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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
Nothing is more central to the American experience than the journey of the immigrant from the Old World to the New in search of freedom, security of person, or simply his daily bread. If Carl Schurz, who arrived from Germany in 1852, found all these things in abundance, he repaid the republic in rare and precious coin: half a century of honest, devoted service. He was a crusader for abolition, a brave (if unlucky) general in the fight to save the Union, a vigorously independent United States senator, and an outstanding Cabinet officer. What doubled and trebled the value of that service was that it came at a time when probity and dedication were sorely needed, when in public life the weak and the wicked had all but pre-empted the field. As writer, editor, and lecturer, Schurz was a never-tiring advocate of reform; from the Civil War to the turn of the century he was, says his biographer, Claude M. Fuess, “the … exceedingly useful incarnation of our national conscience.”
Few foreigners have reached these shores with a more romantic past. Carl Schurz (he pronounced it Shoortz ) was a “forty-eighter,” one of that small band of German intellectuals who in 1848 risked all in an attempt to bring unity and a measure of democracy to the Fatherland. A schoolmaster’s son from tiny Liblar, near Cologne, Schurz was a nineteen-year-old student at Bonn when, one morning late in February of that revolutionary year, a comrade rushed into his attic room with word that the French had driven Louis Philippe from his throne and proclaimed a republic. Discontent had been brewing in Germany for some years, and now, all over the country—and particularly in the university towns—the exciting news from Paris sent crowds boiling into the streets to listen to fiery speeches. Their leaders drafted petitions to the land’s most powerful ruler, the autocratic Frederick William IV of Prussia, demanding that he take steps to unite into one great empire Germany’s congeries of kingdoms, grand duchies, margraviates, bishoprics, and principalities, and that he convene a national parliament that would significantly broaden the people’s civil and political rights.
For a time it seemed that the uprising had succeeded: the parliament was duly called, and at Berlin Frederick William made a great show of adopting democratic ways. But the parliament frittered away its time in debating, when its only chance for life lay in bold, decisive action; Frederick, unable or unwilling to assert his leadership over a united Germany, prorogued the parliament and called out troops to suppress the revolution.
It crumpled quickly, for reasons which Carl Schurz’s own experiences make clear. With a band of over one hundred men under a former lieutenant of artillery, he set out to capture an armory across the Rhine from Bonn. Schurz carried out his assignment, which was to commandeer a ferry to get the revolutionists across the river. But he neglected to put the ferry out of action once it had served their purpose; the boatman, whether out of royalist sympathies or simply because he was a businessman with his eye on the main chance, promptly recrossed to Bonn and brought over a body of Frederick William’s dragoons. Hearing the trumpets and hoofbeats of his pursuers, the timid artillery lieutenant ordered his band to disperse. Schurz and his companions watched, humiliated, as thirty horsemen —hardly a third of their own numbers—swept on unmolested toward the armory. The whole thing had the flavor of opéra bouffe: a good plot for Sigmund Romberg, perhaps (steins lifted, voices raised in song), but hardly a blueprint for empire. Schurz himself, captured and imprisoned by the Emperor’s forces, managed a midnight escape through a storm sewer and eventually made his way to Switzerland.
His cloak-and-dagger exploits were not over. His intellectual and revolutionary mentor, Professor Johann Gottfried Kinkel, was confined in Berlin’s Spandau prison. Kinkel’s wife had succeeded in raising money for his release, and now sent word to Schurz in Switzerland asking him to slip back into Germany to organize and carry out the rescue. It was a fantastic plot, complete with bogus passports, “magic ink,” a bribed jailer, relays of horses and closed carriages to carry Kinkel and his liberator north to the Baltic, and a schooner to take them from there to England. It was fantastic, but it worked: on a Sunday morning in November, 1850, the Little Anna dropped anchor at Leith, Scotland, and Kinkel and Schurz went ashore to freedom. It had been a really remarkable exploit for a youngster of twenty-one; its echoes quickly found their way to the United States, where, magnified by distance and time, they would make Schurz famous among German-Americans and pave the way for his subsequent political success among them.
