The New York Times/Carl Schurz (1897 biographical sketch)

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IF one were called upon to name the most interesting and inspiring example, at this day, of what the free institutions of our country may do for the citizen and of what a citizen under those institutions may do for his country, one would not go far astray in naming Carl Schurz.

I cannot in the space at my command give anything like a full sketch of his varied and active life. I shall present only an outline of its chief features and then point out the more important facts that sustain my proposition.

Born March 2, 1829, near Cologne, Prussia, he left the University of Bonn to join the patriot army in 1848. On the failure of the insurrection, he escaped to Switzerland, and after two years in Paris and London landed in New York in 1852. He studied law for three years in Philadelphia, and in 1855 was admitted to the bar in Jefferson, Wis. He immediately entered the struggle against the aggressions of slavery, for which the Republican Party was then rapidly organizing as a National party, working especially among the large German population of the Northwest. In 1857 he was named as the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, and came within 200 votes of an election. In 1858 he took an active part in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign in Illinois, and then formed the friendship with Lincoln which was interrupted only by the death of the President. In 1859 he worked persistently in the Northwest, coming to Boston, however, in April, to deliver a notable address on “True Americanism,” at the instance of Henry Wilson, to combat the “Know-Nothing” spirit, which pervaded a portion of the Republican Party. In 1860 he was Chairman of the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, supporting the nomination of Mr. Seward to the last. From the adjournment of the convention, in the last of May, to the election in November, with only an interval of ten days' rest, he spoke from once to three times daily in all parts of the country, but mostly in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut.

On the accession of Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Schurz was appointed Minister to Spain. Previous to his departure he started the organization of the first cavalry regiment of volunteers, for which he had sought authority, on his own suggestion, but was directed to proceed to Madrid before its completion. He reached Madrid in July. In December he was appointed Brigadier General, and returned to the United States. He commanded a division in the Shenandoah Valley under Frémont and Sigel, took part in the second battle of Bull Run, commanded a division of the Eleventh Corps under Howard at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Missionary Ridge, and ended his service under Sherman in North Carolina.

During the Summer of 1865 he was sent as a special Commissioner by President Johnson to report on the condition of the seaboard and Gulf States. In the Winter of 1865-6 he was a special correspondent of The New York Tribune; in 1866 the editor of The Detroit Post; in 1867 removed to St. Louis, where he had purchased an interest in The Westliche Post, of which he assumed charge, and in 1869 was elected United States Senator from Missouri. In 1872 he joined the “Liberal Republican” movement which resulted in the nomination of Mr. Greeley, but in 1876 supported Mr. Hayes. During President Hayes's term he was Secretary of the Interior, and at its close he took up his residence in New York. He was for two years associated with E. L. Godkin and Horace White in the conduct of The Evening Post, and was afterward for several years the Resident Director of the Hamburg Line of steamships. He supported Mr. Cleveland in the three campaigns of 1884, 1888, and 1892, and opposed the election of Bryan in 1896. In 1892, when Mr. George William Curtis was stricken with the illness that proved fatal, Mr. Schurz became a regular contributor to the editorial page of Harper's Weekly, a work he still continues. On the death of Mr. Curtis he succeeded to the Presidency of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Chairmanship of the State Association.

What the institutions of the United States did for Mr. Schurz was to extend to him as a citizen freedom of speech and political action. Without that his career would have been impossible. What Mr. Schurz has done for the United States is to use his great gifts with steadfast and untiring energy for more than forty years for the maintenance and application of the highest standard of public life in the decision of the varied questions that have presented themselves in this crowded period of our history. Mr. Schurz is a publicist and a politician in the best sense of both terms. He is an acute and profound student of public affairs in his own and in other countries, in the present and in the past, and from these studies he has made with clearness those generalizations which constitute political principles. That is his work as a publicist. He has worked incessantly and disinterestedly in the discussion of those principles for the formation of public opinion and in the organization required to give to public opinion practical effect. That is his task as a politician. As politician and as publicist he has, in reality, simply fulfilled with devotion, intelligence, and vigor, with all the power of a singularly efficient mind, the duties of a citizen of the Republic.

