A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906/5 Journalism, Cleveland's First Administration, Literature and Business

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A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906
Frederic Bancroft and William A. Dunning
Chapter V: Journalism, Cleveland's First Administration, Literature and Business



BEFORE Mr. Schurz left the Interior Department he was confronted with an almost embarrassing number of propositions for future occupation. Journalistic enterprises were naturally the most prominent. He also cherished, with increasing fondness, the desire to write a comprehensive history of the United States, with special reference to the Civil War. Doubtless as tentative preparation for this task, he agreed in the spring of 1881 to contribute Henry Clay to the American Statesmen series of biographies. By the study of Clay he would secure the necessary background and perspective for the period with which his personal experience made him familiar. But this pleasing prospect of a life of historical research and literary creation—of which he began to dream at Bonn when a callow student under Kinkel—was soon displaced by an equally attractive and more remunerative enterprise in journalism.

The control of the New York Evening Post was purchased by Henry Villard, who transferred a part financial interest and the absolute editorial control to Carl Schurz, E. L. Godkin and Horace White, with the first-named as editor-in-chief. On May 26, 1881, this arrangement went into effect; and the Nation, which Mr. Godkin had raised to so distinctive a position in the periodical world, became, with but little transformation, the weekly edition of the Evening Post. The extraordinary ability and experience represented by this trio of editors attracted much attention and brought much prestige to this journal. But skeptical voices were not wanting, with suggestions that such a combination of “all the talents” might be as unfeasible in journalism as it once proved to be in the English government.

The skeptics were justified by the event. Mr. Schurz and Mr. Godkin, in their separate spheres, had been great admirers of each other. Intellectually they were in general of the same aristocratic type. On the proper solution of the great problems of social and political progress they were in substantial agreement; but their methods of promoting the proper solution tended to diverge. Schurz's practice was to reason with his adversaries; Godkin's was both to reason and to lash them. There was also a basic difference in the temperaments of the two men. For the mass of people who had failed to reach his own intellectual level Schurz felt sympathy; for those whom his truly great powers could not convince Godkin often felt contempt or at best indifference. At a time when capital and labor were in frequent conflict and politics was shifting from constitutional to economic and administrative issues, such differences of feeling must produce unpleasant results. The purely technical side of editorial management also gave occasion for trouble. Godkin as editor of the Nation had highly appreciated contributions from Schurz. In the winter of 1872-73, under an arrangement by which the authorship was kept a secret, Schurz sent letters from Washington with much regularity, though he refused the proffered compensation for them. Schurz as superior editor was much less to Godkin's taste. The quality given to the Post by the new management fell short, indeed, of pleasing either of the men. The oratorical and didactic habit of Schurz could not blend with the more distinctively journalistic talent of Godkin. However unlike in their attitudes toward inferiors, Schurz and Godkin were, in dealing with men of their own kind, about equally positive and tenacious. Because friction in the conduct of the Post could not be avoided, Mr. Schurz withdrew from all connection with it, in the autumn of 1883. Yet with few if any even temporary exceptions, Mr. Godkin and Mr. Schurz treated each other with the courtesy due their high moral and intellectual qualities, and maintained friendly relations to their last days.

Once more free from routine, Mr. Schurz's thoughts reverted to the promised biography and the cherished history. The one had made but little progress and the other none at all. Besides the editorial tasks of these two and one-half years, the multifarious distractions of life in New York had interfered with literary plans. As he was a distinguished citizen qualified for active and intelligent participation in the musical and the artistic, as well as the political and the social, activities of the great city, the calls upon him were increasingly numerous and exacting. He heartily enjoyed the indulgence of his various tastes and associations, but of course had to pay the penalty in loss of time needed for work in a few chosen fields.

If he had possessed an independent fortune, he would earlier have found more time to devote to literature. But the production of literature, and most of all historical literature, is unremunerative. Although both thrifty and industrious, probably he never felt entirely comfortable financially for a whole year unless he was adding to his income by labors that were not wholly those of a man of letters. Politics may have aided him in journalism and on the lyceum stage; but his salary as Senator and later as Secretary was inadequate to the needs of the extensive social obligations of his position.

