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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
It was in the installation of the merit system in the civil service, however, that Secretary Schurz made his greatest contribution. He set out consciously to make the Interior Department the show place of the administration. “Gentlemen,” he said the first time he met with his subordinates, “I desire to say to you that I intend to conduct this department upon business principles.” Working harder than ever before in his life, he set up competitive examinations for employment in the department. He made sure efficiency reports were kept and promotions and demotions based upon them. The Patent Office and Pension Office particularly began to attract a better caliber of personnel, and their efficiency and morale rose.
With the wisdom of hindsight, outgoing Secretary Schurz wrote early in 1881 to President-elect Garfield:
The Interior Department is the most dangerous branch of the public service. It is more exposed to corrupt influences and more subject to untoward accidents than any other. To keep it in good repute and to manage its business successfully requires on the part of its head a thorough knowledge of its machinery, untiring work and sleepless vigilance. … It is a constant fight with the sharks … Unless the head of the Interior Department well understands and performs his full duty, your Administration will be in constant danger of disgrace.
Schurz, not an experienced administrator himself and forced to operate without adequate funds or staff, had not made dramatic headway against the inertia and disorganization he had inherited. But he had fended off the sharks, and he had instituted important, enduring reforms. That in so sensitive an area the stink of scandal, overpowering in Grant’s time, hardly touched Rutherford B. Hayes was in itself a triumph.
Carl Schurz moved to New York in 1881, as the Hayes administration passed into history and other hands took the tiller in Washington. He was a widower now, his wife having died in 1876, and his tall, spare figure, his full beard and pince-nez glasses became a familiar sight at his club, the Century Association, at opening nights, and at operas and concerts.
He was never to hold public office again, and yet in the two decades and a half left to him he was to be in many ways more influential in American life than he had ever been before. He was recognized as the leader of the German-American community—as, in the judgment of Allan Nevins, “next to Hamilton and Gallatin, our greatest foreign-born statesman.” He had an absolutely unassailable reputation for personal integrity, and in every movement toward reform Carl Schurz’s name—and his voice—led all the rest.
For the first two years after his retirement from the government he had an effective platform from which to operate. This was the highly respected New York Evening Post , lately edited by William Cullen Bryant and taken over in 1881 by Schurz, his old friend Horace White, who had moved east from Chicago to Greeley’s old paper, and British-born E. L. Godkin, who had founded the liberal Nation in 1865. In their hands the Post was to become the champion of a low tariff, “sound money,” civil service reform, clean politics, and international peace. They made a well-balanced editorial team: Schurz on international affairs— especially Germany—and politics; White on the tariff, the silver question, railroads, and banking; and Godkin on social and governmental affairs. Then, in the fall of 1885, a disagreement over editorial policy precipitated Schurz’s resignation.
If he was for the moment without a forum, he was not without an audience. There is something in the American character which respects a maverick, however hard he may be to live with. And over the next twenty years Schurz was certainly an independent. His return to Republican ranks in 1876 and 1880 had been only temporary. In 1884 he bolted again, to support— and campaign for—a Democrat, Grover Cleveland. Thereafter for the rest of his life he usually supported the Democrats, though each time only after wrestling with his conscience.
Once he had helped elect a man President, Schurz did not fail to favor him with advice, as several occupants of the White House, beginning with Lincoln, found to their sorrow. At the outset of his first term Cleveland, probably out of simple courtesy to one who had worked hard for his election, solicited Schurz’s views on nominations for the Cabinet. It was a mistake. Schurz replied with a long letter—its tone that of schoolmaster to schoolboy—lecturing the President of the United States on the reform of the civil service. The correspondence continued until Cleveland wrote, somewhat testily: “I take up my burden every morning and carry it as well as I can till night, and frequently uphill.” He did not intend to run the government, he added, “merely for the purpose of promoting civil service reform.”
But that was the interest closest to Carl Schurz’s heart, and with a single-mindedness which could infuriate even his friends, he pushed the cause—and pushed and pushed. His voice gained resonance after 1892, when he became an editorial writer for Harper’s Weekly , long one of the nation’s most influential publications. There for six years he was to advocate his other pet causes as well—a low tariff, free trade, sound money, justice for the Indian.