Carl Schurz (1829-1906) was a German revolutionary who left his native land when revolution failed. He came to The United States of America in 1852 and began a political career, which was interrupted by his commission as a major general for the Union during the American Civil War. He resumed his career following the war, and became the first German-born senator of the United States. He was also appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. During his life, he championed national unification, representative government, anti-slavery, political inclusion of foreign-born citizens, civil service reform, and anti-imperialism. Carl Schurz was a hero of two nations.

In February 1848, the French rebelled (again) against their king, Louis-Philippe, and a huge wave of revolutions swept across almost all of Europe. At the time, Germany as a single state was still just a nationalist ideal, and was split into numerous principalities, duchies, and kingdoms, with Austria and Prussia being the two most powerful. In March of 1848, university students and workers rose up against the conservative rulers of the disparate parts of Germany; Vienna fell and Metternich fled; Berlin fell and Frederick William IV conceded key civil liberties.

One of the university students that took part in the revolution was Carl Schurz, a young man from Western Germany.

Carl Schurz was born in 1829 in Liblar, a small town on the Rhine near Cologne. He was born in a castle, though his parents were fairly firmly middle class, and attended the Cologne gymnasium (roughly the equivalent of an American high school) and then the University of Bonn. There he joined the Burschenschaft, a student group that supported the unification of Germany under a republican government. When the revolution broke out, Carl Schurz joined it, and happily waved the tricolor (not the French, the German) along with fellow students and his professors.

However, the revolution sparked counter-revolutions, and soon the professional Prussian and Austrian armies were going around Germany putting down the revolutions. Carl Schurz promptly joined the revolutionary army as an officer, and commanded a few futile missions against the Prussian army. Schurz had the misfortune to get stuck in the fortress of Rastatt when the Prussians surrounded it. Since the Congress of Vienna, Prussia had controlled the territory in which he was born, so he was technically a Prussian subject--and therefore liable to get executed for treason if caught. Schurz decided to attempt escape, and with a fellow Prussian revolutionary and his orderly, crawled through the sewers to escape the fortress. They crossed the Rhine, whereupon Schurz fled to Switzerland to meet with other revolutionaries in exile.

After a short while in Switzerland, Schurz found out that his old professor, Gottfried Kinkel, had been captured by the Prussians. Kinkel's wife sent out letters to various revolutionary friends asking for help, and Schurz decided to rescue the professor who had inspired him so much. He made his way back into Germany, located his professor in the prison of Spandau, and then made a few bribery attempts in order to release him. After several failures, he found a guard willing to set Kinkel free, a man by the name of Brune. The first night they made the attempt, the key to Kinkel's cell was missing, and Carl Schurz feared that everything had come to naught. The very next night, Brune boldly carried through an alternate and hasty plan, and Schurz was reunited with Kinkel. The two fled the country, going to Paris via Scotland (maybe a strange route, but they left Prussia by sea).

Schurz's rescue of Professor Kinkel catapulted him to fame across Germany and revolutionary Europe, and as a result Schurz got to meet fellow revolutionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini of Italy and Louis Kossuth of Hungary. The results were not completely positive; Schurz was invited to leave France on the eve of Louis-Napoleon's coup, because his revolutionary status was threatening. Schurz left for England, but was immensely disheartened by the news of Louis-Napoleon's coup, because he felt it was a death knell for European revolutions and republics. He decided, while sitting on a bench in Hyde Park, to go to America and make a new life in (what he viewed as) the country of republicanism.

He also got married just before leaving, to a young woman named Margaretha, also a German living in exile.

Schurz toured America for a little while before settling down in Wisconsin, but he quickly got involved in a political career. As a believer in civil liberties, Schurz was whole-heartedly opposed to slavery, so he joined the newly formed Republican Party. He began his career by giving speeches in German to German-American audiences, and then worked his way up, giving speeches in both languages and generally going around campaigning for people. In 1860, the Wisconsin State Convention chose Schurz as one of the delegates to the Republican National Convention. Although the Wisconsin delegates officially supported William Seward, Schurz was content with the final choice of the convention, a lesser-known lawyer from a rural background in Illinois. Schurz himself did a great deal of campaigning for Abraham Lincoln, even delivering a three-hour speech in New York City attacking Lincoln's opponent, Stephen Douglas.