About the time when his withdrawal from the Evening Post ended his chief journalistic income—for his income from his share in the St. Louis Westliche Post was small, except when he was a regular contributor to that newspaper—losses in connection with unfortunate investments swept away much the larger portion of his never large property. When his financial condition became known to a group of his New York admirers, chiefly of German origin, early in 1884, they subscribed $100,000 to be tendered as a gift. As soon as he heard of the project he disapproved of it. With the keenest appreciation of the friendly and generous motives of the contributors, he felt with equal keenness the obligations that would be involved in acceptance. In a letter of March 21st, expressing concisely the complexity of his feelings, he announced that he could not accept the gift in any form, and requested that the enterprise be abandoned.

By this time the approach of the presidential campaign was engrossing his attention. The Garfield-Arthur term had been peculiarly favorable to the growth of independence in politics. Garfield's assassination, the Pendleton act greatly extending the civil-service reform, the overwhelming defeat of the Republican “machines” in Pennsylvania and New York in the State elections of 1882—formed a sequence of events that could not be misinterpreted. The grosser evils, at least, of spoils politics were under the ban of strongly aroused public opinion. Both when editor and subsequently Mr. Schurz had contributed much to this result.

The problem before him and his Independent associates was like that of the last three campaigns—to insure if possible the nomination of an unexceptionable candidate by the Republicans, or failing in that, to bring pressure upon the Democrats to the same end. Early in the winter a formal announcement of the Independent programme was planned for Washington's Birthday, 1884, in Brooklyn. On that occasion Schurz made the chief address. Its reception was very encouraging. There was an intense feeling against Blaine among Republicans. Yet as the date of the Republican national convention drew near, the energy with which Blaine's candidacy was promoted made his success almost certain. This was the outcome the Independents most deprecated. Nevertheless, Blaine was nominated on the fourth ballot. Mr. Schurz, who was on the platform of the convention as a distinguished guest, took out his watch, noted the time and, turning to an old friend, remarked: “That is the hour and minute which will go down in history as marking the death of the Republican party.”

This prophecy probably reflected in some measure the persistence in the speaker's mind of the conviction that had almost continually possessed him since the early seventies—that the old parties had outlived their usefulness. Much more, however, did it express the depth of his feeling that the nominee was unworthy. He considered the popular man from Maine a particularly objectionable example of those politicians to whom politics is a sport—a great game played before millions of spectators—in which success means the triumph of a person rather than the promotion of social truth and justice. In the revelations of 1876 as to Blaine's connection with land-grant railroads, Schurz saw the confirmation of his impression and much more. The aggressive tone given to our diplomacy in South America when Blaine was Secretary of State had aroused grave apprehensions. Schurz had never parted from the belief that the United States must walk in the paths of peace, and especially must beware of the tropics. Yet when the test came in 1884, he felt that the stress must be laid on the issue of personal honesty and public morality. In September of 1882 Blaine had published in the Chicago Tribune a long attack on Schurz, directed to showing in particular that in their respective Cabinet careers Schurz had grossly betrayed, while Blaine had systematically sustained, the principles of civil-service reform. This attack was prompted by a severe article on Blaine in the Evening Post, which was not unnaturally attributed to Schurz. It happened, in fact, that Schurz, who was away on his vacation, knew nothing about the Post article until long after its appearance. He accordingly wrote to the editor of the Tribune in a satirical strain, assuring him that “this whole fusillade against the author of the remarks in the Evening Post is directed to an entirely wrong address,” and concluding: “While I, had I been in editorial charge of the Evening Post at the time, should perhaps have preferred to treat Mr. Blaine's posing as a civil-service reformer and as an opponent of the spoils system rather mildly and good-naturedly, in the light of a joke, I am indeed of the opinion, seriously, that the author of the Mulligan letters can never be, and ought not to be, President of the United States.” It was Mulligan-letters Blaine,—self-exposed as both accepting, and seeking more, private pecuniary advantage in return for official favors conferred when Speaker of the House of Representatives,—that Schurz was to oppose in the campaign of 1884. He had a keen eye for the moral issue, and it meant so much to him that he always expected it to be successful.

Copyright, 1904, by Pach, N. Y.


