A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906/6 Editor of "Harper's Weekly," Political Sage

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A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906
Frederic Bancroft and William A. Dunning
Chapter VI: Editor of “Harper's Weekly,” Political Sage



LESS than a week after leaving the Hamburg-American office Mr. Schurz was requested by Harper and Brothers to supply for their Weekly the leading editorial in place of George William Curtis, then fatally ill. Save for the accompanying sorrow on account of the affliction of this very dear friend, no task could have been more to the taste of Mr. Schurz, and it was continued from week to week. On the last day of August, 1892, Mr. Curtis died, and the Weekly of September 10 contained a warm, eloquent and fraternal tribute to his memory, doubtless written by Mr. Schurz. The arrangement under which the leading editorial was furnished every week was understood to be temporary and strictly secret. Both parties were so well satisfied, however, that the contributions continued for nearly six years, but, of course, Schurz's style and ideas were soon recognized. After January, 1897, his articles were signed, and thus exchanged the vague and mystic authority of the paper for the clear and definite authority of his own name and reputation.

For various reasons this connection with a substantial weekly journal was very opportune for Mr. Schurz. It enabled him to exercise an influence on public opinion without binding him to the drudgery and responsibility of daily editorial routine; and it came to him at the very moment when the political situation was such as to excite his deepest and most hopeful interest. Harrison and Cleveland were at this time, the summer of 1892, in the midst of their second contest, and the chief issues were the tariff and the currency.

We need to take only a glance backward to appreciate how deep and hopeful Schurz's interest was. It will be recalled that his disappointment with Cleveland's civil-service achievements at Washington, a few years earlier, was profound and almost bitter; but the famous tariff message of December, 1887, had revealed a spirit and purpose in the President that made an irresistible appeal to nearly all the Independents, and they had supported Cleveland in his unsuccessful campaign of 1888. The Harrison administration, not yet ended, had afforded no inducement to the Independents to transfer their sympathy and support to the Republicans. Blaine's foreign policy had caused grave apprehension among conservative men. Cleveland's tariff challenge had been met with the McKinley Bill. The long dormant Southern question had been revived by the Federal Elections Bill. The threatening free-silver agitation had not been opposed except by the disastrous Sherman Silver-Purchase Act. Every leading item of Republican policy, in short, was offensive to Schurz's strongest convictions.

Accordingly Schurz and his political friends had eagerly supported the project of renominating Cleveland in 1892. The chief obstacle to this project was the violent and unscrupulous opposition of David B. Hill, then Governor of New York, and Tammany Hall, who together had absolute control of the Democratic State organization. In State and municipal politics Mr. Schurz had, since settling in New York, become prominent in every movement against Tammany and its allies. It gave added zest, therefore, to his efforts in favor of Cleveland's nomination, that success would mean the defeat of the Hill-Tammany combination. For the promotion of his desire to see Cleveland renominated, Schurz naturally recurred to the familiar device of a pre-convention demonstration by the Independents. His faith in the efficiency of this procedure was, however, less strong than it had once been; and after much deliberation the plan was abandoned. There were many informal discussions and much correspondence with influential Democrats and Independents. Ex-Secretary Whitney, who was looking after the Cleveland interests in New York, sought Schurz for consultation as early as February, 1892; and he carried in his pocket to the Chicago convention in June, an address and a sheaf of resolutions drafted by Schurz for use, in case of need, to commit various State delegations irrevocably to Cleveland. In a letter of July 8th, thanking Schurz for his aid, Whitney explained why the drafts were not used:

“One has to feel the atmosphere to know whether it is wise to do any certain thing. I had the address signed by the New Jersey delegation and ready to be passed by Connecticut, when we got Indiana, and I felt that we were then in danger of crowding the two little States too far into the front. The silent weight of the three was such that I was afraid of my prepared machinery—so with the resolutions, which I read to my colleagues and had ready to adopt in case we called our forces together. We did not dare to call them for fear we should count up less than two-thirds and give them a chance to howl. So I decided to let the current run and crowd them with the rush of our claims and the popular strength we were developing.

“It wasn't a fight at all. We hadn't to swear fealty to each other.