The work of Mr. Schurz has been necessarily a continuous evolution, but it may be divided broadly in two periods.

The first extends from his entrance on the contest with slavery in 1855 to the election of Gen. Grant in 1868. The second from that period to the present.

In 1852 — a boy of twenty-three — he landed in New York, an immigrant to what he has described in one of his speeches as “the colony of free humanity whose mother country is the world.” He could neither speak nor read the English language, and the political banners of Pierce and Scott that spanned Broadway were to him a sore puzzle. Within three years he had been admitted to the bar, and, in Wisconsin, almost on the then frontier of the Northwest, had begun the public discussion of the great issue which the Kansas-Nebraska bill had forced upon the country. The earliest speech with which I am familiar was delivered in the Lincoln-Douglas canvass of 1858 in Chicago. It is not easy to believe, in reading it, that the author was but twenty-nine, and six years before had begun the study of our tongue and politics, so full and facile is his knowledge, so strong and animated his style, so pertinent his argument, so pointed and apt his wit. In that great canvass, which may be called the reconnaissance in force for the final campaign of 1860, it is not extravagant to say that Mr. Schurz's speech was worthy of a lieutenant where Lincoln was the leader. From the start the strength of Mr. Schurz in his public addresses lay in his clear and cogent reasoning, in his succinct and searching analysis, his simple and vigorous comparison, his swift and direct logic. There were few figures of rhetoric and there was no appeal to prejudice or transient passion. Sentiment there was, deep and pervading, but it was the sentiment of deep conviction, of conscience, and of courage.

The situation demanded such discussion. The public mind had been confused by the varying and often tortuous course of public men. The old Whig Party was dead. The Democratic Party was torn by the growing revolt of its Northern members against the relentless and inevitable aggressions of the slave power. At this time, between the restless Democrats of the North and the imperious leaders of the South, Mr. Douglas was trying to steer a middle course with his “great principle” of “popular sovereignty.” Mr. Schurz's efforts were directed to showing that no middle course was possible; that the material salvation of slavery depended on its extension; that if that were not so, slavery compelled the existence of an aristocratic caste which must rule or ruin; that every compromise had led to another concession, and that the contest had now become irrepressible and unavoidable between the fundamental principle of our Government and one fundamentally, necessarily, and progressively hostile to it.

This was the line he followed directly through the tremendous National debate that was crowned by the election of Mr. Lincoln. His speeches were some in English and some in German. The latter were probably the decisive influence which brought the powerful German element in the Northwest and what wee now call the Middle West to the Republican cause. If the influence was not decisive — and it is not easy to say what decided that result in the then complex situation — it was very strong. It may fairly be set down as a signal, an essential service.

Mr. Schurz reached Madrid, as Minister at the Court of Spain, in July, 1861. His acquaintance throughout Europe and his intimate knowledge of European politics, with the advantages of his office as a post of observation, enabled him promptly to get a clear idea of what was the actual and probable attitude of foreign Governments toward the civil war.

On the 14th of September, 1861, Mr. Schurz wrote to Mr. Seward (manuscript State Department archives, quoted byu Rhodes) a dispatch in which he set forth with the utmost clearness and emphasis the result of his observations. In the course of it he said:

“There are in my opinion but two ways in which the overwhelming perplexities can be averted which a rupture with foreign powers, added to our troubles at home, would inevitably bring upon us. The one consists in great and decided military success speedily accomplished, and the other in such measures and manifestations on the part of the Government as will place the war against the rebellious slave States upon a higher moral basis, and thereby give us the control of public opinion in Europe. * * * It is my profound conviction that as soon as the war becomes distinctly one for and against slavery public opinion will be so strongly, so overwhelmingly in our favor that in spite of commercial interests or secret spites, no European Government will dare to place itself by declaration or act upon the side of a universally condemned institution. * * * It is, therefore, my opinion that every step done by the Government toward the abolition of slavery is, as to our standing in Europe, equal to a victory in the field.”

