by Dan Pipes
As we celebrate our newest national holiday, I pause to reflect on the context of the times, both then and now. This is a holiday that we can all rejoice in.
It is difficult today to understand just how devastating the Civil War was for our nation. But before I go down that path, we should also celebrate the Constitution, which inevitably set the stage for the Civil War.
The words that begin the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence are clear. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Our nation was founded with this promise of equality. The Federalist Papers and countless other documents and records show how this issue simmered until it finally burst into flames in 1861.
Back to the Civil War. Juneteenth rightly celebrates the end of the agonizing and horrible institution of slavery. We should use this day to remember not only those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but those who fought and died to make it happen. The slaves were unable to free themselves.
Juneteenth was not realized by some happy accident of time and circumstance.
Given the population of the United States in 1860, and using the low side of military casualty estimates for the war, the 650,000 Civil War casualties (not including any civilian deaths) would be 6.4 million deaths in today’s America. Think of that. The same number of deaths that Jews suffered in the horrific concentration camps in WWII. The impact on our nation was felt for generations.
Since it has become fashionable to divide us by race and gender and other categories, it is worth noting that the vast majority of those who fought and died were white males. Think of that. Over 150 years ago, a huge number of white men (and boys as young as 12) said no to slavery, and fought and died for their beliefs.
To bring this home, Vermonters disproportionally served in the Civil War. Over 5,000 Vermonters died for the cause, and 2,200 were taken prisoner. If the war was fought today with the same casualty rate, we would suffer over 10,000 casualties. It is mind boggling in its devastation. Imagine all of Montpelier killed, and then add another 2,500 casualties. Our state is rightly filled with monuments to these brave men.
I’m all for celebrating the end of slavery in America. Let’s not just celebrate what happened, but how, and who made it so. Let’s also remember those thousands of families who never saw their sons and fathers and uncles again.
This holiday is both proof that America was not and is not perfect, and that our national trajectory moves towards a more perfect union. Sometimes it’s a stutter step, sometimes we fall, but that particular arc of our history moves towards those natural rights that are brilliantly set forth in our Constitution. We can celebrate those freed, those who broke the chains, and the ongoing promise of freedom for all citizens. What a wonderfully inclusive holiday.
The author is a Fairfield resident