The nomination of Blaine was followed at once by a great Republican bolt. A week after the Republican convention, the Democrats nominated Cleveland, and thus furnished the bolters with a candidate to whom they were ready to give unqualified support. The personal preference of Mr. Schurz had been for the nomination of Senator Bayard, with whom he was on terms of intimacy and affection. But Bayard did not greatly attract the bulk of the Independents; and among the Democrats, though he had much strength, the conditions of availability were strongly against him. On June 28th, just before the Democratic convention, Schurz wrote to Bayard: “We are together against Blaine and for honest government. I should be glad to see you in the presidential chair on the 4th of March, 1885. If my vote could put you there I should not hesitate a moment. If you are nominated I shall work for your election to the best of my ability.” Bayard was then urged, in case his own nomination became clearly impossible, to throw his influence in favor of Cleveland, as the only other Democrat who could secure the Independent vote and defeat Blaine. To this policy Bayard very cordially assented: “I hold and shall treat all personal questions and ambitions as quite secondary to the chief object, a nomination by the Democratic convention which shall justify the combination of all the opposing forces to Blaineism.”


As soon as the two parties had put their candidates in the field, the organization of the anti-Blaine Republicans proceeded rapidly and absorbed practically the whole time and energy of Mr. Schurz. The line of action was that of co-operation but not coalescence with the Democrats. “Republican and Independent” associations were formed to carry on the campaign, but long before it was ended the sprightly malice of the New York Sun made “Mugwump” the usual designation for these Independents. On July 22nd they held a national conference at New York and promulgated an address defining their policy. The meeting was planned and the address was written by Mr. Schurz. A national headquarters was established at 35 Nassau Street, New York, where he had general supervision and his suggestions were carefully followed.

On August 5th he opened the speaking campaign by an address in Brooklyn. Its specific feature was a dispassionate analysis of Blaine's record in connection with the Mulligan letters, and its general philosophy was the deadly peril of subordinating rigid moral ideals to party advantage. During September and October Schurz stumped the country from Indianapolis to New Haven, speaking at some twenty-five different places. The contest proved a particularly desperate one. Blaine had a wonderful hold on the rank and file of his party, especially in the West. The moral issue was befogged in the popular thought by serious charges of private immorality in earlier years on the part of Cleveland. Western Republicans especially received with stolidity the exhortations to save the country by voting for such a Democrat. Blaine was defeated by only the narrowest possible margin. The closeness of the result really emphasized the triumph of the Independents, for it left no room to doubt that they determined the outcome. And the victors and the vanquished agreed, however reluctantly, that the chief laurels belonged to Mr. Schurz.

With the laurels came responsibilities. The accession of the Democracy to power, after twenty-four years of exclusion, would test as nothing else could the strength of the hold which civil-service reform had obtained. From the executive departments, especially the Interior, anxious inquiries poured in upon Mr. Schurz as to whether a “clean sweep” was coming, and eager requests were made for his influence. These often pathetic appeals were not needed to arouse him to vigorous activity in this cause. In the very letter congratulating Cleveland on his election Schurz said: “The crucial test will not be the tariff question, for that, I am confident, will settle itself more easily than many people suppose; but it is civil service that will present itself for consideration at once, and unless decided rightly, will continue to harass you without ceasing.” On various phases of this theme he was to write continually for two years.

It was not on this topic alone, however, that his opinions were given to Mr. Cleveland. The President-elect was inexperienced in national politics, was almost morbidly conscious of the fact, and eagerly seized every opportunity for trustworthy counsel. On December 6, 1884, in answer to Schurz's offer to “serve you in any way, as a private citizen,” Cleveland wrote: “You may be sure that I shall be most glad to hear your views at length in this time of anxiety. I wish that I might ask you to write to me as one whose only desire is to merit the opinion of those who trust him, but one who knows little of what awaits him in his new sphere of duty.” The response to this modest and engaging invitation was a long letter, December 10, in which Schurz set forth with the utmost candor his opinions on the whole situation. There was much in this letter like the advice given to Hayes eight years earlier. Cleveland was assured that his strength with the people depended upon his character as a reformer, and that he would be the more sharply criticized on this account. “Whenever Arthur did a creditable thing people would say ‘He is, after all, a better man than we thought he was.’ If you should do things not up to the mark, people will say ‘He is not as good as we thought he would be.” This shrewd suggestion was followed by the same advice that had been given to Hayes, that the three great patronage departments—Treasury, Post Office and Interior—be assigned to “men who understand reform as you do, who believe in it as you do, who are willing to fight for it as you are.” “Experience has convinced me that no President, however firm and courageous he may be, can succeed in systematic reform if he has to carry on the reform against his own Cabinet.”