In December, 1861, Mr. Schurz obtained leave of absence and returned to the United States. I infer that it was his purpose to urge these most pregnant views upon the Administration, which his friendly personal relations with President Lincoln permitted him to do with effect. In a powerful address in this city on the 6th of March, 1862, he enforced the necessity of emancipation both as a defense against European intervention and as the only basis of lasting peace. Soon afterward, Mr. Lincoln's purpose to act decidedly against slavery was made known, and after the defeat of the Confederate invasion at Antietam, the emancipation proclamation was issued.

I pass over Mr. Schurz's military service, since, though it was very honorable, it was but a phase of that devotion to his ideal of citizenship which marked his career. In this field he had many companions of equal fidelity and achievement. In civil life has part was distinct.

In 1865 Mr. Schurz's report on the political and social conditions in the South was an important, probably a decisive, element in shaping the policy of the National Government. It was the result of three months' careful inspection of all the Atlantic and Gulf States, made at the request of President Johnson. Before it was received, however, Mr. Johnson's purpose as to reconstruction had radically changed. He was ready very rapidly to withdraw all the agents, military or other, of the National Governments on the basis of the ante-bellum suffrage, to reorganize the militia of these States, to admit Senators and Representatives in Congress, and all on substantially the single condition of the formal acceptance of the abolition of slavery.

Mr. Schurz in his report showed the practical certainty that this policy would lead at that time to the continuation of the substance of slavery under a different form and to the attempts to establish a peculiar social and political system in the South opposed to that of the Nation and forming an insuperable obstacle to the development of a true National feeling based on rights and duties common to the entire Nation. He strongly urged the maintenance of National supervision in the South, for the preservation of order and the protection of the essential rights of all classes, until the State Governments could so be established as securely to perform these functions, and he held that this could only be accomplished through equal suffrage. His report, though made in September, was not sent to Congress until demanded by a resolution of Senator Sumner's, Dec. 19, when it was accompanied by a brief report from Gen. Grant, based on a ten days' tour and far more favorable to the President's policy. The policy adopted by Congress and imposed on the Executive was in accordance with the principles advocated by Mr. Schurz and was largely influenced by his comprehensive statement of the situation.

In 1869 he was elected United States Senator from Missouri. The second stage of his public service then began. He found himself very soon forced to oppose the tendencies developed by the strenuous war period in the party to which he had been so warmly devoted. The first open difference came with the submission to the Senate of the treaty for the annexation of San Domingo, which he fought with all his energy. To him it seemed the moment when the decision must be made on the one hand between the orderly and beneficent development of our National life on the sound lines of our own institutions, consolidated by their recent triumph, or, on the other hand, a rash adventure in the direction of expansion, involving the Nation in complicated foreign relations, compelling the maintenance of a large armed force on land and sea, introducing a new and alien element in our confederated nationality, tending directly to a powerful centralized Government, and threatening the principles of justice, order, and freedom, which were the very foundation of the Republic. Fortunately, as I believe, the opposition prevailed and the treaty was rejected.

At the close of Gen. Grant's first term Mr. Schurz engaged with the movement known as “Liberal Republican,” which was aimed originally against the renomination of the President, and which culminated in the nomination of Mr. Greeley, his indorsement by the Democratic Party, and his overwhelming defeat. Primarily the movement was a protest and a revolt against the political system by which the party in power was subjected to the dictation of a powerful combination of Senators, controlling through the vast patronage of the Federal Government the machinery of the party, largely for ambitious, selfish, and often corrupt ends. Its character was singularly changed by the nomination of Mr. Greeley, but, illogical as that was, it give to the movement another meaning of no small importance — it made it the first National movement since the war toward co-operation between Northern and Southern men on the basis of the maintenance of the results of the war, for the professed reform of the National Government. In that direction it was far more effective in fact than in appearance. Two years later the Senatorial control of the party was broken by the loss of the House of Representatives, and in 1876 Mr. Hayes was made the Republican candidate, in open opposition to the previously all-powerful machine.

