The Writings of Carl Schurz/At Threescore and Ten

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Mr. Chairman and Friends:—I stand here as a victim of misplaced confidence. When, some time ago, Mr. Schwab asked me whether I would accept an invitation to to dine with some friends on or about my seventieth birthday, I gladly consented, expecting a quiet evening with a small circle of intimates. Gradually I learned that the matter was assuming formidable proportions; but then it was too late to retract. And now I find myself here in the presence of hundreds, and my whole biography is mercilessly thrown at me in public, while I have no fair opportunity for defending myself. I am accustomed to the discussion of public questions but not to the discussion of my personal concerns. Being, in a sense, called upon to do this, the situation is to me extremely embarrassing. If I accepted all this praise, it would be egotism; if I declined it, it would be an ungracious criticism of the partiality of my friends. I can, therefore, only thank you, all and each of you, for these honors, and all those who, from far and near, to-day have fairly overwhelmed me with their kindness; and that I do from the very bottom of my heart.

Some of the things I have heard to-night about myself can be said with safety of any man only when he is dead and gone, and the sum of his life has been judicially struck after a proper review of the evidence. But, although the first exuberance of youth may be behind me, I flatter myself with being still alive, wishing and hoping to live a little while longer, and to take more or less interest in the affairs of the living. Sweeping praise is, therefore, attended with some risk to those who utter it, for they do not know what may still be coming to make them sorry for what they have said.

Indeed, among the friends I see here there are many who now and then have—I will not say been angry with me, but who have seriously disagreed with me about the treatment of this or that public question. From the fact of their doing me the honor of being here, I may conclude—not, indeed, that they have changed their opinions, but that, holding the same opinions still, they have, in spite of those differences, some reason to believe me at least sincere in what I said and did. And I hope you will not think it too egotistical on my part when I say that in this belief they are not mistaken.

I have, doubtless, sometimes committed grave errors of observation or of judgment, but I may affirm that in my long public activity I have always sought to inform myself about the things I had to deal with, and that in my utterances on public interests I have never said anything that I did not myself conscientiously believe to be true. If this is the reason of your being here, I am proud, very proud of it; and I may promise you that this shall be so to the last, and that, in this respect at least, you will have a fair chance of not becoming sorry for the honor you are doing me to-night.

My friends, who addressed you, have said much of what I have tried to do for our country. They have touched very lightly upon what that country has done for me. In speaking of this you must bear with me for indulging in some personal reminiscence.

The brilliant scene here before me recalls to my mind with great vividness the September day in 1852, when I landed upon these shores as an exile from my native land—an exile in consequence of my participation in the revolutionary attempts of that period to give the old Fatherland national unity and free institutions akin to those we here enjoy—an exile, without friends here, save some companions in misfortune, ignorant of the language of the country, a stranger to all the sights I saw and the sounds I heard. I well remember my first wanderings through the streets of New-York, some of which were at the time decorated with the trappings of a Presidential campaign, then almost unintelligible to me. I remember my lonely musings on a bench in Union Square, the whirl of the noise and commotion near me only deepening the desolation of my feeling of forlornness; the future before me like a mysterious fog bank; my mind in a state of dismal vacuity, against which my naturally sanguine temperament could hardly bear up, and which nobody can well imagine, who has not passed through a similar plight. Still, I was firmly determined, that for better or worse, this should be my home, my country, for the rest of my life.

My knowledge of things American was very slight. I had indeed received some distinct and strong impressions. The first dates back to my childhood, when I went to school in my native village in the Rhineland. One winter evening my father showed me in an illustrated work a portrait of George Washington, and read with me the short biography which accompanied it. He explained to me why he thought that George Washington was one of the noblest, wisest and greatest men that had ever lived. From that conversation I drew my first conception of what a true patriot was, and that conception I have never lost. From that time I read everything about George Washington that I could find, and my admiration of that great man deepened as I read on, and it is now deeper than ever. When later I read about the history and the institutions of the United States, and began to understand what a modern Republic was, I remember that two things greatly startled me. One was, that in a republic, the embodiment of human freedom, there should be human beings held in slavery; and the other was, that in a republic, where citizens were presumed to govern themselves intelligently, all the postmasters in the land were changed whenever a new President came in. This seemed to me so utterly absurd, that for a long time I absolutely refused to believe it, until finally I found it, and more of the same kind, to be actually true. I was eventually to learn more about it.

About four years after those melancholy cogitations on that bench in Union Square, I found myself as an active private in the ranks of that great host of anti-slavery men, who, obeying an overpowering moral impulse, strove to deliver the Republic of the baneful anachronism. Then came service on various fields on which I could join efforts for the advancement of principles and methods of good government and of sound lines of policy. There was here no danger of dungeons or exile for the frankest expression of opinion, or even for the sharpest opposition to those in power, or to a political party—although I may admit that occasionally some excited politician, whom I had particularly displeased, would vociferously call upon me to “go home.” So, under the generous institutions of the Republic, all the opportunities of our public life were freely thrown open to me, and I received, one after another, some of the most honorable distinctions which the ambition of any American can crave.