Lincoln ended up winning the election (no, really?) and then appointed Carl Schurz to be ambassador to Spain. However, the American Civil War broke out shortly after Lincoln's victory, and Schurz insisted on returning to fight for his adopted country. He was appointed a major general in the Union Army, and fought at Second Manassas (Second Battle of Bull Run), Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga, to name a few. He may not have been a Grant or a Sherman, but he wasn't a Butler or a Hooker, either, and in the end he did a fair job, though he isn't primarily famous for his military service.

After the war and Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson sent Carl Schurz to investigate the South and determine the status of Reconstruction. Schurz was very much distressed by conditions and sentiments in the South, and recommended that military occupation be continued. Johnson was not happy with the report, and, fighting against the Radical Republicans in Congress, cut Reconstruction short and generally made things difficult. Making things difficult is not quite high crimes and misdemeanors, and when the House of Representatives impeached Johnson, the Senate did not convict him, so he stayed in office.

Meanwhile, in 1867, Carl Schurz made a brief visit to Germany, where he got the opportunity to meet with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the man who would successfully unite Germany in 1871, and who had already done a fair job of it when Schurz met him. Although they had almost completely diametrically opposed views on the subject of government, they had a very amicable series of conversations, and had a high opinion of each other. When Schurz returned to America, he moved to Missouri and resumed his political career.

After a few minor scuffles and power struggles within the party, Schurz was nominated to run for the Senate, and in 1868, he became the first German-born Senator of the United States of America. As a senator, Schurz fought for civil service reform (the spoils system was still in full swing) and later against imperialism. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him Secretary of the Interior, making Schurz the first German-born cabinet secretary. In that position, Carl Schurz did his best to minimize corruption, particularly in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was extremely corrupt. Schurz kept the Bureau of Indian Affairs from being transferred to the War Department.

Carl Schurz retired in 1881, but remained politically active. He was a political idealist in many ways, and followed the Mugwumps (essentially Republican Independents) as a result. He espoused civil service reform, sound money, and anti-imperialism, and these platforms decided his vote and support far more than party politics. He voted against William Jennings Bryan in 1896 because of the gold standard issue, but for Bryan in 1900 because he felt McKinley was too imperialist.

Carl Schurz died in 1906. His last words were: "Es ist so einfach zu sterben"--It is so simple to die. His most famous words were delivered on the floor of the Senate in 1872: "my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." During his life, Carl Schurz met an amazing number of historically important figures, including Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, Abraham Lincoln, Otto von Bismarck, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, Charles Sumner, William Tecumseh Sherman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Kossuth, Louis Blanc, and Giuseppe Mazzini, to name a few.

Personally, I think it incredible that I only learned about Carl Schurz recently, in a college history course on German and French nationalism. It is possible that since I'm not a Midwesterner, I didn't learn much about regionally celebrated US politicians, but Carl Schurz seems to me to be so much more important. I'm not sure if there's a general disinclination to teach Gilded Age politics in elementary, middle, and high school (it does get pretty complicated), or if there's just not enough time to adequately teach history in depth in school.

Oh, and if my history professor discovers this write-up after grading my term paper, I wrote them both -- no plagiarism involved!

This write-up contains information I got from the following sources:

Fuess, Claude Moore. Carl Schurz: Reformer. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1932.

Schurz, Carl. Quoted in Respectfully Quoted: a Dictionary of Quotations. Edited by Suzy Platt. New York:, 2003.

Schurz, Carl. The Autobiography of Carl Schurz. Abridged by Wayne Andrews. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.

I recommend both the Fuess and Schurz books as excellent sources of information and a good read if you like history.

Additional thanks to mauler for excellent advice concerning the introductory paragraph, and a softlink to Stephen Decatur and My country, right or wrong!.

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