Legislators gather behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, in a show of support as she explains the significance of Juneteenth on the floor of the state House of Representatives on May 4, 2022.
Legislators gather behind Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, in a show of support as she explains the significance of Juneteenth on the floor of the state House of Representatives on May 4, 2022. Yehyun Kim

There’s been a great deal of conversation about a debate that took place on the floor of the General Assembly. The occasion was a vote on a bill to make Juneteenth Day, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, an official state holiday in Connecticut.

My vote: yes, I enthusiastically support this.

State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello

My reasoning: America’s founding launched the greatest freedom movement in human history, including the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.  All Americans should know this truth and can celebrate it.

Slavery is abhorrent. And the founders knew it.  Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and himself owned slaves, in earlier drafts of the Declaration excoriated King George for engaging in the slave trade.

The precision of the radical words and ideas espoused in the Declaration — “truths”, “self-evident,” “all men are created equal,” “endowed by their Creator,” and “unalienable rights,” – set the stage for some of the most contentious debates at the Constitutional Convention. After having fought and won a revolution against the greatest imperial power of their time, to many of the folks present at the convention, slavery was too blatant a violation of those freedom principles.

And the task of writing the Constitution went to the man, James Madison, who is recorded as saying to his peers on August 25, 1787, “It is wrong to admit into the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men… slaves are not like merchandise.”

Indeed, the words “slave” or “slavery” are never used in the U.S. Constitution.

There were three compromises regarding slavery in the Constitution that allowed the evil practice to persist: Article 1, Section 2 (three-fifths clause) limited the representative powers of the states that held persons “bound to service;” Article 1, Section 9 (slave importation clause) sunset the importation of “such persons” to end in 20 years; and Article 4, Section 2 (fugitive slave clause) recognized that “persons held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof” must be returned to that state.

Why didn’t these visionaries of their time eviscerate slavery then and there at the start of this new nation? Perhaps, the ultimate answer is in the truth that people often let themselves and future generations down, sometimes to disastrous effect.

Decades later, in 1860, Frederick Douglass saw hope in the Constitution and offered insight into the most disputatious of the three compromises.  He said, the three-fifths compromise “is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation…Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States…Taking [the clause] at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery.”

America did lead the world in the abolition movement.  Even during and at the end of the Revolutionary War, many states moved to end or limit slavery within their borders: Pennsylvania in 1780, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in new territories, treating slavery like a cancer to be contained and not allowed to spread. England and France did not abolish slavery until 1833 and 1848, respectively, after hundreds and hundreds of years of living with it as an accepted practice.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free” was made on January 1, 1863, in the third year of the bloody Civil War.  It wasn’t until the middle of June that such momentous news arrived in Texas.

Juneteenth is a celebratory occasion originating from Galveston, Texas and often marked with public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.  I hope similar traditions will flourish in Connecticut even more now that Juneteenth is an official state holiday.

It is true that America once had slavery. It is also true that it once had Jim Crow. At the same time, it is also still true that America’s founding was the greatest freedom movement for all people.

Many of us today are not of the same race, sex, or religion as the founding fathers. I am the first Korean-American woman to serve in the Connecticut General Assembly. But all of us are one as Americans.  And as Lincoln once so profoundly stated, together we are being tested if this nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure.

I do not often vote yes on bills up in Hartford, but I did for Juneteenth Day.  May we all appreciate its unifying meaning at celebratory gatherings next month.

State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, a Republican, represents parts of Greenwich and Stamford in the 149th House District.