“It was a grand, mad, enthusiastic rush over the whole field. You never saw anything like it before.”

But the machine politicians of New York were not in that “grand, mad, enthusiastic rush over the whole field,” and their hostility was still evident as the subsequent campaign advanced. Cleveland's Democratic managers were indeed anxious. At length, in September, mainly through the activity of ex-Secretary Whitney, the chiefs of the hostile factions were brought to a personal conference with the candidate. This widely discussed incident was followed by the announcement that the machine would support Cleveland, and there was no lack of intimation and down-right assertion that this result was due to satisfactory pledges as to the patronage in case of Democratic success.

Mr. Schurz's health forbade his usual active participation in the campaign as a public speaker. In lieu of it he decided to write a formal political letter to the Brooklyn Independents. This letter was almost ready to be sent,—in fact, he was correcting the proofs,—when the newspapers began to scatter the unsavory reports of Mr. Cleveland's alleged surrender to the machine. In the prospective letter Mr. Schurz had spoken as one reformer to another, and had expressed confidence that they could all find satisfaction in Cleveland's tariff-reform policy and especially in his attitude of defiance to the Hill-Tammany machine. Here was indeed a dilemma. But less for Mr. Schurz than may be supposed. He resolved to ascertain at once whether the predilections of the Independents for Mr. Cleveland had again caused them to form too good an opinion of him. In case the man especially loved “for the enemies he had made” had entered into an alliance with those enemies, “my letter does not fit the situation,” Schurz wrote. “As it now stands, my letter, if it attracts attention, might cause Mr. Cleveland to be asked whether he himself agreed with the sentiments expressed by me. … This might be to Mr. Cleveland a very embarrassing question. He might perhaps say that he was much pleased to see me think so well of him, but that he took on the whole a view of things different from mine. Such an answer would be calculated to make me appear very ridiculous. Now I do not wish to embarrass Mr. Cleveland nor do I wish to appear very ridiculous.” Accordingly Schurz directed that, unless Cleveland's approval of what was written should be obtained, the letter should not be read at the approaching meeting. All the difficulties of the situation were removed, however, by authentic reports that were sent to Mr. Schurz of what had passed between Mr. Cleveland and the machine leaders. The candidate had made no pledges; he had wholly dominated the recalcitrant politicians, and had brought them, unhappy and grumbling, to recognize him as their master. Then the letter was sent. It made a great political sensation, not only on account of its strong arguments, especially for a reduction of the tariff, but also because it destroyed those false reports about Cleveland's surrender and discomfited the men that at least found consolation in them. It was widely circulated as a campaign document.

Each number of Harper's Weekly throughout the campaign contained a leader by Schurz in which he discussed, with his peculiar lucidity and moral vigor, the different questions of interest to open-minded voters. More than one of these editorials shows that he was as thorough a master of the tariff question as he was of the currency question; and that he was as far from being a victim of the sophistries of protection as he was of those of “rag-money.” But as yet few beyond an intimate circle knew that these articles came from his pen.

