A Prophet In His Own Country

On 4 July, 1865, just a few months after the conclusion of the Civil War, James A. Garfield, the future 20th President of the United States, then serving as a US Congressman, said in a speech at Ravenna, Ohio “We called upon the black man to help us save the Republic; and amid the very thunders of battle, we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and with ours… that, when the nation was redeemed, he should be free, and share with us its glories and its blessings.”  He then posed this question to his audience,

“What is freedom? …Is it the bare privilege of not being chained – of not being bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery…”

In expressing these thoughts, Garfield was referring to the oppression of blacks in the South, and the racial prejudice they experienced even with emancipation. Garfield further warned that without the vote, freed slaves would be unable to control their own destinies. They would, he said, be left “to the tender mercies of those pardoned rebels who have been so reluctantly compelled to take their feet from his neck and their hands from his throat.” If blacks could not vote, they would “have no voice in determining the conditions under which they are to live and labor…” Under these circumstances, “what hope have they of the future?”