A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906/1 The Rising Senator
THE RISING SENATOR
WHEN Mr. Schurz entered the Senate the political conditions centering in that body were very peculiar. The arduous conflict between President Johnson and Congress had shifted the center of gravity of our constitutional system far over on the legislative side, and the Senate especially had gained unprecedented prestige and importance. Through the Tenure of Office Act Senators were enabled, as never before, to influence the personnel of the civil service and thus to check and control the presidential policy in every branch of the administration. The consequences were serious. In the absence of unified and certain control the civil service had become demoralized beyond even its wartime state. The Senate was displaying an overweening hauteur as if it were the government. In the heat of the fierce struggle with Andrew Johnson these exceptional conditions had been little thought of, although they were factors in determining the acquittal of the President on impeachment, and also in inspiring the first concrete proposition for a civil-service reform. Soon after Grant took possession of the White House the relation of the Senate to the offices became a subject of serious debate.
From the collection of Joseph Keppler
CARL SCHURZ IN 1879
The new President, assuming that there was no longer any reason for the restrictions that had been imposed upon the powers of his office when Johnson filled it, suggested the repeal of the Tenure of Office Act. The House, always restive under any access of power to the Senate, promptly and enthusiastically supported the President's suggestion. In the Senate, however, a strong opposition was manifested. A number of the ablest Republican Senators, having supported the passage of the act by grave doctrines of constitutional law and with a serious purpose of exalting the authority of the Senate, were reluctant to reverse themselves. But Grant grimly announced that he would make no removals till his hands were freed. Under pressure of this attitude, so grievous to the spoils-mongering Congressman, and of the general desire among the Republicans to have harmony between the legislature and the new Executive, a disingenuous bill was patched up and passed that in a devious manner restored the power of removal to the President.
The debate on this subject, running through March, 1869, gave to Mr. Schurz an opportunity to put on record, at the very outset of his senatorial career, the conviction and purpose which were peculiarly to distinguish his whole public life, and to make it unique in American politics. In the effort to adjust the different views as to what should be done with the Tenure of Office Act, a proposition was made to suspend its operation for a time, instead of repealing it. This suggestion was on its face ignoble, but it received considerable support, especially from those who were tormented with a desire for an immediate “clean sweep” of the Johnson incumbents. Schurz voted for the motion to suspend on wholly different grounds. The great need of the time, he declared, was the abolition of the spoils system and of Congressional patronage, and the establishment of appointment through examination. The more the existing system and its evils should be discussed, the nearer would be the accomplishment of reform. If the Tenure of Office Act should be suspended for a time, the end of the period fixed would bring a fresh discussion of the general subject—a result wholly desirable and warranting support of a proposition otherwise unjustifiable.
The purpose thus announced naturally failed of realization in the particular form here proposed. But Schurz held fast to his policy; and on December 20, 1869, he introduced a bill embodying a far-reaching system of civil-service reform. This incorporated the scheme already advocated for several years by Representative Jenckes, of Rhode Island, but extended its provisions over a much greater number of offices. In taking up the advocacy of this project Schurz identified himself with a group of Senators—Trumbull, Thurman, Sumner, Bayard—that included some of the best minds in public life. However, many influences conspired to render comprehensive reform impossible at this time. To the majority of Congressmen patronage and spoils were indispensable instruments of party success, and party success was the sole practical method of promoting patriotic ends. President Grant, by throwing his powerful influence in favor of reform in the manner of appointments, insured the adoption of a measure in 1871 under which a commission was established and a system of examinations was instituted. But by the time it was fairly in operation some of the strongest supporters of the reform had become antagonistic to the administration, and the consequent alienation between these men and Grant made it possible for the congressional adversaries of the reform to reduce the new system to a nullity, for a time, by refusing the necessary appropriations. However, the law remained and furnished a basis for the developments of later years.