The great triumph of the Democratic ticket in November gave profound satisfaction to Mr. Schurz. His most eloquent expression of this feeling was in an address at the annual dinner of the Reform Club of New York on December 10, 1892. The occasion took the character of a jubilation over the result of the election by Cleveland Democrats and Independents. The President-elect attended and made an address. Schurz followed, speaking on “Moral Forces in Politics.” To these forces he ascribed the decisive influence in the late campaign. Not the professional politician, he said, but the flouted and despised idealist had correctly gauged the feelings of the American people. The party sense had been overwhelmed by the moral sense. “What,” he asked, “are these moral forces? They are that patriotism which subordinates every other consideration to the general welfare, honor and greatness of the country; that instinct of justice which loves right as right, abhors wrong as wrong, and wishes every man to have his due; that sense of duty which incites a conscientious endeavor to understand what is best for the country and for every citizen in it; that honest purpose and courage to do what is right which inspire sympathy and respect for honest purpose and courage in others; that proud manliness which disdains shams and subterfuges, and admires with a hearty admiration a straight-forwardness defying opposition and a plucky disinterested zeal for the public good doing the best it can.” Such forces, he claimed, animated the rank and file of the Democrats to rise against the protective tariff and its trail of corrupt politics. Such forces, too, inspired the Independents—“the men who, as has been said of Edmund Burke, ‘sometimes change their front but never change their ground’; the men who, in struggling for good government, had the courage to expose themselves without the shelter of a party roof over their heads; the men whom the partisan politician calls ‘those enlightened, unselfish and patriotic citizens who rise above party,’ provided they rise above the other party, but whom he calls ‘a lot of dudes and Pharisees amounting to nothing’ when they happen to rise above his own party.” Under the inspiration of the occasion the orator pictured the possibility of welding the Independents with the Democrats into a permanent party organization. Though the Independents had supported “rather a cause and its champion than a party and its leader,” they did not, he declared, despise loyal attachment to a party. “They sincerely and highly appreciate and esteem organization in the service of principles, ideals and sound policies. But they distrust principles and ideals in the service of organization; and they condemn and despise organization without principles and ideals. If the Democratic party wishes to attach them firmly and loyally to its organization, it has only to attach itself firmly and faithfully to the principles, ideas and policies which attracted them.”

This conception of the meaning and purpose of party was in the long familiar vein of Mr. Schurz's philosophy; but it was altogether novel for him to suggest anything like permanent attachment to the Democracy. So far as the idea was more than a passing reflection of the occasion, it sprang from the hope that the old party was to be revolutionized through the leadership of Mr. Cleveland. To him the Independents gave ungrudging fealty. As Schurz said at the Reform Club dinner, addressing the President-elect: “Here you are among friends—friends who share not only one or two, but all the articles of your political faith, whether they touch constitutional principles, or the tariff, or the currency, or the reform of the public service; friends devoted heart and soul to the great cause you represent, and heart and soul devoted to you, because you honestly and courageously represent it.”

But in the events that crowded thick and fast upon the newly installed administration the hope of a triumphant Cleveland Democracy faded steadily away. With all his high purpose, rugged force and iron will, the President could not cope with the social and economic powers that were rising against him. The Democracy was revolutionized, but not by him or for him. His tariff policy was wrecked by the capitalistic Democrats of the East. As Mr. Schurz had foreseen, the danger was not that the revision would be too radical, but that it would not be radical enough. Cleveland's currency policy, after a brief but spectacular triumph, was wrecked by the populistic Democrats of the West. Through the stirring politics of this transformation, Mr. Schurz supported with voice and pen the President's policies, and found some comfort in the unmistakable progress of at least one of his ideals, the reform of the civil service.

Upon the death of Mr. Curtis, in 1892, Mr. Schurz, already president of the New York Civil Service Reform Association, was chosen to succeed him as president of the National Civil Service Reform League. The words in which the work of Curtis had been described by Schurz now became precisely applicable to his own position: “He was not only president … , re-elected from year to year without any question, but also the intellectual head, the guiding force and the moral inspiration of the civil-service-reform movement. The addresses he delivered at the annual meetings of the League were like milestones in the progress of the work; … he reported to the country what had been done and what was still to be done, enlightening public sentiment, encouraging his fellow-laborers and distributing, with even-handed justice, praise and reproof among the political parties as they deserved it.” …

That Schurz should doubly succeed Curtis was a rare compliment to the mental and moral qualities of the two men. Their mutual respect and sympathy had long been complete. Curtis lived closer to letters than Schurz; and Schurz, closer to politics than Curtis. They first met and became friends when both were young men and members of the Republican National Convention of 1860. The victory that Curtis there achieved through oratory caused the principles of the Declaration of Independence to be incorporated into the Republican platform and gave Schurz a recollection which he, nearly half a century later, called one of the most inspiring of his life. Twelve years after that occasion Curtis heard Schurz's speech about the sale of arms to France, and pronounced it “unquestionably altogether the finest speech I ever heard.” The most beautiful and appropriate eulogy of Curtis came from Schurz, who said: “And as he was the ideal party man and the ideal Independent, so he might well have been called the finest type of the American gentleman.”

