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Volume XXI, Number 4403
Monday, May 15, 2006

Carl Schurz : Adopted New Yorker

Harper’s Weekly cover showing Interior Secretary Carl Schurz bedeviled by corruption within the files of his department
Harper’s Weekly cover showing Interior Secretary Carl Schurz bedeviled by corruption within the files of his department

The namesake of Carl Schurz Park died on May 14, 1906, 100 years ago yesterday. The energetic and opinionated Carl Schurz enjoyed a series of public careers in the United States during the second half of the 19th Century. As a university student in 1848, the young Schurz was caught up in the popular uprising that swept Germany and other European countries during that year of revolution. Schurz helped to edit a radical newspaper, then was forced to flee to Switzerland after the revolution was put down by the authorities. After freeing several comrades from German prisons in 1850, Schurz made his way first to France, then to Britain, and finally in 1852 he emigrated to America.

Settling in Wisconsin along with many other German emigres, Schurz became active in the new Republican Party, which fielded its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, in 1856. Over the next four years he became an active campaigner against slavery, delivering speeches in German throughout Illinois in support of Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Following Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, in which Schurz had been instrumental in attracting support from German Americans throughout the Midwest, the new president appointed the young editor as U.S. Minister to Spain, where he served until January, 1862.

Eager to fight in the Civil War, Schurz was commissioned as a brigadier general of volunteers and saw action at several key battles, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, and with Sherman’s army in the South during the closing days of the war. Schurz was not a particularly brilliant commander and his troops were victorious only in the Battle of Chattanooga. Despite the lack of successes, Lincoln continued to value Schurz for his role in encouraging enlistments from the German-American population.

After the war’s end, Schurz traveled through the South on a presidential investigation of post-war conditions, became editor of the Detroit Post, and in 1867 became the editor and co-publisher of a German language newspaper in St. Louis. After supporting the election of General Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868, Schurz was elected as a Republican U. S. Senator from Missouri and soon gained a reputation in Washington for fiscal probity and as an ardent reformer. Senator Schurz broke with the Grant Administration over the issue of corruption and founded the Liberal Republican Party, which supported Democrat Horace Greeley in the 1872 election. In 1876, Schurz was instrumental in the narrow and controversial election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and President Hayes repaid his support by naming Schurz as Secretary of the Interior. Schurz reformed the department by instituting merit selection of staff and overhauling the corrupt Indian Bureau.

At the close of the Hayes Administration in 1881, Schurz moved to New York and became editor of the New York Evening Post, the City’s oldest continuously published newspaper. Ever the political maverick, Schurz supported Democrat Grover Cleveland for president in 1884 and continued to campaign for comprehensive civil service reform. During this period, Schurz helped to lead the American Civil Service Reform League and in the 1890s was the editor of Harper’s Weekly, the nation’s largest news weekly. Schurz continued to be unpredictable in his political choices – he supported Republican William McKinley for president in 1896 on the issue of sound money, Democrat William Jennings Bryan against McKinley in 1900 on the issue of anti-imperialism, and New York Judge Alton G. Parker against Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 mostly on the basis of a dislike for TR’s outsized personality.

Carl Schurz was a prolific writer, with a biography of Henry Clay to his credit, and his "Report of Conditions in the South" is considered a well-researched narrative about postbellum Southern society. In addition to editing volumes of speeches by Lincoln and Senator Charles Sumner, Schurz also completed his Reminiscences before his death in 1906. Schurz expressed many opinions during his long life as an activist and editor, but his most famous is, "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

New York City commemorated Carl Schurz by renaming East River Park, the site of Gracie Mansion, in his honor in 1910. This longtime political reformer and editor is also celebrated in his adopted City by Karl Bitter’s statue, completed in 1913, located at Morningside Drive and 116th Street.

Written by Erik Peter Axelson

QUOTATION FOR THE DAY

"While democracy in the long run is the most stable form of government,

in the short run, it is among the most fragile."

Madeleine Albright

(1937 - )

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