- 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
True, he may not always have been easy to live with. They had gone through her inheritance within a few years after their arrival in America, and thereafter he certainly was not a good provider as the term is usually understood. Still, throughout their life together, whenever she was confronted with a crisis—a bout of illness or, as now, an emotional shock—Margaretha Schurz seems instinctively to have sought the shores of her native Germany as a refuge, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for many months at a time. Thus, Schurz had served in Madrid alone; the climate there was not thought to be healthy for Margaretha. And now, as he was taking up a new life at St. Louis, where the greatest political triumph of his career lay just ahead of him, his wife had again retreated to the Vaterland .
There is no evidence, however, that his love for her ever diminished. He kept Margaretha informed of his doings in long, affectionate letters. Right after the convention of 1868—in which, temporarily allied with the Radicals, he had stumped Missouri for Grant—he reported that he had started “The Saturday Dinner,” a series of supper meetings ostensibly designed to improve relations between leaders of the American and German communities but actually designed to make Carl Schurz better-known. Apparently they succeeded. At any rate, when one of Missouri’s United States Senate seats fell vacant late in 1868, Schurz had enough self-confidence to make a serious bid for it.
He won handily, but his triumph was tinged with sadness. He wrote to Margaretha: “Only one thing was lacking; that you were not there to see my victorious fight and that you cannot be in the capitol when I take my seat in the Senate. Your brilliant eyes would have made my triumph doubly sweet. I shall see them in my dreams.” In Washington, on March 4, 1869, Missouri’s senior senator, Charles D. Drake, escorted Carl Schurz down the aisle of the Senate chamber to be sworn in. He was the first German-American to reach this highest office which the American electorate can give to any citizen of foreign birth. He had just celebrated his fortieth birthday.
I have decided to be a distinguished Senator,” he wrote soon after taking office, “and that involves a great deal.” He set to work at once. In addition to attending the sessions, he had to receive twenty or thirty callers each morning, many of them office-seekers. In those days before telephones and elaborate clerical staffs, a senator spent a good bit of time running around Washington doing errands for his constituents. And there was, of course, the mail. Often Schurz fell asleep at his desk long after midnight, a pile of unanswered letters before him.
Like the methodical German he was, the new senator tried to predict as each term opened which major issues would come before it for consideration, and through reading and research to deepen his knowledge of them. Thus, that first summer in Washington, anticipating winter debates on Anglo-American relations, he prepped on international law. Believing that the development of the Pacific Coast would make our dealings with Asia a likely subject of legislation, he also began assembling a library on India, China, and Japan.
As his acquaintance with the Grant administration grew—he was appointed to the committees on military affairs, pensions, territories, and, when a vacancy occurred in September, foreign affairs—Schurz began to understand the political naïveté of the soldier-President and the dishonesty of many of those around him. Years later Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal described his friend’s rude awakening:
[Schurz] threw himself into the anti-slavery movement upon the crest of the wave; the following sea carried him quickly from one distinction to another; the ebb tide, which found him in the Senate of the United States, revealed to his startled senses the creeping, crawling things beneath the surface; partyism rampant, tyrannous and corrupt; a self-willed soldier in the White House; a Blaine, a Butler and a Garfield leading the Representatives, a Cameron and a Conkling leading the senate; single-minded disinterestedness, pure unadulterated conviction, nowhere.
One of the first things that opened his eyes was Grant’s stubborn and stupid attempt to annex Santo Domingo. One evening the President invited Missouri’s junior senator to the White House, where the two men sat down on a sofa together to discuss the proposed annexation. Grant spoke earnestly, winding up by frankly soliciting Schurz’s support. Schurz, nothing if not courageous, told Grant frankly that he thought the acquisition “against the best interests of the republic.” Not long afterward he was twice approached by White House emissaries promising him all the patronage he wanted if he would change his mind, but in vain.