The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Edward L. Pierce, November 23d, 1889

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New York, Nov. 23, 1889.

Pardon me for not answering your letter of the 18th inst. more promptly. I wished, before doing so, to refresh my own memory by looking over the record.

“The American citizen” who first brought the most important point in the French Arms case[1] to Sumner's and my attention was Senator Patterson. At the time when Sumner's resolutions were under discussion, his name was not mentioned because he had not authorized it. But in the course of proceedings he came forward himself. You will find reference to that matter in my speech of May 31, 1872, reviewing the whitewashing report of the Committee.

I think you underestimate the importance of that case. The transaction was a fairly representative one of the utterly reckless way in which laws were disregarded and international relations compromised under the Grant régime. You are probably aware that Sumner's mind would never master the details of a matter of this kind if they were in any degree complicated. So it was in this instance. His opening speech left the case in a very weak condition, and it was owing to this circumstance that I felt it my duty to take a prominent part in the debate at the beginning, which I had not intended to do. In fact, it was at Sumner's urgent request, if not demand, that I made my speech of February 15th. He bent over my seat, his being immediately behind me, and said: “You must speak now, instantly.” From that moment the burden of the fight fell upon my shoulders, and you can gather from my speeches (Feb. 15th, Feb. 20th, May 31st) much more information about the subject, than from Sumner s. I had to be on the floor constantly in the running debate. Sumner seemed to look upon my zeal in the matter more or less as a service rendered to him personally and was very grateful to me for it. On one occasion he was especially outspoken. I must tell you of it.

The debate created great excitement and attracted large audiences to the galleries. On February 19th, Conkling made an elaborate speech in defense of the Administration, attacking Sumner and me and Trumbull. Grant and the whole White House coterie were in the galleries of the Senate to witness our overthrow. As soon as Conkling was through, I demanded the floor to reply instantly, but Ferry of Connecticut moved an adjournment and carried it. I had the floor for the next day. My wife, who had also listened to Conkling, was very much dejected and told me on our way home that she did not think I could answer Conkling's speech. I tried to restore her courage and then employed the better part of the night in studying the documents once more and in arranging my ideas for the reply. But I could not prevail upon my wife to accompany me to the Senate the next day. When I arrived at the Capitol I found the avenues of the Senate Chamber filled with so great a crowd that I could only with difficulty make my way through it. As soon as I got the floor after the morning hour, Fenton of New York moved that the doors of the Senate Chamber be opened to admit the ladies who could not find room in the galleries. This was agreed to and in a few minutes every sofa and every square foot of standing room in the Chamber were filled. This audience was indeed inspiring and I think I never in my life spoke with so much nervous energy, fire and immediate effect. The crowd on the floor and in the galleries would at last break out at every touch, and the presiding officer found it very hard to restrain them. When I was through, the larger part of the audience, after having indulged themselves in all sorts of demonstrations, rose to depart, and proceedings in the Senate had to be suspended for about a quarter of an hour. I had just closed or was about to close, when my wife, who had after all been too restless to stay at home, arrived at the Senate Chamber and tried to go up to the gallery, but the attendant, who knew her, told her: “No room in the gallery, madam; but you, as everybody, can go on the floor to-day; your husband is speaking.” As she was trying to get in, the crowd was beginning to pour out, and Sumner, who was seeing out some friends, met her in the lobby and stretching out his hand cried out: “Oh, madam, I congratulate you. Your husband has just made the greatest speech that has been heard in the Senate for twenty years!” Afterwards he thanked me profusely. It was indeed, not the best speech, for the subject was comparatively small, but the greatest parliamentary triumph I ever had in the Senate. (Conkling was so deeply hurt that he never spoke to me again.) You can find a description of the affair in the New York Tribune of the next day, Feb. 21st.

The Senate constituted the investigating committee for the evident purpose of acquitting. In defiance of well-established customs, those who moved the inquiry were rigidly excluded from membership. On the contrary, they were made to appear as accused parties. I was, however, permitted to ask questions.

Nevertheless, the investigation clearly established two things: 1. That the rule of neutral duty as laid down by the Administration itself had been glaringly violated, and that the defense of the War Department consisted of the most transparent subterfuges; and

2. That in making these sales the laws governing the sale of arms and ammunition of the Government had been most unceremoniously set aside.

The investigation, the report of the majority of the committee and the speeches of the Administration Senators showed also how completely the Grant régime had subjected the moral sense of its adherents in Congress. Perhaps you might read with some profit in that respect my speech of May 31, 1872, on the majority report.

As to the question whether there had been corrupt motives and practices connected with these sales of arms, I was then and am now convinced that there was illegitimate money-making at the bottom of this business. Some of the reasons for that belief I gave in the closing part of my speech of February 15th. Other reasons were furnished by confidential communications received by Sumner as well as myself, strong enough to produce a moral conviction. That moral conviction has been strengthened by information which has come to me since. But you know how difficult it is to prove such things by legal evidence, and in this case it was made doubly difficult by the determination of the majority of the Committee that nothing should come out. If you could read the testimony taken you would find that we were now and then just on the point of lifting the veil. But it could not be accomplished.

I remarked in one of my speeches that the Secretary of State, Fish, was strongly opposed to these sales, but the War Department, under Belknap, prevailed against him. I knew that the German Government would not remonstrate. Had there been the slightest danger of this, the inquiry would certainly not have been moved in the Senate.

  1. The alleged sale of arms by officers of the U. S. Government to agents of the French Government, for use in the Franco-Prussian war.