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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
His last great crusade was his fight against American imperialism. Realizing that his stand made him a minority of one on its staff, Schurz resigned from Harper’s , and as the election of 1900 approached he even sacrificed his association with his beloved National Civil Service Reform League, knowing that his unpopular international views would hurt its progress. But with the country in an aggressive mood the anti-imperialists lost every battle.
Their struggle had been, in many ways, typical of Schurz’s entire life. It had been a high-minded crusade across party lines, undertaken for the purest of motives at great political risk, and it had, in the short run, failed. But as with most of Schurz’s other enthusiasms, history was on his side: he lived to see slavery abolished; civil service reform and a meaningful conservation movement were on the way to becoming realities by the time he died; and by the end of World War I the fever of imperialism had subsided for good. Carl Schurz was not always with the majority, but he was almost always right. Toward the end of Schurz’s life Mark Twain, who had not always agreed with him, remarked upon this, comparing Schurz to an old Mississippi River pilot whom Twain had idolized as a young man:
[Schurz] was my Ben Thornburgh … whenever he struck out a new course over a confused Helena Reach or a perplexed Plum Point Bend I was confident that he had … hoisted out his sounding-barge and buoyed that maze from one end to the other. Then I dropped into his wake and followed. Followed with perfect confidence. Followed, and never regretted it.
Thousands had done the same.
In these later years Schurz spent his summers at Lake George in the Adirondacks, where he loved to roam the woods with his dachshunds and his collie. The rest of the time he lived in New York City, where his household was supervised by his two daughters, Agathe and Marianne, both of them spinsters. There, in the spring of 1906, shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday, he contracted pneumonia. On May 14, beckoning the daughters and his son, Carl Lincoln, closer to his bedside, he whispered, “Es ist so einfach zu sterben” —“It is so easy to die”—and quietly breathed his last.
He had received all he had sought in coming to America, but he had more than discharged the debt. “The self-evident truths of the Declaration affirm themselves anew in his tale,” wrote William Dean Howells in tribute, “and the Republic is born again.”