The most prominent foreign-born American in 19th-century public life, Carl Schurz (1829-1906) was soldier, statesman, and journalist. He was at the center of many political reform movements.
Carl Schurz was the foremost of a remarkable group of emigrés who went to the United States after the failure of the 1848-1849 revolution in Germany. In his adopted land Schurz crusaded against slavery, campaigned for his friend Abraham Lincoln, fought for the North in the Civil War, helped shape a Reconstruction policy that enfranchised the freed slaves, championed civil service reform, founded the Liberal Republican movement, was a leader of the "Mugwump" exodus from the Republican party, and denounced American imperialism in the Spanish-American War.
Carl Schurz was born on March 2, 1829, in Liblar near Cologne, Germany. He graduated from the gymnasium at Cologne and entered the University of Bonn in 1847 as a candidate for the doctorate in history. At the age of 19 he was a leader of the student movement that became the spearhead of democratic revolutionary ferment in many parts of Germany. In 1849 Schurz was commissioned a lieutenant in the revolutionary army, which was finally defeated by the Prussians. Knowing he would be shot if captured, he fled the country. He later returned under a false passport to rescue a professor from Spandau prison and spirit him out of Germany in the most daring exploit of the entire revolution.
American Civil War Record
After short residences in France and England, in 1852 Schurz went to the United States. He joined the antislavery movement and helped build the Republican party in Wisconsin, where he settled in 1856. An excellent orator, Schurz made speeches for John C. Frémont in the 1856 presidential election and for Lincoln against Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign. He was chairman of the Wisconsin delegation to the 1860 Republican convention. He campaigned tirelessly in the 1860 election and was gratified by a letter from Lincoln declaring that "to the extent of our limited acquaintance, no man stands nearer my heart than yourself." Rewarded by appointment as minister to Spain, Schurz resigned that post in 1862 and returned to the United States to work for Union victory and emancipation.
Schurz's military experience was limited to a few weeks of fighting in Germany 13 years earlier, but he worked hard at mastering military strategy and was finally promoted to major general of volunteers in 1863. He was popular with his troops, but his battle record was mixed. After limited success as a division commander at Chancellorsville and a corps commander at Gettysburg, he was given charge of an instruction corps at Nashville. This was not to his liking, and in 1864 he obtained release from command to campaign for Lincoln's reelection. Schurz finished out the war as a chief of staff in William T. Sherman's army.
Postwar Political Career
In the summer of 1865 Schurz began investigating Southern conditions for President Andrew Johnson and a Boston newspaper. He found that many Southerners were defiant and recalcitrant, determined to keep Negroes subordinate. Schurz's long report contradicted the premises of Johnson's Reconstruction policy, and the President did not acknowledge the report. But congressional Republicans secured its publication and wide distribution. This document was of great influence in molding a radical Reconstruction policy based on Negro suffrage.
Schurz was Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune, then editor of the Detroit Post, and in 1867 he became part owner and editor of the German-language St. Louis Westliche Post. Schurz made the keynote address at the Republican national convention in 1868 and the next year was elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri. His views on Reconstruction had become less radical; he advocated the removal of all political disabilities from former Confederates and was increasingly critical of Federal intervention in behalf of what he considered corrupt and oppressive Republican regimes in Southern states.
A proponent of civil service reform, Schurz was also repelled by the corrupt political atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant's administration. In 1872 he led reformers out of the regular Republican party and organized the Liberal Republican party, which nominated Horace Greeley to run against Grant. Schurz's actions split the Republican party in Missouri and allowed the Democrats to capture the legislature, so he was not reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1875. In 1876 he returned to the regular Republican party and supported the presidential reform candidacy of Rutherford B. Hayes. Schurz was rewarded with appointment as secretary of the interior, and he made considerable progress in reform of Indian affairs and introduction of the merit system into the department.
Journalism and Reform
In 1881 Schurz returned to journalism, serving for 2 years as an editor of the New York Evening Post and of the Nation. For several years thereafter he free-lanced, and from 1892 to 1898 he was chief editorial writer for Harper's Weekly. In 1884 he joined the revolt of the "Mugwumps" (reform Republicans) against the party's presidential nominee, James G. Blaine, and supported Grover Cleveland. Schurz was president of the National Civil Service Reform League (1892-1900) and of the Civil Service Reform Association of New York (1893-1906). Opposing the Spanish-American War in 1898, he became a leading anti-imperialist, urging independence for the Philippines rather than American colonialism there. Schurz died in New York City on May 14, 1906. His wife had died some years before; he was survived by three of his five children.
Further Reading on Carl Schurz
The basic source for Schurz's life is The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz (3 vols., 1907-1908). Also of value are Frederic Bancroft, ed., Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz (6 vols., 1913), and Joseph Schafer, ed., Intimate Letters of Carl Schurz, 1841-1869 (1928). There is no biography of Schurz incorporating modern scholarship. The best account is Claude M. Fuess, Carl Schurz, Reformer (1932).