Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 817

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 817


This is the grave of Carl Schurz.

Born in 1829 in Prussia, Schurz was the son of a school teacher and a journalist and had a firmly middle class upbringing. He attended good schools, though did sometimes have financial problems. He went to the University of Bonn, where he was during the 1848 revolutions that shook Europe. Schurz helped found a newspaper demanding democratic reforms in Prussia. His mentor at Bonn was one of the revolutionary legislators and so Schurz joined the revolutionary army to defend the new constitution. He was an officer in that force. He was also in the fortress of Rastatt when the revolution was crushed in 1849. Knowing that the Prussian army would kill him, Schurz managed to sneak out and get to Switzerland. The next year, he returned to Prussia to help his old mentor escape from prison, which was successful and they went to Scotland. Schurz spent some time in Paris, but the French police kicked out the supposedly dangerous revolutionary. So he went to London and taught German there. He married Molly Meyer, the sister-in-law of another leading revolutionary figure. And in 1852, they, like many of the German revolutionaries, immigrated to the United States.

These German emigres were strongly anti-slavery and would prove important to both the founding of the Republican Party and the Union Army during the Civil War. They moved to Philadelphia but then followed the large number of Germans settling in Wisconsin. Molly went on to become somewhat famous of her own–she is who introduced the German-style kindergarten into American education. This of course became central to early childhood education in America. Alas, she died in childbirth in 1876 at the age of 43.

Schurz became an important early member of the Republican Party, founded in Wisconsin in 1854. He ran for the state’s lieutenant governor in 1857, but lost. He stumped across Illinois in 1858 rallying German-American voters for Abraham Lincoln by giving speeches for the Republican in German. He was admitted to the bar in Wisconsin in 1858 and practiced there while also railing against the Fugitive Slave Act and the slave power generally.

So when Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, he had a real debt to pay to Schurz and he named him ambassador to Spain, where he ensured that the Spanish did not recognize the Confederate traitors. What Schurz really wanted though was to fight. In 1862, Lincoln acquiesced and named him a brigadier general of volunteers. He did quite well at Second Manassas, and was promoted to major general in 1863. But at Chancellorsville, Schurz argued with his commander O.O. Howard and the German troops did poorly in face of those of Stonewall Jackson. They then did poorly at Gettysburg too and this led to some anti-immigrant columns in northern papers. He did serve through the end of the war.

Now, one might think that Schurz was set up to be a strong proponent of Reconstruction. At first, he was, but this changed quickly. Andrew Johnson sent him to the South to survey conditions after the war. Schurz initially wrote honestly of the conditions there and noted how Johnson suppressed his findings. He then became a newspaper editor, first in Detroit and then in St. Louis.

In 1868, Schutz was sent to the Senate from Missouri. There, he broke with the Grant administration and supported the Liberal Republican movement that urged both honesty in government and no attention to Black rights. He wanted all questions having to do with the South adjudicated so the nation could move on and if this meant rights for the freedmen had to go, so be it. This was the irony of Republican politics at this time. The Grant administration was laughably corrupt. It was really bad. It also tried to defend the rights of the freedpeople. The Liberal Republicans were right about what was happening to the government but horrifyingly wrong about Black rights. Schurz was at the forefront of both sides of this. There were also pretty specific hatred between Grant and Schurz. The latter absolutely opposed Grant’s scheme to acquire what is today the Dominican Republic and was right to do so, as this is one of the biggest demerits of the Grant years. Of course, even Schurz was hardly a model of anti-imperialism here; his opposition primarily rested on his belief that life in the tropics would destroy the Anglo-Saxon race and thus annexation was an existential threat to the American future. On Reconstruction, Schurz was one of those politicians who theoretically supported it but in fact was more worried about the expansion of federal authority than he was about Black rights and was happy to sacrifice the latter to reduce the former. He voted against the Ku Klux Klan Act, calling it “insane” and endorsed giving leading Confederates the vote in Missouri.

