoore Kendall and George Carey described as the American “constitutional morality.” According to Kendall and Carey, our system requires viewing our fellow citizens as partners in constitutional deliberation. This requires the citizenry to have two important deliberative virtues: citizens must not expect “the political order, the government, to reflect and act upon the beliefs that they, as individuals, hold most strongly,” and citizens must not expect “other people, their neighbors, to give up overnight their own strongly held beliefs.” 

The wokeness movement wages war against our constitutional morality by demanding immediate change, not only from the government, but from our neighbors and family members as well. Juneteenth National Independence Day operates similarly. Instead of waiting for states to deliberate on the matter, and for private practices to adapt organically, the federal government responded aggressively and rapidly, within a year of the George Floyd riots, ordering us all to recognize this event that many of us did not even know existed.   

As a result of how Juneteenth National Independence Day was created, the average citizen may not even know what historic event the new holiday celebrates, but he almost certainly knows that he has a day off work because of George Floyd. 

Creation and Removal

Juneteenth National Independence Day must also be understood in the context of the nationwide movement to remove various Founding Era and Confederate symbols. This makes Juneteenth National Independence Day sharply divergent from how Juneteenth had been celebrated in the past, as a celebration of emancipation in a way that was not a systematic replacement for memorials and tributes to those who came before 1865.   

Consider how the public holiday developed in Texas. The first legal recognition of Juneteenth was in 1938, when Texas Governor James V. Allred issued a proclamation recognizing the day and “urg[ing] all members of the Negro race in Texas to observe the day in a manner appropriate to its importance to them.”  In 1972, the Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution “recogniz[ing] ‘Juneteenth’ as an annual holiday of significance to all Texans, and, particularly, to the Blacks of Texas.” Seven years later, in 1979, Texas officially made June 19 “Emancipation Day in Texas” (i.e., a holiday “in honor of the emancipation of the slaves in Texas”), but this did not repeal the Texas holiday created in 1973, “Confederate Heroes Day” (i.e., a holiday “in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate heroes”).

Juneteenth National Independence Day—by operating as a replacement for the past, not as an addition or emendation to how we understand it—is more like Putin’s replacement of October Revolution Day with Unity Day than like Texas’s addition of Emancipation Day to a calendar that also featured Confederate Heroes Day. This new federal holiday, in other words, is part of the construction of a new regime—a regime in which anti-racism, and the accompanying power structure of grievance and guilt that are so critical to its operation, constitutes our constitutional morality. That is not to say that Juneteenth National Independence Day will entirely replace Independence Day, which will still exist, fireworks and all. But the old Independence Day will exist just as October Revolution Day still exists in Belarus, with a meaning adapted to a new story

The creation of Juneteenth National Independence Day means that the Fourth of July and the Declaration’s emphasis on self-governance will decreasingly represent the story of the American people, for we will have a new story, based on a very different moral order. 

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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