The same intellectual and political traits of which Mr. Schurz's zeal for civil-service reform was born made his hostility to the administration inevitable. His whole conception of public policy was far above the play of merely personal and party interests. He had no taste for political controversy that turned mainly on the rivalry of ambitious leaders, or for the creation of efficient vote-getting machinery without reference to the principles and the vital issues that the votes should sustain. Perhaps his indifference to these considerations was, at times, extreme for a statesman in a democracy; but it gave to his senatorial career exceptional seriousness and dignity. From his first appearance in the debates, the lofty tone of his speeches, emphasized by graceful diction and impressive delivery, at once commanded the close attention of his colleagues on the floor and of large audiences in the galleries. Every formal speech also had much of the literary quality of a well-rounded essay on the subject under discussion; and his argument always appealed to minds capable of grasping the larger aspects of history and philosophy. Although there was no lack of satire and cutting denunciation for false theories and objectionable projects, mere personalities and unreasoned invective were disliked and avoided. Consequently Schurz early won from serious opponents a degree of respectful consideration that Sumner, popularly regarded as the leader of the Senate, had never been able to secure. The characteristic qualities of Schurz's senatorial oratory were especially manifest in his speeches on Reconstruction, and on the attempted annexation of Santo Domingo.
In the spring of 1869, eight of the eleven secessionist States were in normal relations with the general government, and were politically in the hands of the Republicans, to whom, by enfranchising the freedmen and disfranchising many whites, Congress had given control. The remaining three States, Virginia, Mississippi and Texas, completed the steps necessary to readmission, and came up for formal acceptance by Congress in the winter of 1869-70. By this time social and political conditions throughout the South were revealing the difficulties of the new dispensation. Against the rule of Northern men and negroes, extravagant, inefficient and corrupt, the Southern whites reacted through secret organizations, terror and violence. The Ku Klux and their deeds made a gruesome record in many localities, and the inability of the State governments to suppress the disorders exposed the frailty of the new political régime.
In Congress, Republican sentiment was seriously divided as to the method of dealing with the Southern situation. All factions agreed in requiring the three States yet to be admitted to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment; and the same requirement was imposed upon Georgia, whose Conservative legislature, by the exclusion of negro members from their seats, had brought the State into a process of re-reconstruction. But when the radicals in Congress undertook to press through a barefaced project for prolonging the term of the Republican governor and legislature in Georgia, regardless of the State law, the moderate Republican Senators joined the Democrats and thwarted the scheme.
Schurz gave hearty aid to the moderates. Abating nothing of his confidence that reconstruction through negro suffrage had been the least objectionable policy, he declined to recognize that the maintenance of Republican party supremacy in the restored States was a sufficient ground for continued interference by the central government. The widespread political and social disorders in the South were regarded by hot partisans like Senators Morton, Drake and Wilson as expressions of the old rebellious spirit in the whites and of a malignant purpose to thwart by violence the building up of the Republican party in the reconstructed States. Louisiana and Georgia had been lost by the Republicans in the presidential elections in 1868; Tennessee and Virginia had chosen Conservative or Democratic State governments in 1869. The tendency thus manifested was held by the extremists to justify any degree of rigor in maintaining Republican ascendancy in the other States.
Schurz regarded such a spirit as in the highest degree mischievous. In the long debates on the Georgia question and on the Enforcement Act during the spring of 1870, he set forth his general views on the Southern situation. Like every other rebellion in history, ours must have its epilogue, he said; and the unrest and disorder in the South were incidents of this. They had a far deeper source than mere party politics; they were evidences of that “process of second fermentation” through which he anticipated that all the Southern States would have to pass. The proper treatment of this condition must be like that of a fever: watchfulness and care in guiding its course, but no radical or drastic action till time should have done its work. The “inveterate habits, opinions and ways of thinking of Southern society” must be transformed, and such a change can be of but slow growth. The greatest obstacle to a restoration of sound conditions would be legislative and executive action of purely partisan and extra-constitutional character. This would confirm the influence of the worst elements in the South and would provoke a disastrous Democratic reaction. The great need of the time, he believed, was that the Southern question should be wholly detached from partisan politics, and that the national government should leave the reconstructed States to work out their own problems. The most important positive action that Congress should take was the removal of the disabilities that still excluded many of the ablest Southerners from political life.