The time, attention and manual labor devoted by Mr. Schurz to the one matter of civil-service reform would have been enough for the average man well past his sixtieth year. No detail of the movement in either national, State or city administration failed sooner or later to demand his attention and profit by his advice. With President Cleveland he discussed, less lengthily and impatiently but not less candidly than in the first term, the shortcomings of the departments in respect to the spirit of the reform. Governor Morton, by whose election in 1894 the long domination of the Hill-Tammany combination in New York State was ended, was skillfully influenced to give effective if somewhat wavering support to much-needed extensions of the reform at Albany. When Governor Black, who succeeded Morton, adopted the cause of the spoilsmen and proceeded to “take a little starch out of the civil service,” Mr. Schurz headed a delegation of protest against the bills and made an address, March 6, 1897, to the Governor which must stand as a masterpiece of conclusive argument and indignant denunciation expressed without the slightest deviation from the external forms of propriety and courtesy. In the city government a reform mayor, troubled with the bickerings of some of the reformers most concerned in the administration of the civil-service laws, was glad to lay the complications before Mr. Schurz and solve the problems through his ready and effective aid.

Municipal politics in general contributed much to occupy Mr. Schurz during these busy years. In the perennial conflict between “bossism” and enlightened politics his interest was early enlisted, as has been mentioned, in the opposition to Tammany Hall. From 1886 to 1894 Tammany controlled the city, and Mr. Schurz's rôle was only that of a protesting leader of the helpless but undaunted non-partisan minority. The election of 1894 brought triumph at last, in the success of a fusion of Republicans and reformers which nominated W. L. Strong for the mayoralty. This result was due in large measure to an “anti-vice crusade” conducted by the Rev. Dr. Parkhurst, which led to the revelation of gross corruption in the police department. The new mayor summoned Theodore Roosevelt to head the board of police commissioners, and Roosevelt's downright and strenuous policy in enforcing the excise laws precipitated a serious split among the reformers. In the elections of 1895 their leaders maintained the fusion with the Republicans; but the German element of the reformers, disgusted with the rigid enforcement of the excise laws, broke away and supported Tammany, while a little knot of radicals, holding that fusion with the Republican machine was as immoral as fusion with Tammany, devoted themselves to an excited campaign against both the main parties, but especially against their fellow-reformers.

Mr. Schurz was deeply interested in this election. He was distressed to see the withdrawal of the Germans from the fusion, though he sympathized with them in their discontent with the excise laws; and for the radicals also he had the fellow-feeling of a man who had sacrificed much in standing for principle rather than for temporary political success. The radicals had high hopes of gaining his outspoken approval and support, but he eventually came out for the fusion. His speech at Cooper Union, on October 30, 1895, embodied probably the most definite and possibly the only clean-cut defense of opportunism, in the best sense, that he ever made. Addressing himself to the dissident reformers, he said:

“In the course of my life I have taken part in two great reformatory movements—that for the abolition of slavery, which has finally succeeded, and that for the reform of the civil service, which, I doubt not, is going to succeed. In working for these objects I have gathered certain experiences and learned certain lessons which our friends of the Good Government Clubs will permit me to lay before them.

“It is well to uphold high ideals before our own minds and the minds of others, and faithfully to strive for their realization. But if you cannot reach that realization at once, do not despise little steps and even roundabout ways that will bring you nearer to it, however slowly.

“When for the attainment of a good public object you need the aid and co-operation of a great many people, which you almost always do, you cannot afford to confine yourselves to only those who think exactly as you think and who are animated by exactly the same motives that you have. If you do, you will indeed form a very fine and select circle, but you will be apt to cut a poor figure at the polls, and fail to get the power by which to accomplish your good public object. It is often necessary to make little concessions in order to obtain good results of high value. …”

The somewhat unwonted, however justifiable, philosophy sustained by Mr. Schurz on this occasion did not avail to secure the triumph of the reformers. Tammany won the election, and two years later, in 1897, renewed its success and resumed control of the city.