Schurz had at the moment no intention of going to America; with the other political refugees in London, Paris, and Geneva, he waited only for a favorable moment to launch a new revolution. A year and a half of eating the bitter bread of an exile convinced him, however, that that day would never come. To Schurz the international committee of revolutionaries meeting in London began to resemble “a gathering of spectres moving about in a graveyard.” Where would he go? “To America,” he mused to himself on a bench in Hyde Park one day. “It is a new world, a free world, a world of great ideas and aims. In that world there is perhaps for me a new home. Ubi libertas ibi patria .” Within the year, having in the meantime taken a wife, Carl Schurz was crossing the Atlantic. On a bright September morning in 1852 they arrived in New York and “with the buoyant hopefulness of young hearts … saluted the new world.”
Young hearts indeed. Margaretha Meyer Schurz, the daughter of a Hamburg manufacturer, was just eighteen, with “something childlike in her beautiful features and large, dark, truthful eyes.” The groom was twenty-three. Lean and lanky—a shade over six feet tall, he weighed only 135 pounds—he was also muscular and resilient, with a narrow waist and a broad chest. He was, writes historian Joseph Schafer, “a lithe, graceful, boyish figure, keen and eager of aspect, who loved walking, riding, hunting, music; who was intellectually alert, voluble in speech, a great reader, a student, a devotee of politics.”
Fortunately, Margaretha had an inheritance of about twelve or fifteen thousand dollars, and while not a fortune, it was enough to enable the young couple to look around and get their bearings before they had to face the struggle for survival. They settled temporarily in the German-American colony in Philadelphia, and Schurz at once set out to learn English.
He started with the daily Philadelphia Ledger , reading not only the editorials and news articles but even the advertisements. He then took up the English novelists—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray—and the historian Macaulay. Next, because he had some thought of becoming a lawyer, came Blackstone’s Commentaries , and last of all, because of their enormous and difficult vocabulary, the plays of William Shakespeare. Schurz made it a habit never to skip over a word he didn’t know; always he would consult his dictionary. In six months he could, he said, “carry on a decent conversation in English … and write a decent letter.” From then on it was a question of mastering the idioms and rhythms of American speech. This he facilitated by jotting down on scraps of paper every unfamiliar phrase he encountered and tucking them away for later digestion.
As soon as he could communicate with the non-Germans around him, he decided to go to Washington. Already he had become deeply aware of the slavery issue, which in that decisive decade was the key to the country’s future. Instinctively Schurz was on the side of abolition, and he was eager to go to Washington to sound out public opinion and to observe the government in action at this time of crisis.
It is a tribute to Schurz’s commanding presence (and, of course, to the much smaller size of the federal establishment at the time) that this young immigrant with a heavy accent and without special influence was able to meet several senators personally, to interview Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (he tried, unsuccessfully, to draw Davis out on the slavery question), and even to be introduced to President Franklin Pierce (“He has the unfortunate trait of wishing to please everybody,” Schurz observed shrewdly, “and consequently he has displeased all”). More important was the profound effect of the visit on Schurz himself. To Margaretha, who had remained in Philadelphia, he reported his conversation with a group of congressmen, one of whom told him: “If you settle in one of the new states, we will meet you in a few years in this city, and then we shall listen to you as you now listen to us.” With that singular lack of modesty which was to characterize him all his life, Schurz wrote to his wife: “Nature has endowed me with a goodly capacity that only awaits an opportunity to make itself useful, and I do not think I am over-estimating my value when I say that I would be second to very few here, not now, but in a few years.” The political bug had bitten him; the infection would remain in his system, never dormant for long, all the rest of his days.