As to the personnel of the Cabinet, it was the deliberate policy of Mr. Schurz and the Independents to refrain from positive suggestions. The matter was distinctively one for adjustment within the Democratic party lines. Criticism of the names proposed was, however, pre-eminently the privilege of Cleveland's Independent supporters. To Mr. Schurz the choice of Bayard, Lamar and Garland was especially agreeable; and Bayard's reluctance, on account of his modest private fortune, to become Secretary of State, evoked earnest entreaties that he should make the sacrifice required for the public good. The one name on Cleveland's tentative list that caused genuine panic among the Independents was that of William C. Whitney of New York. Cleveland's original purpose was to make him Secretary of the Treasury; but partly through the strong opposition stimulated by the Independents and partly through Whitney's distrust of his own fitness for that office, this plan was given up and he was assigned to the Navy Department. Daniel Manning was selected for the more important Treasury Department, though his appointment gave but little comfort to the Independents. To Cleveland Schurz wrote, after a conference on the subject: “While the three Southern men named [Bayard, Lamar, Garland] are all United States Senators of renown and experience, the Northern men [Manning, Endicott, Vilas] are all new men without experience and established standing in public affairs.” In a letter of March 2d to Lamar, Mr. Schurz expressed his dissatisfaction without reserve. The selection of Manning he declared to be a terrible load for the Independents to carry, because Manning was without standing in national affairs and had the reputation of a mere machine politician. Whitney would complete the discrediting of the administration with those who were expecting an era of reform and of high-minded government. Schurz was not personally acquainted with Whitney and admitted that he might be honest and clever; but found that the only public reputation he had achieved was that of being the son-in-law of Senator Payne and of having contributed $25,000 to the Democratic campaign fund. “Is it not known to the President that one of the most scandalous and alarming signs of the times consists in the invasion of the Senate by millionaires who have no distinction but their money? Is it the business of a reform administration to invite the millionaire who has no other distinction than his money also into the Cabinet? These questions will be asked. What answer can we give to the patriotic men who followed our lead?”

Cleveland had been in the White House but a few weeks when his policy in the matter of the offices became the center of an extremely fierce contest between the Democrats of “spoils” proclivities and the Independents. Shortly after the election the National Committee of the Independents had, with Mr. Cleveland's previous approval, presented to him an address of congratulation, and he had in his formal answer professed his purpose to apply the principles of civil-service reform in appointments to office, and to refrain from removal of Republican incumbents before their terms expired. This policy was not, however, to derogate in any degree from his fealty to the Democratic party. At Washington, surrounded by eager party leaders, he found strict adhesion to reform principles in removals and appointments practically impossible save at great risk to other important elements of his policy. Whether risk or complete sacrifice, the radical Independents urgently demanded it in the name of plighted faith. The spoilsmen, in the name of party interest, were as insistent in the opposite direction. The result was naturally indecisive. During the first year the record showed many conspicuous instances of appointment and removal on strictly reforming principles, and for these the President received moderate praise from the Independents and immoderate abuse from the spoilsmen. During the second year, with party spirit intensified through the conflicts of the Republican Senate with the President, the trend of things was very distinctly adverse to the reformers, and the sources of praise and censure were transposed. Throughout all this fluctuation of policy, however, the conformity of the administration to the merit system so far as it had been embodied in the Pendleton Act was unquestioned. It was not his fidelity to the law, but his fidelity to his pledge about removals that was the core of the strife between the reformers and the spoilsmen.

Mr. Schurz followed the course of the administration with absorbing interest and anxiety. Every important episode in connection with the civil service called forth letters to the President in which the early invitation to Schurz to express his views “at length” was in general interpreted with liberality. Hearty praise or frank censure were bestowed upon Cleveland's acts according to their relations to Schurz's ideals. The two men had and always retained great respect and admiration for each other's personality; but their fundamental political creeds were quite distinct. Cleveland was a Democrat, with Independent sympathies; Schurz was, in the existing party situation, an Independent pure and simple. Schurz felt in his heart that the natural purpose of the President to promote the further success of the Democratic party was both hopeless and undesirable. Yet in judging the President's acts the critic wisely adopted the President's point of view, and invariably represented the thorough and unfaltering application of reform principles as indispensable to the future welfare of the Democracy. Toward the end of 1886 Mr. Schurz became convinced, with all the more radical reformers, that the current of presidential favor had turned definitely against their ideals.

