Thursday, March 3, 2011

THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN: Carl Schurz (March 2, 1829 - May 14, 1906)

This week celebrates the 182nd anniversary of the birth of Carl Schurz.  The name of Carl Schurz means little to most Americans today, but one hundred years ago, it was synonymous with integrity. This German immigrant advised presidents from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, and his power and public voice were such that those who would take advantage of the system for personal gain thought twice. During his 54 years on American soil, during the latter half of the 19th Century, Schurz became the nation’s leading political advocate for human rights, corruption-free government, and principles.

Born near Cologne, Germany, on March 2, 1829, Schurz’ mission in life soon became human rights. His passion for history and literature, and his mastery of debate supported this mission throughout his life. He became a leader in the rabble which challenged (unsuccessfully) King Wilhelm of Prussia in 1848 for the institution of a constitutional government with the popular vote. Escaping capture at the collapse of the movement, he became a fugitive, and after a few years in London, he immigrated to the United States with his new wife Margarethe, having determined that the Old World culture of Europe could never provide the hope and future offered in the New World.

Once in America, Schurz taught himself to read and write English within a few months, and began lecturing to fellow German-American immigrants about American policies and issues affecting this population. His ability to articulate what they could not themselves express made him very popular, and in short order, he found himself employed using words professionally, polishing his passions and opinions on current affairs into intelligent and thoughtful essays, pamphlets, and editorials. This work soon launched him onto the national stage.

Besides his private professions as a lawyer, editor, author and biographer, Carl Schurz served capably in many public capacities: ambassador, brigadier general, senator, cabinet member, and advisor to eleven presidents, no small feat for one man in only half a century. He was a peerless statesman, in every admirable sense of the word. His participation in public issues illustrates what an immigrant can do - what anyone can do – with hard work and determination. He was wholeheartedly an American.

He and Margarethe, who introduced the kindergarten to the United States, had five children. His two older daughters, Agatha and Marianne, by their own choice never married. After Margarethe died, the girls cheerfully served their father and managed the household and Carl’s business affairs, despite his admonition to go out and meet young men. They raised the two younger boys, Carl Lincoln Schurz, and Herbert. (A third daughter, Emma, had died as a toddler.)  Herbert died quite suddenly in England just after graduating from college. Carl’s son Carl Lincoln married, but had only one stillborn child. Therefore, this line of the Schurz family ended when Marianne died in 1929.  Agatha and Carl Lincoln Schurz preceded her in 1915 and 1924, respectively.  Incidentally, Carl Lincoln’s birthday celebrated its 140th anniversary this week, on February 28, 1871. The younger Schurz was a notable lawyer.

Carl Schurz died in New York City at age 77 on May 14, 1906, after a short bout with pneumonia. His autobiography, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, was incomplete, but even incomplete, it amounted to three volumes in publication.

Schurz blessed us with many significant quotations, the most well-known of which is an adaptation of Stephen Decatur’s patriotic toast: “My country: right or wrong.”  At first glance, this seems blind faith, but Schurz’ complete quote illustrates his clear-sighted devotion to and practical application of American ideals: “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.” 

If you would like to read a more comprehensive article about Carl Schurz, please click here. Neither this short blog posting nor the attached longer article can begin to credit Carl Schurz properly, but perhaps one or the other of these will serve to reintroduce a remarkable man to the American public. Even today, all of us could learn much from Carl Schurz.

Terzian, James P., Defender of Human Rights, Carl Schurz (New York: Julian Messner, Division of Pocket Books, Inc., 1965)

“An Evolving Family Tree for Carl Schurz”
Terzian, James P., Defender of Human Rights, Carl Schurz (New York: Julian Messner, Division of Pocket Books, Inc., 1965)

Biographical Directory to the United States Congress

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