Meanwhile the epoch-making presidential campaign of 1896 took place. The national Democratic party, so far from realizing the ideal of Schurz's Reform Club speech of 1892, repudiated Cleveland and all his works, set up a demand for the free coinage of silver and nominated William J. Bryan for the Presidency. The new leaders who came to the front with Bryan—Tillman, Altgeld and others—were unwonted figures in the national political arena, and seemed to be born of populism and socialism. In Mr. Schurz this transformed Democracy aroused, of course, only dread and repulsion. Its free-coinage dogma revived the memory and the spirit of the middle seventies, when he had fought so effectively against greenbacks and inflation. Yet he felt no enthusiasm for the candidate or the leadership under which the Republicans chose to oppose Bryanism. To follow McKinley, whose name had become the world-wide synonym for high protection, and Hanna, in whom unscrupulous political methods were already finding a cynical champion, was a hard necessity for a reformer and so-called free-trader. But Mr. Schurz met this situation, as he had met many a similar one, by a rigid adherence to the rôle of Independent. His rejection of the Democratic platform and candidate was, of course, prompt and emphatic. Demands for his assistance on the stump then came thick and fast from the Republican organizations, but these were all refused. While his health was such as to render compliance with these demands to any great extent a physical impossibility, there were other causes active in determining his course. The Republican national campaign was managed by ex-Senator Powell Clayton; and when a request signed by this gentleman came to Mr. Schurz, the declination could not have lost anything in emphasis from the memories that clustered about Clayton's name.

As the campaign developed it became evident that the decisive battle ground was to be the Middle West. Husbanding his strength for a great effort on this field, Schurz went to Chicago and on September 5th, under the auspices of the American Honest Money League, a non-partisan organization, made his plea for sound currency. The speech had all the vim, fire and vote-getting cogency that had characterized his campaign work a score of years earlier. It was void of reference to McKinley or the Republican party, and presented only an annihilating assault on the historical, economic and political bases of the free-coinage platform. The effect of the address was seen not only in the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by the Republicans and Gold Democrats, but particularly in the attention given to it by the Bryan party. Governor Altgeld, who was by far the strongest of the silver men in purely intellectual debate, found it expedient to make formal reply to the argument of Mr. Schurz, and the latter, with the joy of combat roused to its old-time maximum, returned to the fray with an elaborate rejoinder at Peoria late in October.

The result of the November voting brought many congratulations to Mr. Schurz on the influence he was supposed to have had in the result. His own profound satisfaction at the defeat of Bryan was not accompanied by an equal joy over the election of McKinley. He regarded with grave apprehension the influences that were likely to be in the ascendant under the new administration. One of his friends in high financial circles in New York, where alarm over the free-coinage movement had been excessive, let his relief over the outcome find expression in a suggestion that occasioned the following letter from Mr. Schurz to Mr. Hanna:

“Yesterday I learned from Mr. ——, to my utter dismay, that he had spoken to you of the desirability of my being in Mr. McKinley's Cabinet. I hasten to say to you—although I hope it is hardly necessary to do so—that this was not only without my knowledge, but that, had I had the least suspicion of Mr. ——'s intention to do so, I should have put a peremptory veto on it. The fact is, I not only do not entertain any such desire, but, on the contrary, were my opinion asked about it, I would distinctly advise against anything of the kind. I think it would be a public misfortune if any prominent sound-money Democrat or Independent, by accepting any place liable to be looked upon as a reward for services rendered, gave the public the slightest reason for thinking that the motives impelling those classes of citizens to support Mr. McKinley for the Presidency had been other than personally disinterested and purely patriotic. Moreover, I think that to compose a Cabinet of heterogeneous elements is as a matter of policy very questionable. Experience speaks rather against it. What might properly be done in case of an entire realignment of political parties, I will not say. But such is not our present situation.

“I trust you will permit me to speak to you confidentially about the manner in which, in my humble opinion, Mr. McKinley might show his appreciation of the services rendered by his allies in the late election. It strikes me that he might do so by giving friendly consideration to their views when shaping the policy of his administration, and, secondly, by retaining in office, or by reappointing, a number of especially efficient and meritorious officers now in the national service, as Mr. Cleveland did in the case of the postmaster of New York City. This would be in the line of the principles of civil-service reform which have always found in Mr. McKinley a faithful and efficient defender in Congress. I am sure such action would be very highly appreciated by the enlightened opinion of the country and greatly strengthen him in public confidence.”