But meanwhile there was a living to be made: Margaretha’s inheritance would not last forever. Perhaps because of what the congressman had said to him about political opportunities in the new states, but certainly also because he had relatives there, Schurz set out in the fall of 1854 to see the Midwest. He found it good, a land “covered partly with majestic trees, partly with flowery prairies, immeasurable to the eye, and intersected with large rivers and broad lakes—a land where everybody could do what he thought best, and where nobody need be poor, because everybody was free.” In the spring of 1856, putting up a little cash and assuming a mortgage for $8,500, he purchased an eighty-nine acre farm near Watertown, Wisconsin, a preponderantly German rural center forty miles west of Milwaukee, where his uncle, Jacob Jussen, was already established. There, by August of 1856, the family was together: Schurz and his wife and their first-born child, as well as Schurz’s parents and two sisters—all of whom he had in the meantime brought over from Germany.
His hope was that the value of the land would increase quickly: railroads were pushing westward, and Schurz evidently expected Watertown to mushroom; he planned to subdivide his acres into homesites and realize a handsome profit. It was not to be. The railroads came nowhere near his property, the panic of 1857 slowed land sales, and Watertown, once it reached a population of about 9,000, grew no more.
For a time he took to the lecture platform, speaking to Wisconsin’s German-Americans on such subjects as “Democracy and Despotism in France,” “Germany and France,” and “American Civilization.” He never received more than fifty dollars for one of these lectures, and frequently less; his financial troubles deepened. Margaretha’s money must have been gone by now; at any rate, in 1858 he was forced to take a second mortgage on the farm.
His mind was rusting, too, for despite his initial enthusiasm for the wide open spaces Schurz resembled those “Latin farmers” so common among upper-class German immigrants, particularly the forty-eighters. He was essentially an intellectual, unfitted for the rural life. He longed to be among the earth’s movers and shakers. Almost as soon as he had established his family at Watertown, therefore, Schurz had plunged into local politics.
He campaigned for John C. Frémont in 1856, addressing only German audiences in the Muttersprache , for he did not yet trust himself to deliver a political speech in English. His first American election impressed him. “A universal struggle of opinion among a free people,” he wrote, “has about it something unbelievably imposing.” It could also be unbelievably disappointing, as he found out the next year: after a hard-fought campaign for the lieutenant-governorship of Wisconsin (he had refused to accept any lesser place on the ticket) Schurz lost by 107 votes. He did not have the thick skin required of a politician, and the gibes of his opponents hurt. “Certain it is that if only a tenth of the things that were said and written of me had been true,” he later reflected with some bitterness, “I should have been rather fit for the penitentiary than for the company of gentlemen.”
As so often in American politics, the bitterness of the attacks was a measure of his opponents’ respect for Schurz’s growing reputation. He was a Republican, largely because of that party’s antislavery stand. Most of his fellow German-Americans still adhered to “the Democracy,” whose Jacksonian traditions of equality (and careful cultivation of the immigrant) had first attracted their votes. “The few Republicans in the sixth ward,” notes an early chronicler of Watertown, “were in the habit of marching to the polls in a body for reasons which were strictly prudential.” Even during the 1856 campaign Schurz had been pelted with rotten eggs and denounced as “ein verdammter Republikaner.” For he was attacking the established order of things: Democrats feared he would lead a mass defection of Germans into the G.O.P.
Even though he lost, his close campaign for the lieutenant-governorship in 1857 demonstrated that the fear had some basis. It made him a well-known figure among Wisconsin’s non-German voters as well, for he had begun speaking in English, with growing power and confidence, the only signs of his foreign birth being a slight accent and the occasional misuse of an idiom —apparently his scrap-paper memos were not always foolproof.
