- Historic Sites
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
All at once … I observed a great commotion among my fellow-passengers, many of whom jumped from their seats and pressed eagerly around a tall man who had just entered the car. They addressed him in the most familiar style: “Hello, Abe! How are you?” and so on. And he responded in the same manner: “Good-evening, Ben! How are you, Joe? Glad to see you, Dick!” and there was much laughter at some things he said, which, in the confusion of voices, I could not understand. “Why,” exclaimed my companion, the committee-man, “there’s Lincoln himself!” He pressed through the crowd and introduced me to Abraham Lincoln, whom I then saw for the first time.
Schurz beheld a man so tall that he himself, though over six feet, had to tilt his head back to look into his face. Lincoln wore a battered stovepipe hat; from the inadequate sleeves of a worn black coat his bony wrists protruded. Over his left arm was a gray shawl, and in his hand he carried a bulging umbrella and the battered black satchel which had served him in many a circuit courtroom. He was bound for Quincy, too, to meet his Democratic opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, in one of the famous debates which would so eloquently define the issues dividing North and South and make this prairie lawyer a leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination.
When the nomination came, in 1860, Schurz was a member of the committee sent to Springfield to notify Lincoln officially. Placed in charge of the “foreign department” of the campaign, Schurz by his own account traveled over 21,000 miles between June and November, averaging at least a speech a day. It was a wearing grind, not only on the mind and spirit but on the digestive tract as well. Earlier that year, in a letter written while on a lecture tour, he had described his day-to-day existence. It could not have been significantly different on the campaign trail:
The life on the train is abominable; for breakfast, indescribable beefsteak, tough as tanned leather, warmed-up potatoes, and “saleratus” biscuits that smell like green soap. Ditto at noon; ditto at night; then the lecture and the same answers to the same compliments, and finally to bed, quite worn out; and the next morning, I am on the train again.
But he loved it; he was, he assured his wife, “like a fish in water.” And he was making his speeches count. Schurz himself grew enthusiastic as the weeks wore on and he began to sense that the Republicans would win. To Margaretha he wrote: “It seems as if victory could not fail us—and by Jove! I have done my share towards it.”
Not—it must be admitted candidly—entirely without hope of reward. As early as July i there had been a discussion of how Lincoln would recompense his supporters in the event of his election. “That I should go on a mission to Europe,” Schurz wrote after the meeting, “was treated as a matter of course.” When Schurz passed through Springfield toward the end of that month, Lincoln himself visited him at his hotel and promised that as President he could be depended upon “to distinguish deserving men from drones.” Lincoln kept his word: three weeks after his inauguration he summoned Schurz to the White House and held out to him a paper on which was written: “I nominate Carl Schurz of Wisconsin to be Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to Spain.” Schurz was triumphant. “I am now in the fullness of my power,” he wrote home to his wife. He had a right to boast. He was just past thirty; less than ten years before, he had been a homeless exile, unable even to speak the language of his adopted land.
But in Madrid the honor turned to ashes in his mouth. He found the diplomatic life “insipid,” even irksome:
Great titles are as common as blackberries here; but there is ordinarily little behind them. … I cannot deny that I wish I were at home again. … I cannot endure people who abase themselves as they do here; and I am embarrassed when all manner of honors and reverences are hurled at my head. Nowhere can I feel right save in a country where the people stand erect in their boots.
And he did not agree with Secretary of State Seward’s foreign policy, which at that period sought to play down the antislavery aspect of the war. Far more friends would be gained abroad, Schurz felt, if Lincoln would issue a proclamation freeing the slaves and declaring the Union’s struggle to be a crusade for human freedom. When news of the Federal defeat at Bull Run reverberated in quiet Madrid “like a thunder clap,” Schurz asked for a leave of absence, returned to Washington, and at the White House pressed upon the President himself the argument for immediate emancipation. He then resigned his ministership to enter the Army. Somewhat melodramatically he wrote: “I belonged to the party which had brought on the crisis; I could not avoid the chances of the struggle.”
Candidates for Army commissions were thirteen to the dozen, while able ambassadors were in short supply; Lincoln urged Schurz to reconsider, pointing out that he was giving up a good life at a substantial salary for one of danger, discomfort, and meager pay. But Schurz would not be dissuaded.