Reflections on Juneteenth

I recently took my children on a road trip to Washington DC that I have been referring to as the Great Indoctrination into the Greatness of American Heritage Road Trip of 2023. I love America. I love our history, warts and all. And I wanted to send my children off into the world with an understanding of that history and that heritage. Further it was a goal of mine to show my children that history isn’t something that just happened in a book, but happened in real places and events were caused by real people.

Our first stop was Monticello, the majestic home of Thomas Jefferson. Although it has been on my personal bucket list I had never been there before and to say I was nerding out the entire time would be an understatement. The tour of Jefferson’s House was heavy on emphasizing the man’s genius. From the usage of the clock at the entrance that utilized small cannon balls to keep the day of the week, to the usage of a self-designed device that allowed him to make a copy of a letter he wrote for his own records, his brilliance is on full display.

What is also on display and emphasized is the role Sally Hemings played in Jefferson’s life as the most visible example of the cognitive dissonance that must have been experienced by a man who simultaneously owned humans as property and wrote the greatest of American Promises, that all men are created equal. It was a dilemma that was obvious to my children immediately. Especially when we went to Montpelier and the story of how the author of the Bill of Rights once chased down one of his escaped slaves.  

We visited the room our tour guide told us was the place where the Bill of Rights was drafted in Madison’s hand. The guide, a history major herself, was ready to point out the disparity of how Madison owned slaves and wrote the so much of our founding document which still survives today. She explained how Madison wrote that his generation could not solve the problem of slavery and that ultimately it would be left to future generations.

I asked my 14 year old daughter, “how do you reconcile how these men wrote about the rights of people and then owned them as if they had no rights and treated them as property?”

“You don’t.” She said. When I prodded, she couldn’t truly defend that position, but there was something that struck her as off about judging historical figures by modern standards. She’s 14, but I recognize so much of myself in her. She is thoughtful and ponders big questions. She is less offended when directly insulted but will take the role of champion in someone else’s cause at a lightning pace.  I could be wrong, but I think she felt empathy for both the slaves and for these men who made our stake in the concept of liberty common.

Two days later and we were at Ford’s Theatre and Madison’s conclusion that future generations would have to deal with slavery was front and center. Here the man who took up the cause was assassinated for his efforts. We followed our visit to the Lincoln Aftermath Exhibit with a trip down to the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a visit to the MLK Jr Memorial, where things were starting to finally come into focus.

My children’s American Heritage is a story that is still being written. The story of America didn’t start, and it certainly didn’t end, and therefore cannot be defined by a single event. Whether it be the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the passage of the Civil Rights Act each generation takes up the cause of Liberty, makes further strides towards it, and then passes the torch to the next.

The concept of America, at its core, is a set of promises made to govern in such a way that respects the rights of everyone. These promises are written into our DNA as Americans.  Who doesn’t know that we have freedom of speech, association, religion, and press? Who doesn’t know that we have the right to bear arms, to a jury of our peers, that we are innocent until proven guilty and to due process?  Our history teaches us that we consistently fail to deliver completely on these and other promises, but we never give up on trying.

That’s what I wanted to get across to my children. They have a duty to go out into the world and to keep trying to make this a more perfect union. That they be vigilant because as they saw in other museums on the trip, there is always someone willing to seize more power for themselves at the detriment of our collective liberty.

And so, on this Juneteenth, the day we now recognize because the last pocket of enslaved people finally got word that they were free on this day in 1865, I reflect on what it means to have the torch in my hands for this time. Am I doing enough? What challenges remain? How do we tackle them in a way that leaves the next generation a lighter load and on the path to keeping these promises?

Gather round, fellow conservatives, because there is certainly work to do. And we have a duty to do the work.

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