Friedrich Kapp

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Friedrich Kapp
From The Nation (New York City), Vol. 39, No. 1010 (November 6, 1884), pp. 393-394, and a note from No. 1011 (November 13, 1884), p. 419.


There are natures whose bearing on history is never fully understood by the teacher or by the student of history. The secret of it is their personal influence, which dies with them, and cannot be related or reproduced. Rufus Choate was of this description. So was Friedrich Kapp. He gave a force to what may be called the German impetus of this country which it had never had without him.

His father was teacher at the Gymnasium at Hamm, a position half way between a schoolmaster and a professor. After his retirement he engaged in authorship, and even late in life started a periodical on educational subjects. His son had not in his manners a trace of the fragment of society from which he came. Every one knew, from an hour's conversation with him, that he had been a student at a university, but no one could divine from what sort of a family he had gone there. Kapp studied at Heidelberg and at one other university — was it Berlin, or Goettingen, or Bonn? — but Heidelberg was the one about which he principally talked; where he had formed his college friendships; where the professors made the greatest impression upon him. Mittermaier was one of these. When the Revolution broke out in Germany he was twenty-four years old. He was at Frankfort-on-the-Main for much of the time that the Parliament sat there, and particularly during the outbreak in which General Auerswald and Prince Lichnowsky lost their lives. The first portion of his exile was passed in Switzerland, of which he cherished many recollections, and where we last saw him alive this very year.

In New York, his first law firm was that of Zitz, Kapp & Froebel. Mr. Zitz, the Nestor of the bar of Mayence, had the expectation of a large business in New York, to the attainment of which his deafness was the principal obstacle. At this point Mr. Kapp was to come to his relief. Their coöperation continued for twenty years. As a negotiator, or, as he called himself, broker-in-law, Kapp was inimitable. He had no especial liking for the law before he came here, nor can he be said to have acquired it afterward. There was not life enough in it to captivate his fancy. It is a privilege of common-law countries to produce combinations of political enthusiasm and of admiration for the civil law in one and the same person. Kapp had a turn, not generally known, for novel-writing. He was struck with the idea of translating Dickens into American, so to speak — of writing something which should depict American life in all its varieties, in the same manner that Dickens delineated the life of the English people. The idea occupied much of his reflections and talk; the success of his historical works probably drew off his attention from it

Politics was, of course, his principal occupation so far as revealed in his intercourse with others. Those whose recollection does not go back to the fifties cannot imagine the attraction of the politics of that time to a young and ardent mind. Both here and in Europe the springs were unloosed, and the waters of heaven seemed to pour down upon the favored field. And the nature of the battle differed so much on the two sides of the Atlantic as materially to add to the charm. The Wilmot Proviso was the engrossing topic about the time of Kapp's arrival. The force of argument was all on the Free-Soil side; the Hunkers had ceased to offer anything but a feeble contention. A German, moreover, with any ideal tendency, was bound to see American politics wholly on its ideal side. The dicker and thimble-rigging were concealed from him, and the actors in the game were to him as high-strung as their speeches and their resolutions. We seem to remember that Kapp edited a paper (the name of which has escaped us), and that as his business grew it went out of his hands. It was not, however, by writing that he attained the position he held in New York, and which has not been held by any other person. Whatever scheme was afoot among Germans, he was consulted. It mattered not whether it was among the down-town bankers, or the up-town journeymen — whatever was planned required his signature to make it effective. A real Jove, he smiled, and all was sunshine; he frowned, and all was storm. Auerbach has introduced him into his novel, 'The Villa on the Rhine,' not as a character, but as a figure, under the title of the Citizen of Two Worlds. This sobriquet recalls him to us as we saw him one afternoon leaning out of his office window, the wind catching his locks and playing with them. There was something extremely youthful in his appearance as well as his manner. “He is a good boy,” said a friend, who saw him at the same time. There was a ring of welcome in his voice, and a tone of irresistible good-humor in the manner in which he coaxed you to sit down and recount your wants or wishes — grievances he called them. He seemed fully to understand every man the first time he met him, and we never knew him to err in the prompt judgment he passed on individuals and on measures. Toward the end of his life here, he visibly tired of the proceedings of public meetings, of which previously he must have been fond — the resolutions and motions, considerations, reconsiderations, organizations, and parliamentary jargon in general. But he did not allow this new state of feeling to take him out of the measures to which he already stood committed.