It was toward the close of his term in the Senate that Mr. Schurz was made an honorary member of the Chamber of Commerce. The honor was conferred upon him most appropriately for his services in the cause of sound money. In the Senate he used his utmost energy to secure the complete and final retirement of the greenbacks after redemption, foretelling with singular clearness the immense evils that would follow their perpetual reissue. The victory of sound finance in the Senate was only partial. Meanwhile Mr. Schurz, in the Autumn of 1875, went into Ohio, where Mr. Hayes, the candidate for Governor, had refused, against the advice of the party leaders, to trim upon the financial issue, and made a vigorous and brilliant campaign for the definite principles he maintained in the Senate. The triumph that followed made Mr. Hayes the next President.

In the Cabinet of Mr. Hayes Mr. Schurz's most important service was the firm and logical application of the principles and methods of civil service reform, seven years before their adoption in law, to the subordinate appointments of the Department of the Interior. He abolished patronage. he mad appointments solely on merit and fitness ascertained by competitive examinations. He made removals for cause only, the nature of which was not secret, but open to the knowledge of those concerned. It was a revolution and a revelation. It was on so important a scale, was so consistently carried out, and was so strikingly successful that it may justly be said to have made the wider reform of the future possible.

In 1881 Mr. Schurz retired from public office, which he has never since resumed or sought. In the sixteen years past he has been a private citizen, without official prestige or patronage, unconnected with the organized machinery of any party, with no means of influence but his pen and his voice. But over the public mind that influence has been very potent, at great crises decisive, and in my judgment always toward the realization of the purest and highest ideal of American citizenship.

In 1858, on the morrow of the first signal victory for Republicanism in Wisconsin, made possible by the vote of the Germans whom he had himself largely won over, Mr. Schurz said:

“I entreat you let not this victory lead you into the dangerous delusion that the Germans, after having shaken off the yoke of one party despotism, are ready to take upon their necks the yoke of another. After having raised the banner of moral independence to-day, they are certainly not prepared to surrender it again to-morrow. * * * And I do not hesitate to prophesy that if the Republican Party should be unfortunate enough to entangle itself in the network of corruption with which the Democracy is choking itself to death the people will strike it down with the same crushing verdict under which Hunkerism is sinking now. And in that case, I confess my heart would behold with grief and sorrow its degradation, butt would have no tears for its defeat. * * * We must encourage moral independence in politics; we must admonish every man to think and to reason for himself, to form his own convictions, and to stand by them; we must entreat him never to accept, unseen and uninvestigated, the principles and opinions of others, even if they be our own.”

During the two-score years since these plain words were spoken Mr. Schurz has held faithfully to the standard he then defined. His most incessant work has been directed to the abolition of patronage — the greatest obstacle to “moral independence in politics.” In 1884 his leadership of the independent movement was chiefly inspired by the conviction that the “yoke of party despotism” must be thrown off if the moral power of the people as to be asserted. A like conviction has inspired his course in every succeeding canvass. It is not easy to measure the effect of a force so exerted, but no one who has watched the changing tides of public affairs will fail to see that the effect has been very great. The principle of free citizenship, unhampered and uncorrupted by the abuse of public employment as party spoils, is now solidly established in the entire Federal service except in one branch of the Postal Service — the smaller Post Offices — and will shortly embrace these. The same high principle is, in the words of the Court of Appeals, “imbedded in the Constitution of the State of New York.” In this great triumph Mr. Schurz's share is large.

Even greater, perhaps, is his share in the triumph so far gained for sound money as a fundamental principle above all party differences, to which these differences must always be subordinated. It is a striking fact that in the great contest of last year Mr. Schurz, of whose principal speech over 5,000,000 pamphlet copies were circulated, and of whom Mr. Mark Hanna said that he gave other speakers more to talk about than any other, neither defended nor attached any party or candidate, but confined himself to the discussion of principles.

It was but one passage in the work to which his life has been given. It was the latest — let us fervently hope it was not the last — service rendered to his country in the service of his ideal of citizenship. In 1859, in Faneuil Hall, speaking of the “ideal mission of this country and of this people,” he said: “You may tell me that my views are visionary, that the destiny of this country is less exalted, that the American people are less great than I think they are or ought to be. I answer, Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But, like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.” Happy is the nation whose life is shaped by its citizens in which a citizen so gifted pursues steadfastly ideals so lofty.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).