‘Before Us Is the Land of Promise’

Stand for Israel  |  June 27, 2022

President James Garfield
(Photo: Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield became the second American leader to be assassinated, joining Abraham Lincoln, who had been shot and killed only 16 years earlier. Garfield had fought in the Civil War — he was a staunch abolitionist and also argued for African Americans to be allowed to vote — and had also been elected to Congress during the war, in 1862. In 1880, Garfield would be elected president, himself, only to be gunned down by a psychotic office-seeker at a train station in Washington, D.C. Garfield would linger in agony for nearly two months before succumbing to infection because of his wounds, and today few remember him as they do the first president who was murdered.

But like Lincoln, Garfield not only stood for what was right, he was able to eloquently put his beliefs into words. Here, we share his impassioned speech given to Congress in February of 1866 as the U.S. decided how best to help the millions of Americans who had been freed from slavery.

Garfield invokes “a lesson from the dealing of God with the Jewish nation.” Like the newly freed Israelites in the Holy Land, he saw, “Before us is the land of promise, the land of hope, the land of peace, filled with possibilities of greatness and glory too vast for the grasp of the imagination. Are we worthy to enter it?” And in conclusion, this fine American also longed for “an everlasting covenant of peace and blessing…Amen.” After you read President Garfield’s profound speech, test your knowledge on more American leaders who have stood for the Jewish people.

In the very crisis of our fate God brought us face to face with the alarming truth that we must lose our own freedom or grant it to the slave. In the extremity of our distress we called upon the black man to help us save the Republic, and amid the very thunder of battle we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and ours, and witnessed by Jehovah, that when the nation was redeemed he should be free and share with us the glories and blessings of freedom. In the solemn words of the great proclamation of emancipation, we not only declared the slaves forever free, but we pledged the faith of the nation “to maintain their freedom,” mark the words, “to maintain their freedom.” The omniscient witness will appear in judgment against us if we do not fulfill that covenant. Have we done it? Have we given freedom to the black man? What is freedom? Is it a mere negation, the bare privilege of not being chained, bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this be all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion, and it may well be questioned whether slavery were not better.

But liberty is no negation. It is a substantive, tangible reality. It is the realization of those imperishable truths of the Declaration “that all men are created equal,” that the sanction of all just government is “the consent of the governed.” Can these truths be realized until each man has a right be to heard on all matters relating to himself?

[W]e did more than merely to break off the chains of the slaves. The abolition of slavery added four million citizens to the Republic. By the decision of the Supreme Court, by the decision of the Attorney-General, by the decision of all the departments of our Government, those men made free are, by the act of freedom, made citizens. As another has said, they must be “four million disfranchised, disarmed, untaught, landless, thriftless, non-producing, non-consuming, degraded men, or four million land-holding, industrious, arms-bearing, and voting population. Choose between the two!”

[L]et us learn a lesson from the dealing of God with the Jewish nation. When his chosen people, led by the pillar of cloud and fire, had crossed the Red Sea and traversed the gloomy wilderness with its thundering Sinai, its bloody battles, disastrous defeats, and glorious victories; when near the end of their perilous pilgrimage they listened to the last words of blessing and warning from their great leader before he was buried with immortal honors by the angel of the Lord ; when at last the victorious host, sadly joyful, stood on the banks of the Jordan, their enemies drowned in the sea or slain in the wilderness, they paused and made solemn preparation to pass over and possess the land of promise. By the command of God, given through Moses and enforced by his great successor, the ark of the covenant, containing the tables of the law and the sacred memorials of their pilgrimage, was borne by chosen men two thousand cubits in advance of the people. On the further shore stood Ebal and Gerizim, the mounts of cursing and blessing, from which, in the hearing of all the people, were pronounced the curses of God against injustice and disobedience, and his blessing upon justice and obedience. On the shore, between the mountains and in the midst of the people, a monument was erected, and on it were written the words of the law, “to be a memorial unto the children of Israel forever and ever.”

Let us learn wisdom from this illustrious example. We have passed the Red Sea of slaughter; our garments are yet wet with its crimson spray. We have crossed the fearful wilderness of war, and have led our four hundred thousand heroes to sleep beside the dead enemies of the Republic. We have heard the voice of God amid the thunders of battle commanding us to wash our hands of iniquity, to ‘proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ When we spurned his counsels we were defeated, and the gulfs of ruin yawned before us. When we obeyed his voice, he gave us victory. And now at last we have reached the confines of the wilderness. Before us is the land of promise, the land of hope, the land of peace, filled with possibilities of greatness and glory too vast for the grasp of the imagination. Are we worthy to enter it? On what condition may it be ours to enjoy and transmit to our children’s children? Let us pause and make deliberate and solemn preparation. Let us, as representatives of the people, whose servants we are, bear in advance the sacred ark of republican liberty, with its tables of the law inscribed with the ‘irreversible guaranties’ of liberty. Let us here build a monument on which shall be written not only the curses of the law against treason, disloyalty, and oppression, but also an everlasting covenant of peace and blessing with loyalty, liberty, and obedience; and all the people will say, Amen.

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