This letter exhibits the spirit by which all the relations of Mr. Schurz to the new President were guided. Only in civil-service reform was there common ground, and it could hardly be hoped that the demands of the extreme reformer would be satisfied by McKinley's unaggressive temper where the sturdy and stiff-backed Cleveland had failed. In his last year Cleveland did indeed win something like unqualified approval by a sweeping extension of the classified service and by important applications of reform principles in other respects. Probably Mr. Schurz's most sanguine hope was that McKinley might be deterred from undoing what had been actually accomplished. The early months of the new administration afforded much opportunity for Mr. Schurz to preach his favorite doctrines to the President. Copious correspondence and two personal interviews contributed to fortify Mr. McKinley's good purposes against what he confessed was a tremendous pressure by the spoilsmen, and late in July, 1897, his favor to the reform was signalized by an executive order greatly restricting removals on political grounds.

The cordial relations of the two men continued, however, to be limited to this single aspect of public policy. In October, 1897, the President ventured to ask Schurz to aid the Republicans in their campaign in Ohio. The declination was, though courteous, prompt and decisive. Two grounds were given: first, that the effort to elect Seth Low as mayor of New York was keeping Schurz very busy; and second, the Republican platform of Ohio would make it “rather irksome to me to appear in that campaign.” Both reasons involved a fundamental antagonism to the President's party: the support of Low in New York signified among other things a deadly hostility to the State leadership of T. C. Platt, who was reputed to be very influential with the administration; and the repudiation of the Ohio platform meant antipathy to the tariff policy which had only in July taken legislative form in the Dingley Act.

More than five years had now (1897) elapsed since Mr. Schurz retired from business with the expectation of devoting himself to the writing of history. Of systematic study in the field of his projected work on the Civil War nothing had even engaged his serious attention save a long and unfinished essay on Charles Sumner. A short study of Lincoln had appeared in 1891, and was at once generally pronounced a classic; and it was expected that Mr. Schurz's intimacy with Sumner and sympathetic view of his policies would some day do as much for the historical repute of the Massachusetts Senator as the earlier study had done for the great President.

But however deep the interest of Mr. Schurz in the past, it could never overcome the demands of the present. Besides the questions of politics—national, State and municipal—in which the extent of his active participation has been indicated, a multitude of private or only semi-public enterprises and occasions appealed, and rarely in vain, for the aid and entertainment of his attractive oratory.

Especially frequent were the appeals of the German-Americans, whose representative public speaker he was generally recognized to be. The list of his addresses before their various organizations is long and most diverse. He spoke at the memorial services to Emperor William I., Bismarck, Lasker, Steinway and others; at the banquet to Ambassador White; at the jubilee of the New York Liederkranz in 1897; at the banquet celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the revolutionary movement of 1848, and on many other important occasions. As honorary member of the Chamber of Commerce, he was frequently called upon for memorial or ceremonial addresses. One of his most entertaining speeches was at a banquet of the piano-makers of New York, for he was born a musician as well as an orator.

The time-and-strength-consuming potency of these various avocations is to be properly appreciated only when it is remembered that he was never satisfied with the results of momentary inspiration, and whenever it was possible made careful preparation for his speeches, writing them out with his own hand and revising them again and again.

In April of 1898 one unremitting drain upon his energy was removed by the termination of his connection with Harper's Weekly. The political convictions as well as the financial interests of the proprietors dictated a change in the policy of the paper to bring it more nearly in harmony with the popular sentiment that was clamoring for war and territorial expansion. No concession to such a sentiment could ever be expected of Mr. Schurz, and hence his weekly editorials ceased. The rupture of this relation was the first of many that were produced by the Spanish War. He was now past his sixty-ninth birthday. At forty he had successfully antagonized Grant's project of tropical expansion and had met no popular disapproval of his course. Now, with three score and ten close at hand, he antagonized, as we shall see, a similar project, only to find at every turn a tumult of flouting and jeers as the American people overwhelmed his protests with exultant boasts of a world mission.