One of the mottos of the French Revolution proclaimed, “Elles porteront sur leur poitrine ces mots gravés: ‘Le people Français’; et au-dessous: ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort.’ Les mêmes mots seront inscrits sur leurs drapeaux, qui porteront les trois couleurs de la nation” (“They will carry on their chest these words engraved: ‘The French people’; and below: ‘Liberty, equality, brotherhood, or death.’ The same words will be inscribed on their flags, which will carry the three colors of the nation.”)
‘Why, leading up to Juneteenth, is he harping on the French Revolution?’ If this is your response, it’s a fair question. However, I would move us to 1804, to the Republic of Haiti — recognized as the first free black republic in the world.
Juneteenth 2023: Local reflections
One United Lancaster asked several Black community leaders and advocates to share their thoughts on Juneteenth. Click the links to read each author’s essay:
According to the Library of Congress, “The French words liberté, égalité, fraternité are at the crux of the message of freedom and equality for all Haitians, and an important phrase in Haitian historical documents.”
The French political philosopher, judge and historian, Charles Louis de Secondat, famously known as Montesquieu, once wrote, “There is no word which has received more different meanings, and which has struck the minds in so many ways, as that of freedom.”
At its earliest, proclamations for the abolition of chattel slavery are often depicted as for the ruling class, and as a show of the moral evolution of the master class. In contrast, “un montée en niveau” for the enslaved — an increase of their level.
General Order No. 3
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. 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 Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. 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.”
— U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, July 19, 1865
In the United States of America, General Order No. 3, delivered to the people of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, was preceded by the occupation of Galveston one week prior by “a brigade of the 25th Army Corps which comprised more than 1,000 African-descendant soldiers.” (Library of Congress).
Records indicate that the rebelling Confederate government and its soldiers in Galveston were forced to flee to Mexico. While the last two sentences of General Order No. 3 were to be construed both to pacify and to disavow the duty to support those who were proclaimed free, it is settled history that many plantation owners refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the order and to release their enslaved workers.
Montesquieu is noted as the originator of the theory of separation of powers. He held firmly to the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.
I will conclude with two quotes from the philosopher, followed by an original poem, written for the times. In Spirit of the Laws, 1748, Montesquieu says:
- “Liberty is the right of doing whatever the law permits.”
- “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”
I render these reflections through a room poorly lit,
where walls dankly smeared of freedom cries to silt
I sit in hollow space, and the sounds reverberate
horror come the night, amidst a sleepless caliphate.
Wishes beam to dreams, as I mount upon the stake;
Duly downed for liberty crown — enact to consummate.
A perfect union to construct —upon my back thence I am struck,
liberty cry liberty — in the barrel, ‘n the muck.
I can see the gleaming stars but the stripes, ‘oh the stripes’,
innumerous in mine eyes, as I drink of “the bitter cup.”