In the annual message of December, 1886, Mr. Cleveland reiterated his hearty approval of civil-service reform, but he put a fly into the ointment when he spoke of the harm done to the cause by “the misguided zeal of impracticable friends.” This public rebuke, greeted as it was with unrestrained merriment by the spoilsmen, confirmed the opinion of the extreme reformers that they had nothing more to hope for from the administration. At the request and urging of many of them and in accordance with his own feeling, Mr. Schurz, December 15, addressed to the President an epistolary essay which expressed without any reserve whatever the feelings of the writer. It was cast in the form of a demonstration that unless Mr. Cleveland changed his attitude toward the aims of the Independents, he could not be politically saved; but there was manifested little hope that the change would come, and hence the letter was more like a reproachful farewell. The President was informed that the Independents had lost or were fast losing all their faith in the sincerity of his professions. “Until recently … the worst things laid to your charge were construed as mere errors of judgment, and perhaps occasionally a certain stubbornness of temper in sticking to an error once committed. But … this confiding belief has been seriously shaken. … There is a condition of public confidence under which all a man does is construed favorably, and there is another under which all is construed unfavorably. You have had all the advantages of the first. If I am not mistaken you are now standing on the dividing line between the two.” From a review of the weak points that had developed in the administration, particularly in connection with the Attorney-General and the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Schurz derived the conclusion that if an election were at hand the President would have no chance of success against any Republican candidate but Blaine, and but the slightest chance against even him. The Independents have been alienated and the spoils Democrats, who at heart despise the President, are jubilant. The spoilsmen “understand perfectly who those are whom you dismiss as ‘impracticable friends’ and men of ‘misguided zeal.’ They remember well that this is the same taunt those men had to hear from the Republican side when they threw their political fortunes to the winds, repudiated Blaine, turned their backs upon their party and supported you who promised to be the champion of their common principles. And the spoilsmen eagerly believe that the spirit which inspires that taunt now cannot be very different from that which inspired it on the other side two years ago.” The President's attempt to please both reformers and spoilsmen, Mr. Schurz assured him, had failed. “I warned you more than once that your principal danger was to sit down between two chairs. I am afraid you are virtually there now.”

It is hardly surprising that from this time the President manifested much irritability in his communications to Mr. Schurz and other aggressive reformers. A striking illustration of this occurred in the following August. The National Civil Service Reform League, which had been organized in 1881, was very active in agitation for its cause, under the presidency of George William Curtis. Its annual meeting of 1887 was announced for August in Newport. A gentleman whom Mr. Cleveland had appointed to an important place in the New York custom house, was an active member of the executive committee of the League. To the utter and almost comical consternation of this official, he received from the President a warning not to attend the Newport meeting, on the ground that it would involve the same interference in politics that other officeholders had been ordered to desist from. Mr. Cleveland declined to permit him, any more than any other officeholder, “to embarrass and discredit me in what I know and you know … to be honest efforts to give the people good government.” The President later apologized for this letter, confessing that it was written under the influence of great irritation. The cause of this feeling was obviously the expectation that the League would strongly denounce the administration. Curtis' presidential address did indeed set in strong light the wide gap between the administration's performance and the reformers' hopes; but the criticism seems to have been less offensive than the President had anticipated. The Newport speech, Cleveland wrote, “has given encouragements that will bear bad fruits,” and “has certainly made it a little harder for me”; yet he construed it “quite differently from those who desired to make capital out of it against the administration.”

Mr. Schurz naturally expressed unqualified approval of Curtis' address. It is the business of the Mugwumps, he wrote Curtis, to stand up boldly and demand extremes in reform, even though they are charged with demanding the impossible. The uncompromising spirit of reform thus manifested was hopelessly irreconcilable with the party programme which the President was now preparing, and so it came about that, without any rupture of personal friendship, the relations between Schurz and Cleveland lost for a time the intimacy which had prevailed since 1884.

