Schurz, Carl Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Schurz was one of the most influential foreign immigrants in American history. In exile since the failed German Revolution of 1848, he came to the United States in 1852. As an antislavery activist, he campaigned heavily for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and eventually served as envoy to Spain, a Union general during the Civil War, a U.S. senator, and secretary of the interior. Ever the reformer, he supported the rights of freed slaves and Native Americans, attacked the “spoils system,” and was a staunch conservationist.

Born to middle-class parents in the tiny village of Liblar in the Rhineland, Carl Schurz rose from humble beginnings to become one of the premier American statesmen of the nineteenth century. His schoolteacher father taught him to read and write at a very young age. His intellectual abilities eventually led him to attend university in Bonn.German immigrants;Carl Schurz[Schurz]Schurz, CarlRevolutions of 1848;GermanyLincoln, Abraham[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Carl Schurz[Schurz]German immigrants;Carl Schurz[Schurz]Schurz, Carl[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Schurz, Carl[cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Schurz, Carl[cat]JOURNALISM;Schurz, Carl[cat]MILITARY;Schurz, Carl[cat]BIOGRAPHIES;Schurz, CarlRevolutions of1848;GermanyLincoln, Abraham[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Carl Schurz[Schurz]

In 1848, working-class discontent over low wages and unemployment pervaded European society, and uprisings against governments were common but often short-lived due to lack of military strength. The Germanic states had a secret weapon in the Prussian army–arguably the most powerful army in Europe at the time–and so the Frankfurt Assembly elected Prussia’s King Frederick William IV emperor of a new German Reich. Not wanting to accept the crown from commoners, Frederick William IV simply took the crown and dismissed the Frankfurt Assembly, establishing himself as absolute ruler. Angered by this turn of events, Schurz joined a revolutionary movement to restore liberty and the rights declared by the Frankfurt constitution.

After being captured by Prussians, Schurz made a daring escape and ended up in exile in Switzerland and France. In 1850, he returned to Berlin under an alias to rescue his former professor Gottfried Kinkel from prison. After fleeing Germany for the last time, Schurz went to London, where in 1852 he met and married Margarethe Meyer. When Louis Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor Napoleon IIINapoleon III in France that same year aroused almost no protests anywhere in Europe, Schurz realized that the reactionaries were once again fully in control and decided to emigrate to America, where he believed true freedom for all could be achieved. He and Margarethe landed in New York in September, 1852.

Political and Activist Life in America

While touring New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Schurz acquainted himself with the ways of American politics. He immediately despised the “spoils system” for its resemblance to the Old Regime political order in Europe and became interested in the plights of African American slaves and Native Americans. He eventually settled in Wisconsin;German immigrantsWisconsin, where he found a strong community of German immigrants. In 1858, he became a naturalized American citizen–after he had already run for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.

Carl Schurz in his Union Army uniform during the Civil War.

(Library of Congress)

The recently created Republican PartyRepublican Party attracted Schurz, in large part because its antislavery position meshed with the antireactionary ideals he held since his days as a young revolutionary. He was soon asked to give speeches on the party’s behalf at local meetings, mostly on the question of slavery. Eventually, his rhetorical skills gained greater notice, and he was asked to speak in other parts of the country, including in Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were conducting their famous debates during their campaigns for the U.S. Senate. Meeting Lincoln, Abraham[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Carl Schurz[Schurz]Lincoln on this occasion would prove fruitful to Schurz’s future political career.

While becoming a well-known lawyer, antinativist speaker, and member of a literary crowd that included Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Schurz served as a delegate at the 1860 Republican National Convention and contributed to the party’s platform. Lincoln shrewdly recognized that close ties to Schurz endeared him to the country’s large German American population. After he was elected, he rewarded Schurz for his support with the ambassadorship to Spain. During the Civil War, Schurz was probably the first high-ranking Union official to declare that an antislavery position would actually assist the Union in preventing international support for the Confederacy. It would be difficult for foreign powers, he argued, to take a proslavery stance by supporting the South if the North were to stand for freedom.

Eventually, Schurz felt called to return to the tumultuous situation in America and was Civil War, U.S.;Germans incommissioned a brigadier general in the Union Army, in which he became more known for his bravado than for his tactical skills. A groundswell movement to remove Lincoln from office pushed Schurz to get involved in the election of 1864 and return to oratory. General William T. Sherman’s march on Atlanta and Lincoln’s triumph over Democratic nominee George B. McClellan took Schurz back to the Army–but not for long, as the Confederacy surrendered in April, 1865, shortly before Lincoln was assassinated. The new president, Andrew Johnson, then sent Schurz to the South to assess postwar conditions. What Schurz found there was a vengeful population prone to violent uprisings against northern interlopers and newly freed slaves. However, his scathing report on the South was all but ignored by Johnson because it did not contain the information he wanted to hear. Schurz was especially appalled by the poor treatment of newly freed slaves by both the men and the women of the South. Deeming it the public’s right to hear the truth, Schurz published his observations and thus began a new career as a journalist.

