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A Man Of Conscience
In an era when political morality had sunk low, an immigrant, Carl Schurz, helped rally the republic to its ancient ideals
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Nothing is more central to the American experience than the journey of the immigrant from the Old World to the New in search of freedom, security of person, or simply his daily bread. If Carl Schurz, who arrived from Germany in 1852, found all these things in abundance, he repaid the republic in rare and precious coin: half a century of honest, devoted service. He was a crusader for abolition, a brave (if unlucky) general in the fight to save the Union, a vigorously independent United States senator, and an outstanding Cabinet officer. What doubled and trebled the value of that service was that it came at a time when probity and dedication were sorely needed, when in public life the weak and the wicked had all but pre-empted the field. As writer, editor, and lecturer, Schurz was a never-tiring advocate of reform; from the Civil War to the turn of the century he was, says his biographer, Claude M. Fuess, “the … exceedingly useful incarnation of our national conscience.”
Few foreigners have reached these shores with a more romantic past. Carl Schurz (he pronounced it Shoortz ) was a “forty-eighter,” one of that small band of German intellectuals who in 1848 risked all in an attempt to bring unity and a measure of democracy to the Fatherland. A schoolmaster’s son from tiny Liblar, near Cologne, Schurz was a nineteen-year-old student at Bonn when, one morning late in February of that revolutionary year, a comrade rushed into his attic room with word that the French had driven Louis Philippe from his throne and proclaimed a republic. Discontent had been brewing in Germany for some years, and now, all over the country—and particularly in the university towns—the exciting news from Paris sent crowds boiling into the streets to listen to fiery speeches. Their leaders drafted petitions to the land’s most powerful ruler, the autocratic Frederick William IV of Prussia, demanding that he take steps to unite into one great empire Germany’s congeries of kingdoms, grand duchies, margraviates, bishoprics, and principalities, and that he convene a national parliament that would significantly broaden the people’s civil and political rights.
For a time it seemed that the uprising had succeeded: the parliament was duly called, and at Berlin Frederick William made a great show of adopting democratic ways. But the parliament frittered away its time in debating, when its only chance for life lay in bold, decisive action; Frederick, unable or unwilling to assert his leadership over a united Germany, prorogued the parliament and called out troops to suppress the revolution.
It crumpled quickly, for reasons which Carl Schurz’s own experiences make clear. With a band of over one hundred men under a former lieutenant of artillery, he set out to capture an armory across the Rhine from Bonn. Schurz carried out his assignment, which was to commandeer a ferry to get the revolutionists across the river. But he neglected to put the ferry out of action once it had served their purpose; the boatman, whether out of royalist sympathies or simply because he was a businessman with his eye on the main chance, promptly recrossed to Bonn and brought over a body of Frederick William’s dragoons. Hearing the trumpets and hoofbeats of his pursuers, the timid artillery lieutenant ordered his band to disperse. Schurz and his companions watched, humiliated, as thirty horsemen —hardly a third of their own numbers—swept on unmolested toward the armory. The whole thing had the flavor of opéra bouffe: a good plot for Sigmund Romberg, perhaps (steins lifted, voices raised in song), but hardly a blueprint for empire. Schurz himself, captured and imprisoned by the Emperor’s forces, managed a midnight escape through a storm sewer and eventually made his way to Switzerland.
His cloak-and-dagger exploits were not over. His intellectual and revolutionary mentor, Professor Johann Gottfried Kinkel, was confined in Berlin’s Spandau prison. Kinkel’s wife had succeeded in raising money for his release, and now sent word to Schurz in Switzerland asking him to slip back into Germany to organize and carry out the rescue. It was a fantastic plot, complete with bogus passports, “magic ink,” a bribed jailer, relays of horses and closed carriages to carry Kinkel and his liberator north to the Baltic, and a schooner to take them from there to England. It was fantastic, but it worked: on a Sunday morning in November, 1850, the Little Anna dropped anchor at Leith, Scotland, and Kinkel and Schurz went ashore to freedom. It had been a really remarkable exploit for a youngster of twenty-one; its echoes quickly found their way to the United States, where, magnified by distance and time, they would make Schurz famous among German-Americans and pave the way for his subsequent political success among them.