ANCIENT PAGAN WHEAT FESTIVALS AND OTHER EPIC FAILURES
Unlike other people and other nations, Americans and the American Republic exists only as a set of ideas derived from anti-monarchism. As a result, Americans and their Nation can only endure as long as they sustain their organizing and identifying principles. Thus, for Americans, history is not merely an academic or esoteric exercise but a war for American survival.
If history is the Nation’s existential war, then its holidays are both battle and battlefield. After July Fourth, Juneteenth offers the best chance of victory for those concerned about the fate of Americans’ National ideals. Unfortunately, like July Fourth, Juneteenth has challenges that can diminish its impact on America’s future.
Like the celebration of June 19, 1865, July Fourth has its own paradoxical history. On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson completed the Declaration of Independence on July 4. The document, however, was not presented to the Continental Congress until July 5, 1776. Also, the famous signing of the Declaration did not take place until August.
Furthermore, the document itself had no tangible impact. Before Jefferson began writing, Americans had been fighting the British for more than a year. In fact, the Continental Congress, on June 15, 1775, had appointed George Washington to command the Continental Army. The British Army did not surrender until October 19, 1781. At the earliest, today’s American Nation was born when New Hampshire ratified the U.S. Constitution on June 21, 1788.
Moreover, referring to July Fourth as Independence Day is problematic. Conflating the day of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration with the founding of the American Republic only diminishes the importance of the personal sacrifice and moral weakness that moved Americans from the parochialism of their State citizenship to the idea of a functioning, national government.
Juneteenth has similar challenges. The holiday refers to the date, June 19, 1865, when Texans learned that the Union had freed the slaves. In fact, the “slave States” had acknowledged their defeat two months earlier. Also, large populations of slaves had been liberated by the Union Army in General Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign in 1862 and 1863. Finally, Juneteenth did not mark the legal end of slavery. The American Nation did not officially end slavery until December 6, 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
If the goal of the holiday is to mark the advancement of the American ideal, then all Americans must view Juneteenth as a fundamentally American celebration. At present, the holiday bears the misleading, official title, “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. Its potential is currently constrained by its history.
Neither the day’s origin nor the unfortunate language marking its official status should constrain the glorification of Juneteenth. Thousands of years ago, aboriginal tribes had festivals to celebrate a successful harvest. In one area of the world, the celebration became the Jewish agricultural holiday of Shavuot.
Around two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire destroyed the Hebrew Nation. To save the principles that bound the Jews to their organizing, identifying ideals, the Rabbis eventually transformed Shavuot into the day that Moses received the Law. Today, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot continues as the holiday to study the principles in the Torah.
For various reasons, including the passage of the centuries, the meaning of these principles has been subjected to various interpretations. Also, rather than study the Five Books of Moses — the Torah — the Rabbinic Movement encourages the study of other literature. Far more unclear is the practice of so many American Jews to mix their study sessions with eating cheesecake. Lots of cheesecake.
If the Rabbis, whose traditions rarely have advanced Judaism’s principles, can turn a holiday based on wheat to a day to consider the Torah’s command to pursue justice, then commemorating the full significance of Juneteenth is easily attainable. No one really knows when (or if) Moses received the Torah, but Shavuot is as good a day as any to give full attention to the implications of this described event.
Glorifying the end of slavery may well be the communal act of Americans that, like the original liberation, saves the Republic. Acknowledging the evil of slavery does not negate the ultimate triumph; it accentuates the sacrifice of Americans for Americans. As events in the past, and the recent past, have proved, the cause of the American Nation requires recognizing both the moral failings of some Americans and the exemplary sacrifice of others. Our Nation’s success depends on every generation’s understanding the difference.
Preserving America’s declared principles continues. Like the pursuit of justice, implementing American ideals is a constant march. Juneteenth is the only holiday that reminds Americans of their National purpose. Like Shavuot, Juneteenth is best honored when Americans read the first State Constitutions; study the words and deeds of Lincoln, Douglass, and Grant; and consider how far Americans have traveled and how far we still must go. Juneteenth is, after all, the American National Day of Liberation.
If it helps, eat some cheesecake.