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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 hope was that the value of the land would increase quickly: railroads were pushing westward, and Schurz evidently expected Watertown to mushroom; he planned to subdivide his acres into homesites and realize a handsome profit. It was not to be. The railroads came nowhere near his property, the panic of 1857 slowed land sales, and Watertown, once it reached a population of about 9,000, grew no more.
For a time he took to the lecture platform, speaking to Wisconsin’s German-Americans on such subjects as “Democracy and Despotism in France,” “Germany and France,” and “American Civilization.” He never received more than fifty dollars for one of these lectures, and frequently less; his financial troubles deepened. Margaretha’s money must have been gone by now; at any rate, in 1858 he was forced to take a second mortgage on the farm.
His mind was rusting, too, for despite his initial enthusiasm for the wide open spaces Schurz resembled those “Latin farmers” so common among upper-class German immigrants, particularly the forty-eighters. He was essentially an intellectual, unfitted for the rural life. He longed to be among the earth’s movers and shakers. Almost as soon as he had established his family at Watertown, therefore, Schurz had plunged into local politics.
He campaigned for John C. Frémont in 1856, addressing only German audiences in the Muttersprache , for he did not yet trust himself to deliver a political speech in English. His first American election impressed him. “A universal struggle of opinion among a free people,” he wrote, “has about it something unbelievably imposing.” It could also be unbelievably disappointing, as he found out the next year: after a hard-fought campaign for the lieutenant-governorship of Wisconsin (he had refused to accept any lesser place on the ticket) Schurz lost by 107 votes. He did not have the thick skin required of a politician, and the gibes of his opponents hurt. “Certain it is that if only a tenth of the things that were said and written of me had been true,” he later reflected with some bitterness, “I should have been rather fit for the penitentiary than for the company of gentlemen.”
As so often in American politics, the bitterness of the attacks was a measure of his opponents’ respect for Schurz’s growing reputation. He was a Republican, largely because of that party’s antislavery stand. Most of his fellow German-Americans still adhered to “the Democracy,” whose Jacksonian traditions of equality (and careful cultivation of the immigrant) had first attracted their votes. “The few Republicans in the sixth ward,” notes an early chronicler of Watertown, “were in the habit of marching to the polls in a body for reasons which were strictly prudential.” Even during the 1856 campaign Schurz had been pelted with rotten eggs and denounced as “ein verdammter Republikaner.” For he was attacking the established order of things: Democrats feared he would lead a mass defection of Germans into the G.O.P.
Even though he lost, his close campaign for the lieutenant-governorship in 1857 demonstrated that the fear had some basis. It made him a well-known figure among Wisconsin’s non-German voters as well, for he had begun speaking in English, with growing power and confidence, the only signs of his foreign birth being a slight accent and the occasional misuse of an idiom —apparently his scrap-paper memos were not always foolproof.
He was beginning to be in demand outside the borders of the state now, to discuss issues engaging the attention of the nation at large. In September of 1858, for example, he spoke at Chicago on “The Irrepressible Conflict.” The following spring he was invited to Boston, where in historic Faneuil Hall he addressed a crowd on “True Americanism,” decrying the antiforeign sentiment still prevalent there. His speeches were newsworthy, and big-city dailies all over the East began picking them up. Schurz, never one to hinder a reporter in the performance of his job, thoughtfully prepared in advance more than enough copies of his remarks for all the gentlemen of the press. It was a custom he would always follow.
Back in 1857, when Schurz’s name was mentioned at the Wisconsin Republican state convention, more than one of the delegates had asked, “Who the devil is Carl Schurz?” By 1860 nobody in politics anywhere had to ask that question; he was known all over the country. One day that autumn when he boarded a lake steamer at Detroit for Cleveland, the captain rushed up to him bowing and scraping, refunded his fare, and surrendered his own cabin to his distinguished passenger. Schurz took it all in stride. “Fame,” he said laconically, “is something.”
Meanwhile another midwest Republican of quite different antecedents was entering upon the national stage. In 1858 Schurz had gone to Illinois, at the invitation of the Republican State Committee, to address German-American audiences on behalf of the party’s candidate for the United States Senate. Schurz was on a train bound for Quincy when the candidate himself got on at a way station. Many years later Schurz described the scene in his Reminiscences: