A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906/2 The Liberal Republican

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A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906
Frederic Bancroft and William A. Dunning
Chapter II: The Liberal Republican



IN the national Liberal Republican movement of 1872 Mr. Schurz was from the outset the leading spirit. His non-partisan success in Missouri, his brilliant achievements in the Senate, and both the moral tone and the intellectual quality of his appeals to public opinion, whether as journalist or as popular orator, had won him the applause of thinking men in all parts of the country; while tens of thousands of the best German-Americans had long regarded him with pride and welcomed his friendly political counsel.

During the recess of Congress in the summer and autumn of 1871, he varied the quiet course of his editorial occupation in St. Louis with political addresses, notably at Chicago early in August and at Nashville late in September. The spirit and purpose underlying these speeches are best expressed in a long, confidential letter to Sumner, of September 30th:

“Grant and his faction carry at present everything before them by force majeure. The organization of the Republican party is almost entirely in the hands of the office-holders and ruled by selfish interest. In all you say about Grant, you are unquestionably right. You ask me, what can be done to avert the calamity of another four years of such rule? I answer, we must act with energy. I am fully determined not to sit still. I doubt now whether we can prevent his nomination. The men who surround him stop at nothing. But I shall not support him. Neither shall I support the Democrats. Far from it. But I think,—in fact I firmly believe,—in case of Grant's nomination we shall have a third movement on foot strong enough to beat both him and the Democrats. I have commenced already to organize it, and when the time comes, I think it will be ready for action. …

“A very large number of Southerners, especially young men who have become disgusted with their old leaders, care nothing about the Democratic party; but they detest Grant. They are sincerely willing to uphold the new order of things in every direction, if they are generously treated. I enclose the heading of a subscription list, the programme of an association which I started when at Nashville. It will be composed of Republicans and former rebels—in fact of all who are willing to work for the objects stated. How do you like that platform? Does it not contain everything you ever fought for? Well, this organization will soon make its public appearance—and I would ask you not to mention the subject to anybody until you see it referred to in the papers. It is intended to establish similar associations all over the South and corresponding ones in the Northern States, and during the winter this can be accomplished. Before the time for holding the Republican National Convention arrives, this will be a power fit to absorb the best elements of both parties,—and there is the prospect of beating the Democrats on one and the personal-government-men on the other side.—If I could only impart to you my convictions—and they are very carefully formed and sincere—of the right manner of treating the Southern question, how glad I would be! You ought to be the great leader of this movement which will create the party of the future. It is the only manner in which the equal rights of all can be permanently secured in the South. All your Ku Klux and enforcement-laws avail nothing, if we do not find the means to control public opinion, and this is the way to do it. …

“I know that in the efforts I am now making, I have the hearty sympathy of large masses of people, not only Democrats by any means, but Republicans who are not corrupted by the patronage or frightened by official terrorism. Here in the West you can observe clearly how this movement is disintegrating the Democratic party. Our action in this State last fall has disorganized that party altogether. The late rebels are doing admirably well. They pronounce themselves without reserve for the new order of things; the old Democratic leaders can do so little with them that they despair of their own party.

“Now, I am working for substantial results, and I see many cheering signs of the times. The great evil we have to overcome is that party spirit which turns everything to selfish advantage and has created a sort of terrorism to which but too many submit. …”

The movement as it thus lay in the thoughts of this tireless reformer was indeed fascinating. His ideal was a great moral uprising of the people, of such volume and scope as to sweep away the existing party machinery, with the corruption and abuses which it fostered, and to establish in its stead a new political order, in which intelligence, honesty and efficiency should have their due place in the conduct of the government, and principles, not men, should fix the lines of party division. This evangel of an ideal organization constituted the artistic crown of all his speeches in support of the liberal movement. Yet he never long lost touch with the actualities of the existing situation, and was as keen as the most matter-of-fact of his associates in urging upon audiences and correspondents the practical means of promoting the reform.

The first step in giving concreteness to the national movement was the action of a great Liberal Republican mass meeting at Jefferson City, Missouri, on January 24, 1872. This meeting adopted resolutions demanding that the Republican party stand for amnesty, tariff reform and civil-service reform, and inviting all Republicans desiring these reforms to meet in national mass convention at Cincinnati on May 1. Mr. Schurz was naturally in close touch with this Missouri meeting and accepted it as the best available instrument for promoting the ends to which he was committed. There was nothing non-partisan, however, in the assembly at Jefferson City. The purpose accentuated in its proceedings was to make the movement distinctively Republican—to force the nomination by the regular party convention of some one else than Grant. That a candidate should actually be named at Cincinnati was considered by some influential Liberals, notably Trumbull, as neither necessary nor desirable. All that they aimed at was so imposing a demonstration of reform sentiment among Republicans as to convince the administration faction that the renomination of Grant would mean the loss of the election. In the background, however, always lay the possibility of action according to the Missouri precedent of 1870—a nomination that should be endorsed by the Democrats in case the heart of the Grant faction should be hardened beyond relenting.

For this last resort Mr. Schurz had personally little desire. His distrust of the Democracy as an organization was deep and abiding. In Missouri, after the victory of 1870, he had been greatly disquieted by the election of Francis P. Blair, Jr., a peculiarly radical Democrat, to be his colleague in the Senate. That the Democrats should have exacted so heavy a price for their alliance with the Liberals confirmed in Schurz his despair of progress through the old party. His hope was that the organization would disintegrate and that the liberal men of it would individually join the party of reform.

By the middle of April it had become clear to the well-informed that the Grant Republicans, though seriously disturbed by the Cincinnati movement, were resolved to persist in their purpose of a renomination. The adhesions to the Liberal cause had been formidable in numbers and importance; many famous Republicans had endorsed the call to Cincinnati; but many others, equally famous, like George William Curtis and Charles Sumner, of undoubted sympathy with the loftiest political ideals, had not enlisted with the Liberals. Moreover, the rank and file of the party that had chosen Grant in 1868 did not welcome the demand that they abandon their hero. In such circumstances the reformers had no recourse but to make a nomination at Cincinnati, and to look to the Democracy for much of the support needed to insure success in the election.

To Mr. Schurz this turn of affairs was far from pleasing. It naturally brought into the foreground the discussion of men rather than measures, of personalities rather than principles. While most of his associates arrayed themselves in active and eager support of this or that candidate for the nomination, he refrained from announcing any preference, and strove only to insure that the convention should be free from the ignoble methods and influences which usually characterized such assemblies, and that no man should be nominated who did not represent, in antecedents and character, the highest ideals of Republicanism and reform.

The Liberals assembled at Cincinnati May 1st. Schurz was acknowledged to be, as Horace White wrote at the time to Trumbull, “the leader and master mind of this great movement.” As was inevitable, however, men and interests that were alien to the aims and ideals of its leader had become involved in the movement, and these disturbing elements made themselves conspicuous from the outset. Against the spirit of intrigue and petty jealousy which they manifested, Schurz entered an eloquent protest. He was chosen permanent chairman of the convention and on May 3rd delivered an address which is probably unique in the annals of political assemblies. All the abundant resources of his oratorical faculty were applied to the purpose of holding his hearers to an exalted conception of their mission. After a perfunctory though eloquent denunciation of the administration and a eulogy of the reformers he warned these against methods of action that would imperil all they had gained. It will ruin the cause of reform forever, he declared, “if we attempt to control and use this movement by the old tricks of political trade, or fritter away our zeal in small bickerings and mere selfish aspirations. We must obey the purest and loftiest inspirations of the popular uprising which sent us here.” “No merely personal consideration, whether negative or positive, should be controlling. I earnestly deprecate the cry we have heard so frequently: ‘Anybody to beat Grant!’ There is something more wanted than to beat Grant.” Mere availability he begged the convention to leave out of account in their choice of a candidate; “superior intelligence coupled with superior virtue” must be sought. Not merely an honest and a popular man, but a statesman is needed. In seeking for such a man “let us despise, as unworthy of our cause, the tricky manipulations by which, to the detriment of the Republic, political bodies have so often been controlled.” Personal friendship and State pride, while noble, must be laid aside, he argued, for the sake of duty to the country and responsibility for its future.


In vain were these appeals addressed to the convention. The spirit they sought to exorcise ruled many of the delegates, who were not of the stuff to respond to the chairman's lofty sentiments. Four names had been especially canvassed in the ante-convention discussions as to the presidential candidacy—Charles Francis Adams, Lyman Trumbull, Horace Greeley and David Davis. Of these only Adams and Trumbull were regarded by Mr. Schurz as in all respects fulfilling the ideal requirements. Greeley and Davis, however, were supported by many of the busy intriguers whose spirit and methods he had just denounced. He had been privately assured by such influential Democrats as August Belmont and Theodore Randolph that Adams, if nominated at Cincinnati, would be accepted by the Democracy; but the friends of Greeley in particular insisted that only their favorite was certain to secure Democratic endorsement. The New York and Pennsylvania delegates in the convention included many members whose only interest in the affair was a desire to get even with Grant for having preferred Conkling and Cameron to Fenton and Curtin respectively in the Republican faction-fights in the two States. These delegates, veterans of many a bitterly contested political field, had no thought of cleansing themselves and adopting the unwonted moral standard set up by Schurz and his friends, but promptly began to work on the familiar lines and with the familiar methods to secure the nomination for the man of their preference.


Of the leading candidates Davis and Greeley were notoriously most eager for preferment, and least in sympathy with the spirit in which the Liberal movement had been conceived. A project to secure a successful combination of the Davis and the Greeley forces was suddenly put aside for a deal with Gratz Brown and his friends. Brown, who had been proposed as a candidate for the Presidency by the Missouri delegation, was not generally recognized as having the qualities of more than a “favorite son.” Yet he seemed to be a promising possibility for the second place. Ever since the election of Frank Blair as Senator from Missouri a coolness had existed between Brown and Schurz, because the latter had strongly objected to Blair's candidacy, while Brown had supported it.

Brown did not go to Cincinnati for the opening of the convention. Irritated, however, by reports that Schurz was seeking to divert the votes of Missouri to Adams, and vexed, in all probability, by Schurz's prominence and influence, Brown, accompanied by Blair, hastened to Cincinnati before the balloting began, and promptly came to an understanding with the Greeley men. Accordingly, after the first ballot, in which Adams led with 203 votes and Brown received 95, Brown ascended the platform, withdrew his name and urged the nomination of Greeley. The effect was seen on the second ballot, when Greeley's vote rose to equal that of Adams. The two remained very close till the sixth ballot, when, under the skillful and persistent pressure and manipulation of the intriguers, the change of votes to Greeley began, and he was nominated. Brown was duly rewarded for his services, by receiving on the second ballot the nomination for the Vice-Presidency.

Greeley's nomination was a heavy blow to Schurz. It destroyed in an instant the whole fabric of the reform movement as he had so laboriously shaped it. Greeley was ludicrously remote in personality and notoriously separated in principle from the ideals which the true Liberals had avowed. To secure and retain the support of the New York and Pennsylvania protectionists, of whom Greeley was the spokesman, the Liberal leaders had with much reluctance surrendered the tariff plank of the Missouri platform. The convention's committee on resolutions frankly admitted that sentiment in regard to the tariff was hopelessly divided. This was far from the method of uncompromising devotion to principle as Schurz had conceived it; it was an initial concession to the idea of availability, and the fact and manner of Greeley's nomination completed the deviation thus begun. Under date of May 11, 1872, Schurz wrote to Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican: “I cannot yet think of the results of the Cincinnati convention without a pang. I have worked for the cause of reform in the largest sense of the word in good faith. I was frequently told at Cincinnati that I might exercise a decisive influence upon the selection of the candidates, and probably it was so. I did not do it because I considered it a paltry ambition to play the part of a President-maker, and because I desired that the nomination should appear as a spontaneous outgrowth of an elevated popular feeling, which would have made it stronger and more valuable. Everything seemed to promise so well. And then to see a movement which had apparently been so successful beyond all reasonable anticipations at the decisive moment taken possession of by a combination of politicians striking and executing a bargain in the open light of day—and politicians, too, belonging to just that tribe we thought we were fighting against, and the whole movement stripped of its moral character and dragged down to the level of an ordinary political operation; this, let me confess it, was a hard blow; and if I appear in the light of a defeated party, I do not under such circumstances object.”

Though his cause was lost, Mr. Schurz had the satisfaction of knowing that he had won the admiration and esteem of all the purest and noblest spirits in the Liberal movement. Commendation of his attitude in the convention and regrets that he had been overborne came to him from every direction. Most astonishing was the effect of the Cincinnati episode upon one of his most venomous journalistic critics of those days. The New York Times, a strong supporter of the administration, had during the winter and spring singled out Schurz for vindictive abuse. The teeming vocabulary of denunciation possessed by the editor, Louis J. Jennings, had been exhausted in epithets applied to the Senator, who had in one instance of peculiarly elaborate and malicious misrepresentation gratified his assailant by a tart and vigorous reply on the floor of the Senate. It was to be expected that the humiliation of Schurz at Cincinnati would be greeted by the Times with diabolical exultation. What actually happened was a frank and unqualified reversal of judgment by the editor. On May 9th, a leader opened with these words: “There is nothing more agreeable than to find reason to believe that our estimate of a public man has been less favorable to him than his merits deserve; with regard to the Cincinnati convention especially we must make this revision of our judgment in reference to Senator Schurz. … His speech at that convention was worthy of the extraordinary enthusiasm with which he is regarded by men of unquestionable ability and sagacity … and it was also a speech of which any public man might reasonably be proud.” Although Schurz had been unjust, the editor maintained, in some respects to Grant and unfair “in denouncing us as liars,” he did his best at Cincinnati “to obtain a fair expression of public opinion and to defeat the paltry intrigues of political hacks.”

The nomination of Greeley wrought great demoralization among the Liberal leaders. Some who had been very prominent in the movement, like Stanley Matthews, promptly repudiated the ticket and gave up the struggle for reform. Others, particularly the more earnest advocates of free trade, began to agitate for a new convention and another candidate. Greeley was accepted, however, by many of the Liberal chiefs, like Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican and Horace White of the Chicago Tribune, though with little of the normal campaign enthusiasm. To the support of the nomination came now the influence of many Democratic leaders, who, little as they liked Greeley, felt that they had gone too far in promoting acceptance of the Liberal cause to turn back because the candidate did not please them. From the South, moreover, came so many and so influential voices in favor of Greeley that his rejection by the Democracy was impracticable.

During the busy weeks of discussion and adjustment that followed the Cincinnati convention, Mr. Schurz, though in constant consultation with all the factions of the Liberals, made no public announcement as to whether he would or would not support Greeley. His correspondence with the candidate was as unprecedented as the speech to the assembly by whom the candidate was named. On May 6th, Schurz addressed to Greeley a very long letter designed, as the writer explained, “to state to you with entire candor my views on the present state of things. Whatever may come there shall be honesty between us.” As to candor, the letter certainly left nothing to be desired. It rehearsed the story of the bargain between the Greeley men and the Brown men, and affirmed Schurz's regretful conviction that “the first fruit of the great reform, so hopefully begun, was a successful piece of political huckstering,” which “could not fail to shake the whole moral basis of the movement. … In its present shape it does not longer appeal to that higher moral sense which we hoped to have evoked in the hearts and minds of the people. Its freshness and flavor are gone and we have come down to the ordinary level of a campaign of politicians.” The result of this situation Schurz depicted in the gloomiest colors. Not only the revenue-reformers, but especially the Germans in a body had abandoned the cause when the nomination was made. The most prominent German leaders of the West, he said, were “not only dissatisfied, but fully determined to oppose the ticket with their whole strength and deaf to argument—unwilling, as they said, to be the victims and tools of Frank Blair and New York politicians. … To the best of my information my paper [the Westliche Post] is to-day the only German paper in the country which has come out for the ticket.” … As to the prospects of success in the campaign, Schurz wrote without much hope. “I should not be troubled by any difficulties in the way did I still see and feel the same moral force as before by which to combat and overcome them. But all is changed. That element which was least inspired with the great and noble tendencies of this movement stands before the people as its controlling power, and that element cannot conduct a campaign like this successfully.” The letter contained reiterated expressions of undiminished confidence in Greeley's personal uprightness: “I am very far from suspecting you of having been a party to this arrangement. I believe in you as a pure and honest man.” In conclusion Schurz wrote that he was not clear “whether it is best to go on in the direction we have taken or to begin again at the beginning. I confess frankly to you that I cannot tell yet what I shall do for my part. I ask you only to believe that whatever I may do will not be dictated by any selfish motives, but by the sincerest regard for you and my best convictions of duty. I shall be happy if you will speak to me with the same frankness which has inspired every word of this letter.”

The invitation of this concluding sentence was cordially accepted by Greeley in this reply:

“May 8, 1872. 