There was discernible in Mr. Schurz's attitude on the Southern question a profound discontent with the practical working of negro suffrage and of Republican party machinery in general as well as in the reconstructed States. By the end of the year 1870 this feeling became a matter of national notoriety by the sensational course of politics in Missouri. The factional division of the Republicans in this State, manifested in the contest that put Schurz into the Senate, came to a decisive issue in 1870 on the question of repealing the extremely rigorous laws by which Confederate sympathizers were disfranchised. The original justification for these laws had long ceased to have force, and their chief function was to furnish unscrupulous Republican politicians with the means to maintain party supremacy in State and local affairs. The liberal element of the party took up the demand for an immediate abolition of the whole system. The radicals, who controlled the party machinery, opposed the demand, and, by shrewd and unscrupulous manipulation of the mass of negro voters just created by the Fifteenth Amendment, secured control of the State convention.
To Schurz the procedure of the radical politicians was objectionable from every point of view. It promoted among the whites a policy of exasperation and proscription where he believed conciliation and concord were needful; it identified the newly enfranchised negroes with a cause that must bar them from all cordial relations with the better class of whites and leave them the dependents of mere political schemers; and it exhibited, in the methods through which the convention had been packed by the radicals, the particular kind of party trickery that he most abhorred. Accordingly he went into the convention with a fixed purpose to sever, if necessary, his connection with the regular organization. There he lashed the radicals without mercy, but, not unnaturally, with slight effect on the well-organized majority. The proposition of the liberals to incorporate in the platform a plank favoring the immediate removal of disabilities was lost. Thereupon the liberals, headed by Schurz and Gratz Brown, organized a new convention, adopted a platform calling for the immediate removal of all disabilities, nominated Brown for Governor, and, with the aid of the Democrats, who coalesced with the bolters, triumphantly carried the State.
In this Missouri campaign, the radicals had the unqualified support of the administration. The federal office-holders in the State were constrained by the most drastic methods of pressure then in vogue to contribute money and labor to the cause; and President Grant, in a letter to the collector of internal revenue at St. Louis, expressed the conviction that Schurz and Brown were merely aiming to put the Democrats in power, and urged his correspondent to stand by the regular party ticket. Though read out of the Republican party by this high authority, Mr. Schurz did not cease to maintain that he stood true to the principles of Republicanism and that it was the radicals who had deserted those principles. In a speech delivered in the Senate, December 15, 1870, with the laurels of the Missouri victory fresh upon him, be told with great effectiveness the story of the liberal movement. Referring to the plank for which he himself was responsible in the national platform of 1868, favoring the removal of disabilities, he argued that the liberals were wholly in the spirit of Republican policy, and that the President had been misled into his belief to the contrary. This argument was followed in the speech, however, by a very philosophical and eloquent analysis of existing political conditions, with a conclusion that indicated how lightly the speaker regarded any party tie that involved fidelity to a name or tradition or organization rather than to a living practical principle. Both old parties, he thought, had done their specific work, and the Republicans, if they wished to retain their cohesion, must assume the task of progressive reform, though the new issues were not yet clear and well-defined.
Such lax and speculative allegiance only confirmed the distrust with which Schurz was regarded by spoils-loving, domineering partisans. A number of causes had by the end of 1870 brought the President much under the influence of the men of this kind. Schurz's chivalrous and independent course in Missouri politics was not the only occasion of his being out of favor with Grant. Not a little had been contributed to this result by the Senator's course in connection with the President's famous attempt to annex Santo Domingo.
