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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
“All Administrations, I suppose, are more or less corrupt,” wrote Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune . “Certainly the depth of corruption this one has reached is scarcely suspected as yet, even by its enemies.” But Schurz knew, and as early as 1870 he had declared war on Grant. That year he and 250 other delegates to the Missouri state Republican convention nominated B. Gratz Brown for governor in opposition to the incumbent, Joseph W. McClurg. Grant quite openly intervened in McClurg’s favor. Just before the election Schurz wrote to a friend:”… Grant has read me out of the Republican Party and is vigorously at work chopping off the official heads of those who are suspected of sympathizing with me.” Brown won by 40,000 votes, and Schurz could hardly have been surprised, when he returned to Washington, to find the doors of the White House closed to him. He was not intimidated. “I have taken my political life in my hands,” he wrote. “I have resolved to act as if I were to end my career with this term in the Senate … I am going to have the luxury of doing what I think to be right.”
By 1871 Schurz began gathering around him kindred spirits whom he might mold into a party of opposition. In the Senate he could count on Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, Orris S. Ferry of Connecticut, and Thomas W. Tipton of Nebraska. Liberal newspaper editors like Reid’s boss, Horace Greeley, Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial , Horace White of the Chicago Tribune —these were potential allies, too. And in Massachusetts there was Charles Francis Adams, who had served with great distinction as Lincoln’s wartime ambassador to England.
In the spring of 1872, with a presidential election only six months off, Schurz worked diligently to weld all these elements into a viable third party under a banner called Liberal Republicanism. Late in April delegates began gathering in Cincinnati to nominate candidates for President and Vice President and to transform themselves from an aggregation of protestant theoreticians into a genuine political force.
Henry Watterson, who was to become one of the leading spirits of the convention, went up from Louisville a few days early to survey the scene:
A livelier and more variegated omnium-gatherum was never assembled. … There were long-haired and spectacled doctrinaires from New England, spiced by short-haired and stumpy emissaries from New York—mostly friends of Horace Greeley, as it turned out. There were brisk Westerners from Chicago and St. Louis. If Whitelaw Reid, who had come as Greeley’s personal representative, had his retinue, so had Horace White and Carl Schurz. There were a few rather overdressed persons from New Orleans brought up by Governor Warmouth, and a motley array of Southerners of every sort … The full contingent of Washington correspondents was there, of course, with sharpened eyes and pens to make the most of what they had already begun to christen a conclave of cranks.
Watterson was met at the station by Schurz, White, Halstead, and Samuel Bowles of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican . At once the five of them (later they reluctantly admitted Reid) formed what they devoutly hoped would be the convention’s unofficial steering committee. Schurz and Bowles wanted to nominate Adams. White was for Trumbull. Reid was for Greeley.
On April 30, the day before the convention was scheduled to open, Schurz and his friends met at a beer garden in Cincinnati’s German section, known as “over the Rhine.” Nobody was inclined to dispute Schurz’s leadership, but nobody was ready to follow it either. “Coherence was the missing ingredient,” Watterson wrote. “Not a man jack of them was willing to commit himself to anything.”
So the professionals froze them out.
After the convention opened with a rousing keynote speech by its chairman, Schurz (“This is moving day!” he began), the jockeying for the nomination got under way. Schurz and his starry-eyed followers failed to act promptly or in concert, and at a crucial hour Francis P. Blair, Jr.—Drake’s successor as Schurz’s Senate colleague—and the same B. Gratz Brown whom Schurz in 1870 had helped make governor of Missouri arrived to join forces with the Greeley men and put over the New Yorker’s nomination. Brown was chosen as his running mate. Schurz and Company were, Watterson admitted sadly, “reformers hoist by their own petard.”
Though the Democratic convention in July endorsed him also, Greeley faced a hopeless fight. The still-popular Grant carried thirty-one of the thirty-seven states and buried his opponent. In more senses than one: a week before the election Greeley’s wife died, and within the month the grieving husband, stricken seriously ill himself, followed her to the grave. In the funeral procession, occupying the first carriage after that of the immediate family, rode the newly reelected President of the United States.