His love of wine was a material part of his patriotism. He loved the wine of his own country, courted it, and petted it. He knew the hillsides from which it came, and descanted their praises whenever it was on the board. Every brand was entwined with recollections, which oozed from him as he drank it. He lived well, in every sense. He had a princely tendency to adorn his household with pretty things of all kinds. The engravings in his parlors were very fine. We particularly remember a something which looked like a leather receptacle for United States bonds, set in silver, which he was accustomed to open with mock-heroic solemnity when you were taking leave of him at night, and extract therefrom a beautifully chased decanter, with glasses to match, from which we were to take the stirrup cup.

He was a great traveller. He was an expert in discovering how the pieces of business intrusted to him made it necessary for him to visit distant parts of the country; and in the course of these journeys we have frequently heard him declare that there was, at that time, not a State of the Union which he had not visited. In one of his books he makes the same remark, and adds that the finest of all the States is Texas. His experiences there among a heroic non-slaveholding band of German cotton growers, near San Antonio, had given him a deep insight into the tyranny of the slave power, and a theory of what must be done to meet its steady advance. His earliest efforts socially in the free States were in company with his friend Frederick Law Olmsted, to obtain sympathy and pecuniary aid for his countrymen in Texas. In this he succeeded, and the beneficiaries afterward became of much consequence in the struggle with secession. In like manner he and Brace and Norton and others promoted an important emigration of German vine-growers to Missouri, under the leadership of Mr. Frederick Münch, and these likewise had much to do with retaining that State on the side of the Union, and in furnishing German soldiers for the Federal army. Kapp's labors for the Free-Soil and early Republican party were incessant, and no German, except his friend, Mr. Schurz, did more to unite the German Americans in upholding the cause of resistance to slavery.

Kapp was as familiar with all the Germans of Texas as if he had been one of them. To Missouri, also, he frequently went, and kept up the remembrances of Herman and Far West. It was one of these trips that made him acquainted with General Fremont, and had nearly carried him off to the Pacific. On one of his Southern journeys he was seized with the yellow fever, and for five or six hours was jolted about in a car when in the height of the attack, after which he was nursed for a long time by a negro woman — we believe in Savannah, Ga. He also made two visits to Cuba, during which he spent something like a month at a plantation, which, he was in the habit of saying, was the most agreeable time he had spent in his life. When, at the end of it, he said to his host that he positively must go, the latter begged him to be candid and say wherein he had offended him.

Kapp went to Europe in 1859, and some time in 1865, and finally in 1870. In 1859 he returned with the report that people would cross-question him to discover whether he intended to stay there, and, when they were satisfied he would not, were profuse in their expressions of welcome to him as a visitor. In 1865 he generally introduced himself to his German friends by asking whether they had not a secretary's position for him, and on his return the plan was ready in his head to re-migrate in 1870. Whether it would have been carried out if the wars of 1866 and 1870 had not occurred cannot be known.

He was a member of the Board of Emigration from 1867 to 1870. This service engrossed his attention more and more. He would frequently go on board the ships, and come back with stories of what he had encountered. He would enlist the emigrants in conversation, and, as soon as he had made them talk, would ask them what it was that induced them to quit their native country. The answer was never in set terms, “The Prussian Constitution,” but still so nearly in substance, that he would be always worried into repeating the attempt on another subject. Once he had met a Mecklenburg woman, a matron, with evidently a clearer head than other peasant women. (He imitated her Low-German dialect to perfection.) She was frightened at his questions about the motive of her emigration, thinking it was dictated by some regulation of the service, and said: “Nu, ich wollte mine Verhältnisse verbetten; dat darf man doch” (“I wanted to improve my circumstances; there is nothing against that, is there?”)