A protocol providing for the annexation of this petty republic was negotiated by the President's private secretary, General Babcock, when in Santo Domingo on other business in the summer of 1869. Babcock's proceedings were of a grossly irregular character. The Cabinet, when it learned that annexation had been arranged for, refused to indicate even tolerance for the project, and Mr. Fish, the Secretary of State, offered his resignation. Nevertheless Grant, with fearlessness not born of wisdom, took up the heavy task of compelling annexation. While otherwise ignoring the attitude of his Cabinet, he induced Secretary Fish, by cogent personal appeals, to remain in office and to take the necessary steps for giving formal regularity to Babcock's negotiation. As a result, a treaty was signed just before Congress met in December, 1869. The President then undertook to insure ratification by the Senate. One unique feature of Babcock's diplomacy had been a pledge in the original protocol that the President would privately use all his influence to make the idea of annexation “popular” among the members of Congress and thus secure its accomplishment. In the spirit of this pledge, a series of urgent interviews with Senators was promptly begun and continued until the Dominican question was decided.
At this session Fessenden, an important member of the committee on foreign relations, died, and Sumner, the chairman of this committee, promptly brought about the succession of Schurz to the vacant place. The intimate friendship between Sumner and Schurz made this closer association highly agreeable, while the cosmopolitan character of Schurz's experience and philosophy insured valuable help in dealing with international problems. On no other regular committees did Schurz continue to serve to the end of his senatorial term. For short periods he was a member of the committees on military affairs, on pensions and on territories, but he apparently found nothing in the duties involved to warrant an effort to retain his membership in any one of them.
Mr. Schurz has above described the President's appeal to him in behalf of the Santo Domingo enterprise. Grant called on Sumner at his house about New Year's day, 1870, and requested his support for the ratification of the treaty with Santo Domingo. The experienced Senator was thrown off his balance by this surprising and unprecedented method. Evading a direct answer, he proclaimed himself at the same time “an administration man.” Grant probably heard or remembered nothing of the reply save this phrase; for he always afterwards asserted that Sumner had promised his support. But Sumner soon made up his mind that annexation was quite undesirable. Schurz had from the earliest intimation of the project strongly antagonized it, and he now became Sumner's most ardent and industrious coadjutor in preventing ratification. One night many years later, as he was leaving the Arlington Hotel, in Washington, Mr. Schurz stopped in front of the Sumner house, now the east side of the Arlington “Annex,” and pointing up to the second story said to his companion: “Ah, how many long evenings I have passed with Sumner up there in his library! It was there that we planned the defeat of Grant's scheme to annex Santo Domingo.” Though Sumner's great reputation and his violent personal quarrel with Grant made him the most conspicuous figure in the opposition to annexation, it was in fact Schurz who did most of the careful planning through which the President was defeated.
The task would have been an easy one if the ratification of the treaty had depended solely on the merits of the case. At first very few Senators manifested any positive desire for annexation, and the mass of the Republicans were indifferent, with a leaning toward opposition. Yet upon this indifferentism a deep impression was made by the terrible earnestness with which the President continued to press his policy. It was but a year since Andrew Johnson had left the White House, and many Republicans recoiled with terror from the idea of another breach with the Executive. They dreaded less the peril of annexing Santo Domingo than that of dividing the Republican party from its official chief. Thus party considerations finally prevailed with most of the Republican Senators. Against such considerations Schurz was peculiarly unfitted to make headway; for his whole intellectual habit precluded him from properly estimating the idea of party per se. However, with the aid of the Democrats, he and Sumner were victorious: ratification was refused by the Senate, June 29, 1870, by a vote of 28 to 28, two-thirds being required to ratify.
Grant, though intensely irritated by this outcome, was far from convinced that he was defeated. At the next session of Congress, in December, 1870, his annual message contained an elaborate plea for annexation and suggested the method of joint resolution, as in the case of Texas, or of a commission to negotiate a new treaty. During the summer the President had in various ways strengthened his hold on those who had supported him, and at the same time had manifested an intense personal bitterness toward Sumner, whom he held chiefly responsible for the failure of the treaty. Sumner had conceived pari passu a cordial contempt for Grant, which, though not publicly proclaimed, was none the less a matter of general knowledge. When, therefore, the question of annexation was again brought forward by the annual message of 1870, a resounding clash between the Senator and the administration was expected, and it duly came.
