Harvard Square Observer
Last week in this space, I wrote of having to prepare a talk, “Carl Schurz: From German Revolutionary to American Statesman.” I have worked on it the whole of the past week. It was not a matter of a dearth of material, but a super abundance. How does one deal with a person who was a democratic revolutionary in one of the German principalities in 1848-49 (there was no united Germany for another quarter century), who barely escaped Prussian forces in Rastatt, Baden, because he remembered a sewer that ran under the city, evacuating outside the city walls? Who, crossed the river to Alsace and on to Switzerland? Who then returned to Germany to arrange for the escape of his professor, who had been imprisoned in Spandau for his revolutionary activities, and escaped with him to the U.K.?
On Schurz’s move to the United States, he settled in the German community of Watertown, Wisconsin; began practicing law there, and in Milwaukee; delivered speeches against slavery; as head of the Wisconsin delegation, supported Abraham Lincoln at the Republican convention; served as Lincoln’s Minister to Spain; returned to the U.S., to serve as a general in the Civil War; went on to serve as Senator from Missouri, where he had been editing a newspaper in St. Louis; served as Secretary of the Interior in the cabinet of Rutherford B. Hayes, where he advocated civil service reform, and fought corruption in the Bureau of Indian affairs; who, on leaving government, edited the New York Evening Post, and went on to become the leading editorial writer of Harper’s Weekly; and, who wrote a splendid two-volume biography of Henry Clay, and a celebrated biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Have I left anything out? Oh, yes! A great deal. But, it occurs to me, to quote from some of my manuscript on Schurz, in which I discuss his treatment of Abraham Lincoln. After all, this column will appear on Presidents’ Day:
Schurz became an intimate friend of Lincoln and his family. John Hay, who, with John George Nicolay, was a secretary of Lincoln, gives us insight into the relationship, when he wrote of Schurz sitting with Lincoln, listening to the Marine band playing on the South Lawn of the White House.“After the President had kissed some thousand children, Carl went into the library. . . . He played with great skill and feeling, sitting in the dusk twilight at the piano until the President came by and took him down to tea. Schurz is a wonderful man. An orator, a soldier, a philosopher, an exiled patriot, a skilled musician! He has every quality of romance and of romantic picturesqueness.”
Schurz's association with Lincoln had become intimate to the point that he felt quite free to give him advice, sometimes being sharply critical. That Lincoln tolerated such is the surest indication of the trust he placed in him. Would it be possible to deal with his old friend in a dispassionate, detached manner? It would be particularly difficult, since in the twenty- five years between Lincoln's assassination and the writing of the essay, Lincoln had become the subject of legend and myth. When Schurz rewrote the beginning of his essay to accommodate its publication as a book, he began with the significant words: "No American can study the character and career of Abraham Lincoln without being carried away by sentimental emotions. We are always inclined to idealize that which we love, - a state of mind very unfavorable to the exercise of sober critical judgment." Most writers on Lincoln, he wrote, "have drifted into more or less indiscriminating eulogy," representing his "great features in the most glowing colors, and covering with tender shadings whatever might look like a blemish." This was the temptation Schurz struggled against in his evaluation of his martyred friend. The power of the Lincoln legend is seen in the fact that he was only partly successful.
What is remarkable about Schurz's approach, given the fact that he knew Lincoln intimately and during the war years had predicted that he would be ranked with Washington as a great president, is that, unlike Nicolay and Hay, he does not hide Lincoln's faults. Indeed, in his interpretation, Lincoln's greatness is intimately tied to his shortcomings. Lincoln was a tall, ungainly person, quite awkward in his movements. His tendency to wear ill-fitting clothes added to his odd appearance. Stemming from the rudest, uneducated people, the poorest of the poor, he was also uncouth. His education was almost entirely self-achieved. That from this person should come some of the most exalted sentiments, and some of the most inspiring prose in the English language, was truly remarkable. This was the most telling point of Schurz's interpretation. It was the uncommon mix of the "uncouth" and the "lofty" - he called it a "weird mixture of qualities and forces in him . . ." - that is suppressed when he is idealized. No matter what the complaints of the critics who thought Lincoln unworthy of the presidency, it was because he was from the humblest of backgrounds that the common people responded to him. This was the secret of Lincoln's strength: he was one of their own; the people trusted him, they believed "Father Abraham" would not mislead them; and they came to love him. Seeing he was one of them, one who aspired as they to rise above the paltriness of his beginnings, they fought at his side to save the Union.
The effect Schurz had on his audience is captured in a letter to him from George E. Waring Jr.: "You have shown the man as we knew him, but you have made us conscious of some things that we knew `without knowing it.' Indeed, I think you have formulated Lincoln's immortality." Serious students of history, or, for that matter, of English style, would agree with Allan Nevins that the Lincoln essay is an "admitted classic."
Well, I must stop here, or my fellow editors of the HSC will be upset at the length of this column. Let me just conclude by recommending that, as you observe Presidents’ Day, you do not spend the whole of it shopping, but spend some of it pondering which of the men who have served as president of the nation have been particularly worthy of our esteem, and, indeed, in some few cases, our love.
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