During these years of earnest effort to influence the political current, Mr. Schurz had formally entered the field of literature. In the winter of 1884-85 he traveled for four months through the South, visiting all the States except Mississippi. His purpose was partly to acquire material for his proposed history of the United States and partly to study the transformations in social conditions since his famous observations and report twenty years earlier. In May, 1885, he summed up the results of his tour in a pamphlet of thirty-three pages entitled The New South. His judgments on the general course of events in reconstruction as well as on the undoing of reconstruction were eminently just and candid. In the South he found the present full of prosperity, and the future very hopeful. He believed that economic usefulness would be the solution of the negro problem. When the blacks should make a little more progress in the accumulation of property and in general intelligence their party allegiance would become divided; the diversification of industry, already far advanced, would at the same time divide the whites; and through the normal operation of economic and political motives the color line would disappear, whites and blacks voting side by side in the party to which their interests assigned them. Not giving sufficient weight to the persistency of race antipathies, Mr. Schurz's predictions to-day seem doubtful of fulfilment; but when they were made they expressed the faith of Secretary Lamar and many other philosophical Southerners.

The New South attracted less attention than its literary and philosophic merits deserved. After its publication Mr. Schurz devoted himself seriously to the Henry Clay, which was finished in the summer of 1886 and published late in the following winter. The reception which it met with was in the highest degree flattering. Though Clay was in almost every respect remote from the ideals of character and statesmanship that his biographer worshiped, the justice and fidelity of the portrait were universally recognized. Aged veterans of the dim decades before 1850, Whigs and Jackson Democrats alike, testified to Schurz, in letters of tremulous prolixity, their satisfaction with his treatment of the man whom they had known. Scholarly historical critics admired the insight and accuracy of the biographer in dealing with the social and political environment of his subject. Literary critics found in the volumes that sense of form and style which entitled the author to the freedom of their guild. Not the least interesting to Mr. Schurz were words of more than perfunctory appreciation from men like ex-Senator Drake and Senator Dawes, with whom his political relations had been anything but cordial.

The success of the Henry Clay gave a great renewing impulse to the project of a more extensive historical work. At the same time the idea of a volume of personal reminiscences, long vaguely in Mr. Schurz's mind, began to take definite form under the operation of various influences. His sixtieth year, 1889, was approaching; several publishers solicitously urged the plan; and many friends, including ex-President Hayes, insisted that the preparation of an autobiography was an imperative duty.

With the idea of procuring material for both these literary enterprises Mr. Schurz resolved upon a visit to Europe. He hoped to find in various diplomatic archives important light on the foreign relations of the United States during the period of which he was to write; and in Spain and Germany he desired to refresh his memory on episodes of his personal career. Private business affairs also demanded attention in Hamburg, where the family interests were still important. Accordingly he crossed the Atlantic in April, 1888, and did not return till late in November. Although this trip had small results in the promotion of his literary projects, it was rich in personal experiences and pleasures, as well as in tributes to his reputation as a public man. In Germany, he was sought out with marks of respect and honor by many who stood first in politics and in culture. During his absence Harrison was elected to succeed Cleveland. This was the first presidential campaign since 1852 in which Mr. Schurz had not taken an active part as a public speaker.

On his return to New York it was quickly revealed that the business aspect of his trip had had important results, for in December the announcement was made that with the new year he would assume the duties of general American representative of the Hamburg-American Steamship Company. The assumption of an income-producing routine had been in Mr. Schurz's mind ever since he left the Evening Post. In 1885 he had negotiated for a controlling interest in the Boston Advertiser, but had not been able to see a sufficiently attractive financial outlook in the project. The Boston Post also was under consideration at the same time, but without result. The Hamburg-American connection was in many respects more agreeable than any other business could have been. Although not a man of business training, as he had told Hayes, he had been a close student of international affairs in commerce as well as in diplomacy. And he formed this business connection with the confident expectation that his time and strength would not be so engrossed as to prevent the prosecution of his literary labor. He found it impossible, however, to resist the temptations to take active part in the social and political movements of the time, and these, with the business routine, continually crowded out his much loved but less insistent projects. He gradually became convinced that his hope of successfully combining the steamship agency with literary productivity was ill-founded, and on July 1, 1892, after holding his position at the urgent request of the company for six months longer than he wished, he severed his connection with the Hamburg-American Line.