Morton, one of the leaders of the President's supporters, introduced in the Senate a resolution providing for a commission to visit Santo Domingo and report upon conditions there. This was intended, so Morton assured Sumner, merely as a means of dropping the whole matter in a manner that would show some respect for the President. Sumner, however, spurned the suggestion that it be allowed to pass unopposed, and by a tirade beginning, “The resolution before the Senate commits Congress to a dance of blood,” made public and irreparable the breach with the President. This speech, crammed as it was with the most offensive imputations upon Grant and his advisers, grieved the more judicious of Sumner's friends. It diverted attention from the issue of annexation, on which public opinion favored the opposition, to that of the personal animosity between Grant and Sumner, on which no arts of malignant rhetoric could win the sympathy of the people from their silent military hero. The debate on the resolution turned largely upon Sumner's personal motives and methods, and he was very roughly handled by the friends of the President, especially Zachariah Chandler and Roscoe Conkling.
To Schurz the turn given to the affair by this war of personalities was in the highest degree distressing. In temper and self-control he was thoroughly unlike the Massachusetts Senator. He feared for the effect upon Sumner personally, and for the effect upon the main question. In a frank conference with the President while the treaty of annexation was before the Senate, Schurz had learned how tenacious Grant was of his purpose to acquire Santo Domingo. The ostentatious repudiation of the Missouri liberals during the State campaign of 1870 had been public notice that the presidential favor would be withdrawn from Senators who, like Schurz, refused to support the Dominican policy. In a number of States there was a promising opportunity to constrain senatorial votes by administration pressure through the party machine. Under such circumstances Schurz was seriously alarmed lest, despite the contrary professions of Morton, a scheme to present anew the direct question of acquisition might suddenly reveal itself. The surest way of meeting this danger was to get public opinion back to the main issue. This he undertook to do in a very serious address to the Senate, on January 11, 1871. He studiously avoided all the extraneous topics that Sumner's invective had brought into the discussion, and confined himself practically to the single question of annexation. It was typical of Schurz's superior methods of developing and leading public opinion.
The argument of the speech was made to turn chiefly on the undesirability of tropical expansion. At the first suggestion of the annexation of Santo Domingo, Schurz had felt instinctively that, apart from the question whether any increase of territory was desirable, the direction of this proposed increase should condemn the project. This thought was elaborated in a broad philosophical review of human history showing that the tropics are ill-adapted to the development of a high civilization—that they produce social and political systems in which the extremes of slavery and despotism are sure to prevail. All the troubles of the United States about slavery had been due, he argued, to the tendencies in the South toward tropical conditions and methods in politics. European peoples had throughout history sought without ceasing, but in vain, to acquire power and prestige in warmer regions than their own. A romantic longing for the South had impelled many a happy nation to ruin; and, with words that could have come only from one trained amid the ideals and traditions that inspired the German reform movement of 1848, he illustrated his thought by reference to his native land. “It was on the beautiful plains of Italy that the German Empire spent its strength. It was in hunting after Southern shadows that it frittered away its great opportunities of home consolidation. It was, so to say, in the embraces of that beautiful Southern siren that the German Empire lost its manhood.” As recent and immediately appropriate illustrations of the dangers to be shunned, he cited the experiences of Great Britain in India, France in Mexico, and Spain and France in Santo Domingo itself. “Do not,” he concluded, “touch a scheme like this; do not trifle with that which may poison the future of this great nation; beware of the tropics.”
This speech was much applauded and praised. In later years Mr. Schurz classed it as one of the best three of his senatorial career. Its effects on fellow-Senators, was, of course, not in proportion to its merits. Morton's resolution was passed by heavy majorities in both Houses; a commission under its provision went to Santo Domingo and made a report favorable to annexation. But Grant, realizing at last that public opinion was not with him, despaired of his undertaking. As we shall see, he was more ready than his critics to let the matter rest.
Meantime the discussion had sharpened the line of division between the friends and the enemies of the administration among the Republicans in Congress, and had furnished the President's critics with ample material for the forthcoming contest.
