Last year Congress officially nationalized Juneteenth Day as a federal holiday. While Very Serious talking heads attempted desperately to convince those that would listen that Juneteenth was a long celebrated American holiday, the reality is that the regional celebration was largely unknown by most of the nation prior to Congressional action. The episode is a useful illustration of how the state weaponizes secular holidays as a tool to promote a larger cultural agenda.
Prior to nationwide riots in 2020, Juneteenth Day was properly understood as a regional holiday celebrating the emancipation of Texas slaves. The day was understandably a time of celebration for freed Texas slaves and their descendants. Nationally, however, other states had their own days celebrating the end of slavery at times that correlated with their own history – such as Florida’s Emancipation Day which the state recognizes on May 20th. Jubilee Day, celebrated on January 1st, has also been a moment of celebration recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Of course, no matter the origins of Juneteenth as a particular regional celebration, its elevation to federal status has nothing to do with the history of slavery in America. There has clearly been no recent public debate over the virtues of abolition. Instead, the day’s modern political momentum was obviously the direct response to mostly peaceful protests that engulfed the nation following the death of George Floyd and other high-profile incidents of deadly force used by police during interactions with black Americans. Then-President Donald Trump has loudly taken credit for last year’s official declaration after pitching federal recognition as part of a federal response to deal with escalated racial tensions.
The end of the horrific, systemic violence of slavery is indeed a great victory for human liberty and a moment for celebration and recognition. Because of this, many libertarian-inclined politicians – including Senator Rand Paul – supported the Biden Administration’s follow-through of Trump’s campaign promise. Doing so, however, falls into the powerful trap of giving the federal regime another opportunity to shape the American narrative – and by extension the national culture – to its advantage.
The weaponization of holiday celebrations by authorities for the purposes of social control is nothing new. Ancient Roman triumphs were grand religious and state ceremonies celebrating a grand victory by the military of Rome. In Republican Rome, only the senate could sign off on triumphs, making it a political tool of political factions aligned or opposed to the victorious Roman general. Julius Caesar, who enjoyed an unprecedented four triumphs, famously utilized the public celebration of his military conquests to build up a base of support among Roman plebs.
In Revolutionary France, the attempt to purge the new enlightened republic led the Jacobins to completely rewrite the French calendar in accordance with the new rationalist dogma. Further, the tradition and custom of religious feast days and celebrations throughout France were understood as a tool that helped maintain loyalty to the institution of the Catholic church. This played a role in the promotion of new celebrations honoring the atheistic replacements of the “Cult of Reason” and “Cult of Supreme Being.” The partial restoration of Catholic celebrations within the country became a priority of Napoleon Bonapart after he became First Consul, in part to help stabilize post-revolution France. As Emperor, Napoleon himself would create a holiday dedicated to himself: August 15th, the Feast Day of Saint Napoleon.
Secular holidays have a long history of being used as political tools in American politics as well. Constitution Day was a moment of public celebrations for the Federalist Party that earned the greatest victories from the establishment of the new American order. It wasn’t until President Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800 that the White House first celebrated July 4th. (The significance of this divide will be obvious for anyone who has read Patrick Newman’s Cronyism.) In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the date of federal recognition of Thanksgiving as a ploy to boost consumer spending – something that was challenged by governors of the oppositional party.
The holiday with an origin most similar to the modern recognition of Juneteenth is, ironically, the celebration most under attack by the modern left: Columbus Day. In response to a horrific lynching of Italians in New Orleans, President Benjamin Harrison declared a national celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in 1892. While the holiday was originally meant to be a one-off celebration, the celebration of Columbus became a point of Italian American pride, receiving national recognition after a political lobbying push by the Knights of Columbus.
The result is a long history of holiday celebrations being used as deliberate tools of the regime, often designed to undermine religious and regional cultural ties, with the intent to consolidate loyalty to centralized power. This modern attempt by the Very Serious Pundit class to gaslight the country into believing that Juneteenth is a day of national – and not regional – significance should be seen as part of a larger ploy to undermine the public view of American history, culture, and civic institutions. Additionally, national holidays celebrating individual figures – such as Washington, Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr. – can be seen as a secular form of canonization, with resulting consequences on how these figures are treated in educational curriculums and pop culture.
As time goes on, if the evangelical progressives of our times maintain their hold over influential institutions, we are likely to see Juneteenth Day be used as a point in the calendar to promote similar a historical narrative aligned with modern critical race theory and other ideological projects – with opponents of CRT bans explicitly drawing connections between the two.
While Andrew Breitbart famously quipped that politics is downstream from culture, political action on national holidays is a great illustration of why some scholars scoff at the notion. Juneteenth Day is an example of a fiat holiday, imposed upon the nation by an imperial city, which will be used as a tool to promote a specific cultural agenda.
Perhaps a dramatic change in public ideas can restore Juneteenth into a celebration of abolition and liberty.
In the short term, it will have far more in common with the ideological aims of Black Lives Matter and a celebration of Saint George Floyd.