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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
So passed Horace Greeley, and with him Carl Schurz’s political influence. When he returned for the winter session of Congress, Grant’s supporters, enjoying a two-thirds majority in both houses, managed to ease him off all committees except Foreign Affairs. Scandal followed scandal now, as “the creeping, crawling things beneath the surface” were revealed one by one: the Crédit Mobilier affairs in that winter term of 1872-73; the infamous Sanborn contracts in the next session, followed by the exposure of irregularities in the Interior, Navy, and War departments; and in 1875-76 the Whiskey Ring and the sale by Secretary of War William W. Belknap of post traderships on Indian reservations. Ironically, the very tide of national revulsion in which Carl Schurz rejoiced, since it washed the scoundrels out of office, carried him away, too: in 1875 Missouri’s Democrats were once more in control of the state legislature, and they gave Schurz’s Senate seat to a former Confederate brigadier, Francis M. Cockrell. He held it for thirty years.
We do not propose to camp out forever,” Schurz said, and as the election of 1876 drew near he led many ex-Liberals back into the regular Republican fold. Indeed, at the urging of his friend Halstead he had cut short a European vacation in the fall of 1875 to come to Ohio and work in the gubernatorial campaign of Rutherford B. Hayes. The following year he worked hard for Governor Hayes’ presidential candidacy, though some of the die-hard Liberals flayed him for it. (“Well!” wrote young Henry Adams to young Henry Cabot Lodge. “We knew what he was! The leader who treats his followers in that way is a mere will-o’-the-wisp.”) And when, in that much-disputed and altogether disgraceful electoral contest (see “The Election That Got Away” in the October, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ), Hayes was finally awarded the Presidency, he invited Carl Schurz to be his Secretary of the Interior. Schurz had had no part in the electoral jiggery-pokery; his Cabinet appointment—the first ever given to a German-American—was a perfectly normal reward for his work in the campaign, and to it he brought great determination to succeed.
The department he inherited in 1876 was, as it remains today to some extent, exceedingly complex. Fuess describes it as resembling
a rambling chateau to which at different periods additions have been made of various incongruous architectural designs. … It had become, in fact, a dumping ground for odds and ends, an omnium gatherum for all sorts of commissions which seemed to fit nowhere else; and the Secretary himself, if he attended to his business, had to be a Pooh Bah, a specialist on all the topics in the encyclopedia.
There were four major wings to the chateau: the General Land Office, the Pension Office, the Patent Office, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Three of these —Lands, Patents, and Pensions—were crowded into the old Patent Office Building, together with the Bureau of Railroad Accounts (another of Schurz’s charges) and the office of the Secretary himself. Scattered about Washington were Interior’s outbuildings: Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Education, the Commissioner of Railroads, the United States Geological Survey, the Census Office, the Architect of the Capitol Expansion, the Government Hospital for the Insane, the Freedmen’s Hospital, Howard University, and the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. Schurz learned that he was also in charge of six territorial governments and four national parks. Each agency had, of course, its own head and members, but for the task of supervising the lot of them and helping him make policy decisions, he had only an Assistant Secretary and a chief clerk.
The crowding in the Patent Office Building was incredible. In the Land Office, for example, the rooms were chockablock with desks, cabinets, and records, and the light was so bad that when a clerk wanted to study one of the bulky tract books, he had to carry it to a window to read it. In the Patent Office, most of whose people were crammed into the basement and sub-basement, things were no better.
Salaries were low—from $1,000 to $1,400 a year—and if some able men came, only the mediocre stayed. The government’s office procedures, writes Leonard D. White in his excellent The Republican Era, 1869—1901 , “belonged to the craftsmanship stage.” Everything was written out in longhand, making necessary an army of clerks and copyists. Filing cabinets were unknown. “Control of records was by cumbersome indexes and letterbooks,” White says, “and was governed by a desire to be careful rather than expeditious.” In the Pension Office, for instance, all claims from veterans whose last names began with Smi— were in a single unalphabetized list, which in 1879 had 4,500 names on it. To find the records of “Smith, William A.” the clerk had to go through all 4,500 names.
Despite such formidable difficulties, Schurz made a creditable record as Secretary of the Interior. In Indian Affairs, for example, despite a few ill-advised appointments and one or two mistakes of judgment in the treatment of individual tribes, he demonstrated that he had the interest of the red man sincerely at heart. He successfully staved off the War Department’s attempt to take over the Bureau in the truculent aftermath of the Custer massacre; he removed officials whose inefficiency or corruption had permitted abuses in the furnishing of supplies to reservation Indians; and he gave strong, indispensable encouragement to the founding of Carlisle Institute, a national Indian school in Pennsylvania. In another area, the conservation of natural resources, he played a pioneer role, though without effective legislation he was not able to do much.