In 1868, Schurz campaigned for Grant, Ulysses S.Ulysses S. Grant’s election to the presidency and was himself successful in a bid to represent his new home state of Missouri in the U.S. Senate. As a senator Schurz made a point of declaring war on the spoils system in American politics and resurrecting his revolutionary fervor against established protocol. Fortified by the Whiskey Ring and Belknap scandals of the Grant administration, Schurz’s Liberal Republican movement gained momentum during Grant’s second term, but it was not enough to keep the Democrats from retaking Congress in 1874. Thus, Schurz returned to Missouri and civilian life. During this time, Margarethe died, and Schurz’s anguish threatened to stifle his zealous campaign against political corruption. He found a compatriot in Ohio governor Hayes, Rutherford B.Rutherford B. Hayes and soon stumped for Hayes’s presidential campaign. After Hayes was elected, he appointed Schurz secretary of the interior in his cabinet.

Cabinet Secretary and Journalist

As secretary of the interior, Schurz directly confronted the issue of Native American rights and was instrumental in preventing the Indian Bureau from being transferred to the War Department. He believed that the best course of action was assimilation of Native Americans into the “white man’s” world, largely through property ownership. If Indians owned their own land, he surmised, then they would be motivated to work and contribute to the economy, and their tribal affiliations would gradually fade away. This view aligned with his belief that anyone could become a loyal and steadfast American citizen as he had himself. However, whereas he decried tribalism, he was more than supportive of European Cultural pluralismcultural pluralism and never ceased to champion his German homeland’s every triumph. He also believe that while immigrants could assimilate to American life, they could never completely sever their connections to their homelands. Schurz also made great headway in civil service reform by implementing examinations for entrance into the civil service and applying the merit system when dispensing promotions, a cause near to his heart since his days in the student government at Bonn.

With the election of Garfield, JamesJames A. Garfield in 1880, Schurz settled in New York and returned to writing. He served anonymously as the editor of Harper’s Weekly for more than five years and used that position to tout further civil service reform and less restrictive immigration laws. However, with the election of McKinley, WilliamWilliam McKinley in 1898 and growing American expansionist fervor, Schurz fell outside popular sentiment and broke ties with the influential weekly. He then dedicated himself to writing his memoirs: He wrote about his youth in German and switched to English for the remainder of his life, ever true to his German American pride.

In 1902, Schurz moved to a new home on Manhattan’s East Ninety-first Street in New York City, a traditional German American neighborhood. There he remained until his quiet, peaceful death in 1906. Carl Schurz Park, overlooking the northern edge of Manhattan’s East River, forever associates this legendary statesman with his beloved German American heritage.German immigrants;Carl Schurz[Schurz]Schurz, Carl

Further Reading
  • Easum, Chester V. The Americanization of Carl Schurz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929. Early study of Schurz upon which much of the later scholarship on him has depended.
  • Fuess, Claude M. Carl Schurz, Reformer: 1829-1906. Edited by Allan Nevins. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1932. Gentlemanly biography by a scholar of German American parentage.
  • Kennedy, David M., and Thomas A. Bailey. The American Spirit. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Collection of primary source documents dating from Reconstruction to the early twenty-first century.
  • Schurz, Carl. Carl Schurz: Revolutionary and Statesman. München, Germany: Heinz Moos, 1979. Autobiographical collection of materials based on Schurz’s memoirs, with additional material on his public service, including photographs, sketches, and speeches.
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Carl Schurz: A Biography. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998. Biography of the German American statesman that focuses on his rise in American politics while maintaining a strong connection to his cultural heritage. Based on an exhaustive study of printed and manuscript sources in both the United States and Europe. Excellent notes and bibliography.
  • Wallman, Charles J. The German-Speaking Forty-eighters: Builders of Watertown, Wisconsin. Madison: Max Kade Institute for German American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1990. Chronicles the experiences of Schurz and other German emigrants who left Europe after the revolutions of 1848 and eventually settled in Watertown, Wisconsin.

European revolutions of 1848

German immigrants

History of immigration, 1783-1891

New York City

Pulitzer, Joseph


Categories: History