Kapp was on very intimate terms with Professor Lieber. But the Professor was hard on him. He always, in his own publications, gave citations, particularly from Roman jurists, and then wanted Kapp to find chapter and verse for them. Kapp really knew less of the text of the Corpus Juris than did the Professor himself. His historical studies naturally brought him into social connection with the leading historical scholars of this country. He was able to be of great service to Mr. Bancroft, Mr. Greene, and others in procuring manuscripts from Berlin, or in giving them access to rare authorities which he himself possessed. They always found in him a careful and thorough investigator, and a candid reasoner even where his conclusions differed from theirs. His own scholarship in many directions was not often surpassed. Of his books written in this country,[1] we have heard from his German friends but one criticism, to the effect that his style was “burschikos,” or that of a student. This was generally said in a disapproving sense. We have frequently read his works with a view to finding out the truth of this criticism, and have always failed. The thing which mainly distinguishes them is their great realism, and the humor which he introduced wherever it was practicable. Both peculiarities are averse to a student's manner, which is naturally theoretical and stiff. His manner of writing history was not at the time so usual as it has since become — very strict adherence to what may be called the text, and abstinence from anything like general disquisition. There was, perhaps, too strong a tendency to give dates and particulars concerning matters which, especially in biography, cannot be called of historical interest. His works written in Europe[2] contain a certain train of reflections on this country which has been made an accusation against him. It is but simple justice to his memory to say that these reflections were his inmost convictions — precisely such as he had always uttered in private conversation. There is no conflict between them and anything contained in his works written here. The latter are equally sincere. But it is astonishing how little Republicanism will suffice for setting up a Prussian revolutionary; and we must not overlook the pains which, as a member of the Reichstag, Kapp took to deprive that body of any excuse for ignorance about America. Thanks to his intelligent care and incentive, the library of the German Reichstag has the finest collection in Europe of the works pertaining to the United States which are most needful for the legislator, the statesman, and the historian. We remember his telling us this past summer of his having enabled a poor woman in Germany to recover an estate left her by a relative in Idaho, by referring to the laws of that Territory, which were accessible in the library just mentioned. Death overtook him while deeply engrossed with a new and laborious work on the history of the book-trade in Germany, which we hope is so far advanced as to be sure of publication.


— A competent authority writes us as follows:

“In the notice regarding the late Dr. Friedrich Kapp, in this week's edition of your paper, there is a statement made which gives a wrong impression, and will, moreover, offend the nearer relatives and members of Dr. Kapp's family. It is stated that Dr. Kapp's father was a 'teacher in the Gymnasium at Hamm — a position between that of a schoolmaster and professor.' Friedrich Kapp, senior, was 'Director,' i. e., Principal of the Gymnasium, which, under his influence and labors, became one of the best in Westphalia. 'Director' Kapp received this appointment while comparatively young for such a position, which is rarely given, even now, to young men unless they show unusual ability. He retained it through many (some twenty-five to thirty) years. He was an early disciple of Pestalozzi; later, a thorough Hegelian — a man so thorough, scholarly, and incorruptible as to make his name loved and influence felt beyond his immediate circle and surroundings. Like his younger brother, Prof. Ch. Kapp, of Heidelberg, he was a student in the fine sense of the word. The late Dr. Kapp owed very much to his father. This father was just as fond of good living as his better known son, and with just as charming a grace, only he rarely indulged in it. It cost money even in those days to send a son to Heidelberg, and this the 'Director' did out of his own meagre salary. His life had many struggles with limited means. A rather large family to care for and educate, he practised much self-denial. He loved his books, and the fine courtesy of manner as well as charm of conversation did not leave him even when a lonely and often sick old man.”

  1. 'The Slavery Question In America' (1854), and a 'History of Slavery in the United States' (1858); Lives of General Steuben (1858) and Kalb (1862), the latter recently published In English in this city; 'The Traffic of German Princes In Soldiers for America' (1864); a 'History of German Emigration to America' (1867).
  2. 'Frederick the Great and the United States'(1871); 'From and Concerning America' (1876); 'Justus Erich Bollmann' (1880).

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