At the opening of the Forty-second Congress, March, 1871, the Republican senatorial caucus substituted Cameron for Sumner as chairman of the committee on foreign relations. This action—the removal of an important chairman without his consent—was a very unusual one, and was regarded by Sumner as revenge, dictated by the administration, for the Senator's activity in thwarting the President in his Santo Domingo policy. In reality other factors entered into the matter, though their influence was not fully understood at the time. Schurz and other Senators, even some who acted regularly with the administration group, protested with much warmth against Sumner's deposition, but in vain.
At this same session Grant, urged by Morton and others of his special supporters, committed himself to the application of the national war power to the suppression of the Ku Klux disorders. To this policy Sumner gave his full support, for to him it seemed to be only a new phase of the old anti-slavery movement, which so long had the first place in this thoughts. Schurz, while not less a philanthropist, was a philosophical public man, and since 1865 he had closely studied the Southern question, kept an open mind, and had become a resident of the South. His actual experience of negro suffrage in Missouri, and his clear insight into the purely partisan influences that so powerfully operated in promoting the administration's Ku Klux policy, compelled him to choose a course of action different from that of his dear friend Sumner. Practically all the other Republican Senators of the anti-administration group agreed with Schurz. Prestige had usually given to Sumner the nominal leadership of this group. Now, so far as there was any leadership, it fell to Schurz.
At the end of March, 1871, the Santo Domingo affair made its last appearance in formal debate. Sumner had introduced a series of resolutions censuring the use made of the navy in connection with Babcock's visits and with later proceedings under the preliminary protocol. This touched the weakest spot in the presidential case; for with cheerful disregard of all the nice points of diplomatic and international practice, Grant, Secretary Robeson, Babcock and sundry naval commanders had practically taken armed possession of Santo Domingo and committed acts of war against Hayti with no right whatever, but merely in anticipation of the ratification of the treaty. Schurz's speech on these resolutions was an extremely effective demonstration in public law. Morton, presuming, as he often did in colloquy with Schurz, that the latter's foreign nativity implied a lack of familiarity with our history, sought to trip him up by reference to the opening of the Mexican War, but spoke incautiously and without due preparation. Schurz easily, completely and ludicrously discomfited him. Sumner's resolutions failed, of course, to pass, but their chief purpose was attained in drawing public attention to some very reckless acts of the administration.
On the Ku Klux question, which was the chief subject of debate in the spring of 1871, a determined purpose was manifested by the radical leaders, when once they had secured the support of the President for their policy, to make it the supreme test of party fealty and to use it for effecting the re-nomination and re-election of Grant in 1872. The celebrated Ku Klux Act became law on the 20th of April, 1871. It not only gave the federal courts extensive jurisdiction for the punishment of the outrages, but also authorized the President to declare in rebellion regions infested by the Ku Klux, and to suspend the habeas corpus and suppress the disorders by military force. Substantially, this expressed the theory that the South was again, as it had been in 1861, in insurrection against the authority of the national government. The widespread Ku Klux organization was, the radicals asserted, a revival of the great rebellion, and the Republican party, under the man who had crushed the rebels in the open field, must see to it that they should not triumph by secret conspiracy.
Schurz vigorously opposed this legislation. His reasoning was the same as on the less drastic bills of a year earlier (above, p. 320). He believed the numbers of the Ku Klux to be grossly exaggerated and their purpose to be grossly distorted. The outrages ascribed to the mysterious order were, he said, no new thing, but merely expressions, less numerous and less shocking than just after the surrender in 1865, of the general unsettlement due to the social revolution in the South. The bad government of reconstruction had aggravated the evils and postponed their abolition; but time would bring the return of order. There was nothing in the situation to warrant the proposed legislation, with its excessive centralization, its ruthless overriding of the rights of the States and its “new doctrine of constructive rebellion—the first step toward a doctrine of constructive treason.”
To the sharp and insistent demand of those who pressed the measure, that it be a test of fealty to the Republican party, Mr. Schurz took pains to give an unmistakable reply:—“I stand in the Republican party as an independent man.” He categorically declared that he would not be a partisan; he was a “liberal Republican,” and specifically announced the liberal creed: “We desire peace and good will to all men. We desire the removal of political restrictions and the maintenance of local self-government to the utmost extent compatible with the Constitution as it is. We desire the questions connected with the Civil War to be disposed of forever, to make room as soon as possible for the new problems of the present and the future.”