Grant also punished Schurz through the spoils system by raising his enemies to positions throughout Missouri. Schurz also was the singular voice opposing the spoils system in the nation and demanded civil service reform. Grant had no interest in this at all. For him, patronage was useful. For Schurz, it was unprofessional and corrupt. But also, patronage allowed too much democracy for Schurz. For people such as he and the other Liberal Republicans, government needed to be in the hands of the “right people.” Having become a big Social Darwinist and follower of Herbert Spencer, he saw the masses as a threat, despite his own revolutionary past. And those were not normal people who wanted a job. Schurz ran the LR convention. He didn’t really want Horace Greeley as the nominee, preferring Charles Francis Adams or Lyman Trumbull, but he campaigned for Greeley anyway.

The Liberal Republican/Democratic fusion disaster made Schurz a butt for Thomas Nast‘s cartoons and he lost his Senate seat in 1874. He then went back to the newspaper business for awhile until Rutherford Hayes named him to be Secretary of the Interior in 1877. Schurz was a big civil service guy and promoted that in the Interior. That’s fine and all, but the real job of Interior at the time was dealing with the tribes. This was the moment in which the last active resistance against the U.S. government was being crushed and the tribes placed on reservations. That process would be full of corruption, the stealing of goods intended for distribution, the substitution of rancid meat for good meat, etc. He saw the corruption in his department and did try to fight it. But he was more occupied with keeping the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Interior, fighting off William Tecumseh Sherman’s attempt to get it transferred to the War Department. He did clean up some of the worst abuses toward the tribes and helped move the churches out of running the reservations. But in 1879, he ethnically cleansed Colorado. When whites and White River Utes began fighting, Schurz intervened to prevent a bigger war but he forced the Utes to give up all their claims to Colorado outside of a small reservation in the southwestern corner of the state.

In the aftermath of his four years at Interior, he moved to New York and went back to his combination of conservative reform politics and newspaper editing. He edited a bunch of the leading papers and magazines of the country in the late 19th century. He was part of the Mugwump group of Republicans who supported Grover Cleveland over James Blaine in 1884. He was the head of the National Civil Service Reform League from 1892 until 1901. He was starting to move away from the Republicans entirely during these years. He opposed William Jennings Bryan in 1896 because he found the silver coinage issue horrifying, but supported him in 1900 because Schurz, like Bryan, was starkly anti-imperialist and opposed the Spanish-American War. Again though, Schurz’s opposition to the war had more to do with belief that tropical climate destroyed the white race than any principled position about what was right or wrong. You can read one of his anti-imperialist speeches here. It’s….something. A couple of excerpts:

What, then, shall we do with such populations? Shall we, according, not indeed to the letter, but to the evident spirit of our constitution, organize those countries as territories with a view to their eventual admission as states? If they become states on an equal footing with the other states they will not only be permitted to govern themselves as to their home concerns, but they will take part in governing the whole republic, in governing us, by sending senators and representatives into our Congress to help make our laws, and by voting for president and vice-president to give our national government its executive. The prospect of the consequences which would follow the admission of the Spanish creoles and the negroes of WestIndia islands and of the Malays and Tagals of the Philippines to participation in the conduct of our government is so alarming that you instinctively pause before taking the step.

It is objected that they are not capable of independent government. They may answer that this is their affair and that they are at least entitled to a trial. I frankly admit that if they are given that trial, their conduct in governing themselves will be far from perfect. Well, the conduct of no people is perfect, not even our own. They may try to revenge themselves upon their tories in their Revolutionary War. But we, too, threw our tories into hideous dungeons during our Revolutionary War and persecuted and drove them away after its close. They may have bloody civil broils. But we, too, have had our Civil War which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and devastated one-half of our land; and now we have in horrible abundance the killings by lynch law, and our battles at Virden. They may have troubles with their wild tribes. So had we, and we treated our wild tribes in a manner not to be proud of.…

No, we cannot expect that the Porto Ricans, the Cubans, and the Filipinos will maintain orderly governments in Anglo-Saxon fashion. But they may succeed in establishing a tolerable order of things in their own fashion, as Mexico, after many decades of turbulent disorder, succeeded at last, under Porfirio Diaz, in having a strong and orderly government of her kind, not, indeed, such a government as we would tolerate in this Union, but a government answering Mexican character and interests, and respectable in its relations with the outside world.

Schurz died in 1906. He was 77 years old.

Carl Schurz is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age hacks who were Secretary of the Interior, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Samuel Kirkwood is in Iowa City and Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar is in Oxford, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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