Juneteenth Reminds Us to Think About Economic Freedom, Not Just Legal Liberty

For African Americans, the end of legalized slavery in the United States was the beginning of freedom — but only the beginning. The incompleteness of their liberation is clear in the proclamation by a Union general in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, which is remembered on America’s newest federal holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day.

The first part of the proclamation by the general, Gordon Granger, is dazzling. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” it reads. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

The second part of the proclamation, though, makes clear that the “absolute equality” that formerly enslaved people were promised wasn’t absolute after all.

“The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” the proclamation continued. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The formerly enslaved had legal freedom, maybe, but not economic freedom. They had no land of their own, so they couldn’t grow their own crops. They were ordered to work for the very people who had enslaved them, only now for wages. They would have to pay most or all of their earnings to their former owners for the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. It was only a faint semblance of the economic freedom that their former masters enjoyed.

The Juneteenth holiday is an occasion for people of all races to think about their lives and their societies. What is freedom, really? Who is fully free, who is partially free and who is not free at all?

To better understand the double message of the Juneteenth proclamation I called Amy Dru Stanley, a historian at the University of Chicago and the author of a prizewinning 1998 book, “From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation.”

Stanley recounted that in the early days of the United States, people who worked for others were considered less than fully free. Voting was reserved at first for people who owned property (and, to be sure, who were also white and male). Thomas Jefferson envisioned a democracy built on yeoman farmers. “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” he wrote in a letter in 1785. “They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.”

States repealed property requirements for suffrage in the decades before the Civil War, but working for others was still considered a form of subjugation. Slaveholding plantation owners taunted abolitionists, saying that white Northerners without property were “wage slaves,” no better off than the African Americans whose lives they controlled.

“Self-mastery was seen as eroded by economic dependence,” Stanley told me.

Naturally, then, when emancipation came, the first thing formerly enslaved people wanted was land, which they rightly saw as a prerequisite for real independence. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor,” a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier told the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, and the Union general William Sherman in a meeting in Savannah, Ga., in January 1865. Four days later Sherman famously promised 40 acres of land to each formerly enslaved family (the “and a mule” part came later).

But the federal government never followed through on its promise of land — and thus true independence — to formerly enslaved people. Economics entered into the picture, Stanley said: If African Americans grew subsistence crops on their own plots, who would cultivate and harvest all the cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice grown on the vast plantations?

After the Civil War, in lieu of land distribution, slavery was replaced by sharecropping, in which planters allowed tenant farmers to keep a portion of the crops they raised. That subjugated the tenants to the owners almost as surely as slavery did.

At the same time, industrialization in the North meant that more and more white Americans were working for wages — about two-thirds by 1875, according to Stanley. Many drew the connection between themselves and African Americans. Eugene Debs, who led the Pullman railroad strike of 1894, said, “The paternalism of the Pullman is the same as the interest of a slaveholder in his human chattels. You are striking to avert slavery and degradation.”

Today, the phrase “wage slavery” invoked by Debs and others has lost its punch. Many people who work for wages are doing very nicely, thank you. And many farmers and business owners, supposedly more independent, are buffeted by forces beyond their control, from bad weather to nasty customers. What hasn’t changed, 157 years after the Juneteenth proclamation, is that a majority of African Americans continue to lack wealth. The median wealth of Black families in 2019 was just $24,100, versus $142,500 for white families, according to a Federal Reserve survey.

Something needs to change, but what? The nature of the economy has changed, and few people still think that the solution to inequality is to give people plots of land to farm. We are enmeshed economically with one another in ways that Jefferson could not have imagined. Instead of land grants, the new protections for workers are unionization, government regulation and profit-sharing, Stanley said. One can quibble over her formula, but the motivation behind it is unquestionable. Freedom — which must include economic freedom — is just as important now as it was on the original Juneteenth.

Number of the week

5.35 million

The seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales of existing homes in the United States in May, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by FactSet. That would be down from a 5.61 million pace in April. High prices and rising mortgage rates have trimmed demand. The National Association of Realtors is scheduled to release the official number on Tuesday.

Quote of the day

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”

— Woody Allen, “Without Feathers” (1975)

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