The significance of this pronouncement was not misunderstood. It foreshadowed a political movement, on the lines of that recently successful in Missouri, against the policies and the men of the present Republican administration. It pointed to a readjustment of party lines and particularly to a firm resistance to the renomination of Grant. In the Senate the group of out-and-out anti-administration Republicans was small—Schurz, Ferry of Connecticut, Trumbull of Illinois, Tipton of Nebraska. Among the newspaper editors and other influential men of the party there was, however, a very widespread dissatisfaction with Grant. Greeley, Halstead, Horace White, and Samuel Bowles were especially outspoken and effective.
However pure Grant's motives and intentions, his actual conduct of the administration had been far from praiseworthy. Through love of his friends and his relatives he had given office to an unusual number of wholly unqualified persons, who had brought discredit upon him as well as themselves. His gratitude to the Congressmen who had sustained his Dominican policy had turned the federal civil service in a number of States into a mere machine for the promotion of personal political ends. Morton in Indiana, Conkling in New York, Chandler in Michigan, Cameron in Pennsylvania and Butler in Massachusetts, for example, were autocrats of their respective States through the patronage bestowed by the President. In the reconstructed States of the South the favor of the administration was used to support especially scandalous abuses. At New Orleans, in connection with internal dissension in the Republican party, the United States troops and a revenue cutter were openly employed in promoting the fortunes of the faction which enjoyed the favor of Casey, a brother-in-law of Grant and collector of the port. In view of the policy of the Ku Klux act it appeared to many anxious Republicans that a purpose was afoot to carry the election of Grant in 1872 by the setting up of military rule again in the South.
All these various conditions kept the spirit of watchfulness and intrigue active among public men during the recess of Congress in 1871. Schurz remained in close touch with those of a liberal trend of thought, and shaped the project of thwarting the re-election of Grant. When the houses reassembled in December the two factions in the Senate were eagerly and equally intent on opportunities for parliamentary attack and partisan advantage. Early in the session Schurz and Sumner found an opening through which to assail the administration, as they had done before, for reckless conduct in matters touching foreign nations. Information came to them that during the Franco-Prussian War great quantities of arms had been sold to France under circumstances that suggested jobbery and corruption in the War Department and outrageous disregard of the duties of a neutral. Schurz first ascertained that the record of the State Department was entirely blameless, and further that the German government would not take advantage of any revelations to call the United States to account. Having thus provided against any possibility of foreign complications, the attack was opened.
Sumner offered a resolution proposing an inquiry and investigation concerning the sale of arms to France, and on February 13, 1872, made a speech in support of the resolution. He had not well mastered the details of the affair; and hence, while his charges of improper conduct by the government were clear enough, the evidence to sustain them was not so presented as to make out a very impressive case. Schurz was not intending to take a prominent part in the debate, but when the administration cohort—Morton, Carpenter, Conkling and others—rushed to the defense of the War Department, Sumner, laboring heavily, peremptorily summoned Schurz to his aid. From the 15th of February to the end of the month the Missouri Senator sustained with but little assistance the burden of a most violent political debate. The climax of his labor and his triumph came on the 19th and 20th.
