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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
Schurz had at the moment no intention of going to America; with the other political refugees in London, Paris, and Geneva, he waited only for a favorable moment to launch a new revolution. A year and a half of eating the bitter bread of an exile convinced him, however, that that day would never come. To Schurz the international committee of revolutionaries meeting in London began to resemble “a gathering of spectres moving about in a graveyard.” Where would he go? “To America,” he mused to himself on a bench in Hyde Park one day. “It is a new world, a free world, a world of great ideas and aims. In that world there is perhaps for me a new home. Ubi libertas ibi patria .” Within the year, having in the meantime taken a wife, Carl Schurz was crossing the Atlantic. On a bright September morning in 1852 they arrived in New York and “with the buoyant hopefulness of young hearts … saluted the new world.”
Young hearts indeed. Margaretha Meyer Schurz, the daughter of a Hamburg manufacturer, was just eighteen, with “something childlike in her beautiful features and large, dark, truthful eyes.” The groom was twenty-three. Lean and lanky—a shade over six feet tall, he weighed only 135 pounds—he was also muscular and resilient, with a narrow waist and a broad chest. He was, writes historian Joseph Schafer, “a lithe, graceful, boyish figure, keen and eager of aspect, who loved walking, riding, hunting, music; who was intellectually alert, voluble in speech, a great reader, a student, a devotee of politics.”
Fortunately, Margaretha had an inheritance of about twelve or fifteen thousand dollars, and while not a fortune, it was enough to enable the young couple to look around and get their bearings before they had to face the struggle for survival. They settled temporarily in the German-American colony in Philadelphia, and Schurz at once set out to learn English.
He started with the daily Philadelphia Ledger , reading not only the editorials and news articles but even the advertisements. He then took up the English novelists—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray—and the historian Macaulay. Next, because he had some thought of becoming a lawyer, came Blackstone’s Commentaries , and last of all, because of their enormous and difficult vocabulary, the plays of William Shakespeare. Schurz made it a habit never to skip over a word he didn’t know; always he would consult his dictionary. In six months he could, he said, “carry on a decent conversation in English … and write a decent letter.” From then on it was a question of mastering the idioms and rhythms of American speech. This he facilitated by jotting down on scraps of paper every unfamiliar phrase he encountered and tucking them away for later digestion.
As soon as he could communicate with the non-Germans around him, he decided to go to Washington. Already he had become deeply aware of the slavery issue, which in that decisive decade was the key to the country’s future. Instinctively Schurz was on the side of abolition, and he was eager to go to Washington to sound out public opinion and to observe the government in action at this time of crisis.
It is a tribute to Schurz’s commanding presence (and, of course, to the much smaller size of the federal establishment at the time) that this young immigrant with a heavy accent and without special influence was able to meet several senators personally, to interview Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (he tried, unsuccessfully, to draw Davis out on the slavery question), and even to be introduced to President Franklin Pierce (“He has the unfortunate trait of wishing to please everybody,” Schurz observed shrewdly, “and consequently he has displeased all”). More important was the profound effect of the visit on Schurz himself. To Margaretha, who had remained in Philadelphia, he reported his conversation with a group of congressmen, one of whom told him: “If you settle in one of the new states, we will meet you in a few years in this city, and then we shall listen to you as you now listen to us.” With that singular lack of modesty which was to characterize him all his life, Schurz wrote to his wife: “Nature has endowed me with a goodly capacity that only awaits an opportunity to make itself useful, and I do not think I am over-estimating my value when I say that I would be second to very few here, not now, but in a few years.” The political bug had bitten him; the infection would remain in his system, never dormant for long, all the rest of his days.
But meanwhile there was a living to be made: Margaretha’s inheritance would not last forever. Perhaps because of what the congressman had said to him about political opportunities in the new states, but certainly also because he had relatives there, Schurz set out in the fall of 1854 to see the Midwest. He found it good, a land “covered partly with majestic trees, partly with flowery prairies, immeasurable to the eye, and intersected with large rivers and broad lakes—a land where everybody could do what he thought best, and where nobody need be poor, because everybody was free.” In the spring of 1856, putting up a little cash and assuming a mortgage for $8,500, he purchased an eighty-nine acre farm near Watertown, Wisconsin, a preponderantly German rural center forty miles west of Milwaukee, where his uncle, Jacob Jussen, was already established. There, by August of 1856, the family was together: Schurz and his wife and their first-born child, as well as Schurz’s parents and two sisters—all of whom he had in the meantime brought over from Germany.