He was beginning to be in demand outside the borders of the state now, to discuss issues engaging the attention of the nation at large. In September of 1858, for example, he spoke at Chicago on “The Irrepressible Conflict.” The following spring he was invited to Boston, where in historic Faneuil Hall he addressed a crowd on “True Americanism,” decrying the antiforeign sentiment still prevalent there. His speeches were newsworthy, and big-city dailies all over the East began picking them up. Schurz, never one to hinder a reporter in the performance of his job, thoughtfully prepared in advance more than enough copies of his remarks for all the gentlemen of the press. It was a custom he would always follow.
Back in 1857, when Schurz’s name was mentioned at the Wisconsin Republican state convention, more than one of the delegates had asked, “Who the devil is Carl Schurz?” By 1860 nobody in politics anywhere had to ask that question; he was known all over the country. One day that autumn when he boarded a lake steamer at Detroit for Cleveland, the captain rushed up to him bowing and scraping, refunded his fare, and surrendered his own cabin to his distinguished passenger. Schurz took it all in stride. “Fame,” he said laconically, “is something.”
Meanwhile another midwest Republican of quite different antecedents was entering upon the national stage. In 1858 Schurz had gone to Illinois, at the invitation of the Republican State Committee, to address German-American audiences on behalf of the party’s candidate for the United States Senate. Schurz was on a train bound for Quincy when the candidate himself got on at a way station. Many years later Schurz described the scene in his Reminiscences:
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.
Certainly his gratuitous volunteering for front-line duty was the gesture of a brave man. Yet there is among his papers a letter written at the time which indicates how difficult it is for a biographer to sort out and evaluate Schurz’s motives. “I shall return to my old activities [after the war],” he wrote to a friend, “with the satisfaction not only of having labored definitely for the future of this country, but also of having loyally shared its fate. In the political phases of the new developments which this revolution must produce, I shall undoubtedly have an important part and my voice will be heard.” Pride and humility, selflessness and ambition: the elements are hopelessly mixed up in this extraordinarily complicated man. This much seems certain: if sometimes the pride dominated, one must remember that his was not an age of giants, and it would have been difficult for a first-class man like Schurz not to appreciate his own worth; if ambition burned hot within him, it must be said that he used whatever position it brought him to promote the common weal.
Schurz was a “political general,” one of that breed so thickly represented on the Union Army’s roster of high-ranking officers. He had received his commission partly because of his position in the Republican party, partly because of his prominence among the German-Americans. But he seems to have been at least a competent field commander, better than most of those who owed their stars to something besides military training and experience.
Assigned at first to Frémont in the Shenandoah Valley, he eventually ended up with Major General Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps, fifteen of whose twenty-six regiments were made up of German-Americans like himself. The rest of the Army never quite accepted them. Under Frémont, the Germans had a string of bad luck. Then for a time they were commanded by Franz Sigel, like Schurz a forty-eighter, and if their luck got no better at least their morale rose. “I fights mit Sigel,” they would say when asked what outfit they were from, and they said it with pride. They were under Schurz’s command at Chancellorsville, where “Fighting Joe” Hooker allowed them to be isolated on the right flank, at the precise spot where Stonewall Jackson, after a brilliant encircling maneuver, struck by surprise at sunset. The Germans, like the rest of Hooker’s army, were caught off guard, and with no reserves to back them up they fled. After that their proud boast became, on the lips of the other soldiers in the corps, “I fights mit Sigel und runs mit Schurz.”
At Gettysburg they did a little better, though again success eluded them. Ordered to hold Cemetery Hill, Schurz did the best he could, but when his 17,000 men were attacked by some 30,000 under Ewell and A. P. Hill, they were forced to give ground; the 75th Pennsylvania alone had lost 111 men in fifteen minutes. The position was untenable. After Gettysburg the hard-luck XI Corps was broken up, but the hard luck clung to Schurz: he got into a hassle with Hooker again, this time over a mix-up in orders. Schurz demanded, and got, an official court of inquiry which exonerated him, but three strikes was out: Schurz, by this time a major general, was sent to command a Nashville recruiting station that a major might have managed. He was being shelved. Through Andrew Johnson, whom he met in Tennessee, Schurz sought another field command, but Lincoln replied to Johnson: “You can never know … how difficult it is to find a place for an officer of so high a rank when there is no place seeking him.” He did manage to see some service under Sherman in the Carolinas, but for all intents and purposes his fighting days were over. On May 1, 1865, he returned to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his wife and family had spent the war on a farm owned by one of his comrades of ’48. To a friend Schurz wrote: “The uniform has been laid aside, the sword hangs on the wall. The children play with the riding-whip and spurs.”