The debate created great excitement and attracted large audiences to the galleries. On the 19th Conkling made an elaborate speech in defense of the administration, attacking Sumner and Trumbull. The whole White House coterie was in the galleries to witness the overthrow of its adversaries. As soon as Conkling was through, Schurz demanded the floor to reply instantly, but an adjournment was moved and carried, assuring him the floor for the next day. Mrs. Schurz, who had listened to Conkling, was very much dejected and told her husband on the way home that she did not think he could answer Conkling's speech. He tried to restore her courage and then employed the better part of the night in studying the documents once more and in arranging his ideas for the reply. But he could not prevail upon his wife to accompany him to the Senate the next day. When he arrived at the Capitol he found the avenues of the Senate chamber filled with so great a crowd that he could with difficulty make his way through it. As soon as Schurz got the floor, Fenton of New York moved that the doors of the Senate chamber be opened to admit the ladies who could not find room in the galleries. This was agreed to, and in a few minutes every sofa and every square foot of standing room in the chamber were filled. This audience was indeed inspiring and he never in his life spoke with so much nervous energy, fire and immediate effect. The crowd on the floor and in the galleries would at last break out at every touch, and the presiding officer found it very hard to restrain them. When Schurz finished, the larger part of the audience, after having indulged themselves in all sorts of demonstrations, rose to depart, and proceedings in the Senate had to be suspended for about a quarter of an hour. When the orator was just closing, Mrs. Schurz, who had after all been too restless to stay at home, arrived at the Senate chamber and tried in vain to get in. In a moment the crowd began to pour out, and Sumner, who was looking for some friends, met her in the lobby and, stretching out his hands, cried: “Oh, Madam, I congratulate you. Your husband has just made the greatest speech that has been heard in the Senate for twenty years.” “It was indeed,” said Schurz, in recalling this incident to Sumner's biographer many years later, “not the best speech, for the subject was comparatively small, but the greatest parliamentary triumph I ever had in the Senate.”
To break the effect of Schurz's remarkable eloquence, which all the newspapers of the land acknowledged and recorded, his adversaries turned their batteries almost exclusively upon him and his personal aims. Morton represented him as seeking merely to turn the German vote over to the Democrats, and dwelt with special iteration upon Schurz's public declaration that he would not support Grant under any circumstances. Conkling pressed again the intimation made before, that Schurz, in order to besmirch the administration, had acted in collusion with some spy or emissary of a foreign power. In his most sonorous and rasping language the showy New York Senator charged Schurz with putting on airs of personal courage; with indulging in cowardly insinuations that the President was corrupt; and with seeking to deter those who would properly resent such insinuations by “frisky and portentous proclamation” of the danger which they would incur.
Conkling was evidently in a state of intense irritation and he exposed himself to a quick and deadly retort. “If I did and said anything yesterday that looked like strutting,” said Schurz, “then I most sincerely beg the Senate's pardon; for I certainly did not want to encroach upon the exclusive privilege of my honorable and distinguished associate from New York. If I did and said anything that looked like boasting, let me assure you, sir, that it was not the remark that even if I met a thousand of his kind I would not quail; for I would not consider that a striking demonstration of courage.”
Carpenter of Wisconsin harped upon the charge that Schurz, in seeking to fasten wrong-doing upon his own government in relation to another power, was false to patriotic duty and forgetful of the sentiment “My country, right or wrong.” Schurz avowed his devotion to that sentiment with this addition: “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
The arduous and brilliant fortnight of parliamentary fencing brought small results so far as the original issue was concerned. A committee of investigation was appointed by the Senate, but the administration majority saw to it that neither Sumner nor Schurz was a member. The latter was permitted, however, to question witnesses. In May a report was made acquitting the officials of all wrong-doing in connection with the sale of arms. Mr. Schurz, while admitting that the testimony fell short of establishing guilt by legal evidence, felt that this failure was due to the hostile attitude of the committee toward the accusers, and believed all his life that the War Department had acted recklessly and illegally and that illegitimate money-making was at the bottom of the business.
This debate increased twentyfold Mr. Schurz's forensic reputation. He had already won a recognition as one of the strong men of the Senate in the serious discussion of large problems and policies; now he also ranked with those who were most dangerous in the quick parry and thrust of impromptu partisan debate. Conkling never spoke to Schurz again, for Schurz's disdainful sarcasm gave him as painful a wound as he received when Blaine likened him to a turkey-gobbler. The attitude of the administration press during and after the debate gave conclusive if disagreeable evidence of the new importance achieved by the Missouri Senator. Ingenious and malignant slanders assailed him from all sides with redoubled frequency, but throughout it all there was the grumbling admission that his work on the floor of the Senate had been wonderfully adroit and effective.