I have, therefore, always felt myself bound by something more than a mere citizen's duty—or, rather, in addition to that—by a duty of gratitude, not to a person or a party, but to the Republic and the American people, to serve their interests according to the very best of my understanding and ability. And if, in doing this, I had to differ from esteemed friends, or to sever old party ties, I may say that I never did so with a light heart, but only because I thought I could not do otherwise, whatever the sacrifice.

The fact has been mentioned that I am an adopted citizen. Having been a voter for these forty-two years, and being, therefore, a much older voter than a majority of the native Americans now living, my naturalization may be considered complete. For nearly half a century I have felt myself as a thorough American. Under the Stars and Stripes my children were born, and under that flag I am to die and they are to live. But my faithful love for this Republic does not forbid me to look back upon the old Fatherland with reverential affection—upon that great nation whose valor has written so many of the heroic pages of history, and whose thought, like a far shining beacon light, has so brightly illumined the world. I am profoundly grateful to those kind friends in the land of my birth who, at this period of my life, have so warmly remembered me.

Nor can I fail to speak with pride of those American citizens of German blood, who hold their rank among the best of our people by their industry, their civic virtues, their conservative spirit and their self-sacrificing patriotism, which has drenched every American battlefield with Teutonic blood. It may well be said of them that, however warm their affection for their native land, they have never permitted that affection to interfere with their duties as American citizens, and, least of all, to seduce them into any design or desire to use their power in American politics for foreign ends. And of the services they are doing this Republic it will not be the least valuable that their presence on our soil helps to preserve that peace and friendship between the two nations, which, happily, has always existed to the benefit and honor of both and which, of late, such wicked attempts have been made to disturb without cause. May that peace and friendship endure forever.

And now a last word, which may be fittingly uttered on an occasion like this. I have reached the age which may speak from experience; and of the experiences of my long public activity I will give you the best.

If there is any one among us who has lost faith in democratic government—in what Abraham Lincoln called “Government of the People, for the People and by the People,”—I am not that man. Indeed, our democratic government has had its failures and will have more. Honest and earnest criticism of those failures—even, if need be, the most searching and merciless,—is a good citizen's duty. So is the pointing out of threatening dangers. But criticism and the pointing out of danger must never have the object of discouraging wise and vigorous effort for improvement. If they do, they degenerate into that dreary pessimism which, whenever something goes wrong, cries out that everything is lost. If the pessimist, who employs his criticism to prove democratic government a failure, would apply the same spirit and method of criticism to monarchical or aristocratic governments, he would easily prove them failures too, and, in some respects, failures of a worse kind. In fact, he would prove any and every form of government a failure, ending in the demonstration of the failure of the whole universe.

The truth is, taking general results, that you will look in vain for a people that have achieved as much of freedom, of progress, of well-being and happiness, as, in spite of their occasional failures, the American people have under their institutions of democratic government. Whoever has been much in contact with the masses of our population knows that a large majority of the American people throughout honestly and earnestly mean to do right; and also that, the wildest temporary excitements notwithstanding, they wish as earnestly to satisfy themselves as to what is right, and, therefore, welcome serious arguments and appeals to the highest order of motives. With such a people democratic government will be the more successful, the more the public opinion ruling it is enlightened and inspired by full and thorough discussion. The greatest danger threatening democratic institutions comes from those influences, whether consisting in an excessive party spirit, or whatever else, which tend to stifle or demoralize discussion, and to impair the opportunities of the people for considering and deciding public questions on their own merits. If those influences are effectively curbed, our democratic government will not fail to hold up the true ideals of the great American Republic and to move forward in their direction.

When I speak of ideals, I do not mean the vague dreams of a fantastic visionary. I mean the conceptions and teachings of such an idealist as George Washington was, whose lessons and admonitions, left to the American people as his greatest legacy, stand as the soberest, the most practical, the wisest and at the same time, as, in the highest sense, the most idealistic utterance that ever came from an American statesman.

And now, to close the proceedings of the evening, for which I cannot thank you too much, and which, so long as I live, will be one of my proudest and most cherished memories, raise your glasses and drink to the sentiment I offer you:

Our country, the great Republic of the United States of America. May it ever prosper and flourish as the government of, for and by the people; as the home of free and happy generations, and as an example and guiding star to all mankind!

  1. Speech at the banquet given in honor of his seventieth birthday, at Delmonico's, New York, March 2, 1899.