Seldom had his financial situation been so precarious. He was finding it difficult to meet the mortgage payments on his farm at Watertown, and not long after his return to civilian life some speculations in railroad lands failed, leaving him $5,000 in debt. In 1867 the mortgage was foreclosed, making his ruin complete.
At this low point came an offer to go into the newspaper business with Dr. Emil Preetorius, editor of a successful German-language daily, Die Westliche Post , in St. Louis. The terms were generous: Schurz was not expected to put up any capital, but was to be permitted to pay for his partnership over a three-year period out of his share of the profits. He snapped up the offer, and moved his family—by this time there were three daughters, Agathe, Marianne, and Emma—to St. Louis. As if to balance the good fortune, tragedy struck: Emma, the youngest girl, died suddenly. Mrs. Schurz, whose health had been delicate ever since her marriage, was prostrated. Partly to recover her physical well-being and partly to seek good schools for the two older girls, she sailed for an extended visit to Germany.
It was by no means the first time she had been back to her native land since that bright September day in 1852 when she and her new husband had so buoyantly saluted the New World. Indeed, she seems never to have made the adjustment to America. As a young girl she had apparently been much pampered by her parents. Once she was settled in comfortable German-American surroundings in Philadelphia, it had taken all Schurz’s cleverness to cajole her into going west.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
His last great crusade was his fight against American imperialism. Realizing that his stand made him a minority of one on its staff, Schurz resigned from Harper’s , and as the election of 1900 approached he even sacrificed his association with his beloved National Civil Service Reform League, knowing that his unpopular international views would hurt its progress. But with the country in an aggressive mood the anti-imperialists lost every battle.
Their struggle had been, in many ways, typical of Schurz’s entire life. It had been a high-minded crusade across party lines, undertaken for the purest of motives at great political risk, and it had, in the short run, failed. But as with most of Schurz’s other enthusiasms, history was on his side: he lived to see slavery abolished; civil service reform and a meaningful conservation movement were on the way to becoming realities by the time he died; and by the end of World War I the fever of imperialism had subsided for good. Carl Schurz was not always with the majority, but he was almost always right. Toward the end of Schurz’s life Mark Twain, who had not always agreed with him, remarked upon this, comparing Schurz to an old Mississippi River pilot whom Twain had idolized as a young man:
[Schurz] was my Ben Thornburgh … whenever he struck out a new course over a confused Helena Reach or a perplexed Plum Point Bend I was confident that he had … hoisted out his sounding-barge and buoyed that maze from one end to the other. Then I dropped into his wake and followed. Followed with perfect confidence. Followed, and never regretted it.
Thousands had done the same.
In these later years Schurz spent his summers at Lake George in the Adirondacks, where he loved to roam the woods with his dachshunds and his collie. The rest of the time he lived in New York City, where his household was supervised by his two daughters, Agathe and Marianne, both of them spinsters. There, in the spring of 1906, shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday, he contracted pneumonia. On May 14, beckoning the daughters and his son, Carl Lincoln, closer to his bedside, he whispered, “Es ist so einfach zu sterben” —“It is so easy to die”—and quietly breathed his last.
He had received all he had sought in coming to America, but he had more than discharged the debt. “The self-evident truths of the Declaration affirm themselves anew in his tale,” wrote William Dean Howells in tribute, “and the Republic is born again.”