Dear Sir:
“I have just read your letter of the 6th. I think I can fully enter into your feelings, since I expected to be called upon to support Adams or Davis for President under circumstances scarcely dissimilar from yours. I knew, and you can easily assure yourself, that the sympathizers with our movement in the South were nearly all for me, yet they were represented at Cincinnati by delegates who nearly all opposed me. They represented the money that brought them to Cincinnati, not the people they left behind them. And the ‘Revenue Reformers’ from this quarter were not Republicans at all, but frauds. They had not been near a Republican meeting before for years, if ever. Still I expected to support a ticket which I knew did not deal fairly with the people behind it.

“Of course the most of the Germans dislike me, not so much that I am a Protectionist as that I am a Total Abstinence man. They will not vote for me so generally as they would have voted for Adams or Trumbull. And still I believe that I shall receive 75,000 Republican votes in Illinois, and her electoral vote. Even should she go against me I hope we shall be able to do without her. We shall carry New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and the South with hardly a break. I hope the Northwest will help us some; if she does not, we must endeavor to get on.

“From the first I peremptorily refused to have anything to do with bargains or arrangements of any kind. They were proposed from several quarters and rejected with scorn. Hence I did not see how my nomination could be effected with the South so shamefully misrepresented.

“I wish, in what we may have to say hereafter, the words ‘Free Trade’ would suit you as well as ‘Revenue Reform.’ The former phrase has a definite meaning; the latter seems to me a juggle.

“If I might presume to advise you I would say Wait: Take time for reflection and consultation. I do not see how this course can harm anyone. I am confident that the ‘sober second thought’ will bring us all into proper relations.

“With many thanks for your personal good will and kindness, I remain,

Horace Greeley.” 

From these initial letters, and with increasing clearness from others that followed, it was evident that the “frankness” which characterized them was not likely to promote any remarkable degree of harmony between the candidate and the Liberal chief—between the man whose nomination was the product of “political huckstering” and the man whose demand for revenue-reform was a “juggle” and whose associates in the demand were “frauds.” On May 18th, Schurz wrote that the chances were heavily against Greeley's election, that another Liberal Republican ticket was soon to be in the field, and that the acceptance of the Cincinnati nomination ought to be postponed till the outlook became more clear. Greeley replied, dissenting entirely from Schurz's view of things, and declaring: “I shall accept unconditionally.”

Meanwhile friends of Schurz and Greeley took up the task of repairing the breach which the frankness of the correspondence between the two men was steadily widening. The result was told to Schurz in a letter from Horace White dated June 9th. Mr. White after an evening with the candidate at the house of Waldo Hutchins, wrote “Greeley made the impression on me of a sincere, confiding man. He argued like a baby with me about his right to write that letter to you in answer to one you wrote to him, since, as he said, he did not nominate himself at Cincinnati, had no communication with Gratz Brown or any of his friends thereon, etc., etc. He ended by acknowledging that he had done wrong, and authorizing me to go down to the Tribune office to-day and insert an article saying that his correspondence had become so voluminous that he could not undertake to answer any more letters. His Astor House headquarters are to be broken up immediately.”

The reference in Schurz's letter of May 18th to another Liberal ticket alluded to a conference which was being planned by those who were dissatisfied with the Cincinnati ticket. A call for this conference, signed by Schurz, J. D. Cox, Ottendorfer, Bryant and others, brought together some three score men at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York, on June 20. A free discussion, participated in by representatives of all shades of feeling on the situation, showed a predominant opinion that Greeley should be accepted. This opinion was sustained in a forceful speech by Mr. Schurz, closing the conference. The conviction at which he had arrived was that the possibility of ideal reform through the present election had been destroyed by the painful and distressing result reached at Cincinnati, and that the only question now was the perfectly practical one: Which of two unsatisfactory candidates would afford the more promise of success for a true reform four years hence? To this question he believed the answer clearly was: Greeley.

In the spirit of this declaration Mr. Schurz made a number of speeches during the campaign. They were naturally against Grant rather than for Greeley, and they lacked the quality which a different candidate and a less hopeless cause would have inspired. The overwhelming triumph of Grant was not unexpected by Mr. Schurz and was received in a spirit of true philosophy, which did not permit the ideal of reform to lose for a moment the sway which it held over his mind.