On October 29, 1855, recent German immigrant Carl Schurz wrote his wife, Margarethe Meyer Schurz, expressing hope for their future happiness. A political refugee from the tumultuous revolutions of 1848 External, Schurz soon gravitated toward political life in the United States. Exactly five years later, Schurz corresponded with his wife from Lincoln’s presidential campaign trail.
The sun has risen bright and clear, and the view spread out before me presents so cheerful and sweet a picture that I am distinctly encouraged to hope we shall be very happy here.
Carl Schurz to Margarethe Meyer Schurz, October 29,1855. In Intimate Letters of Carl Schurz, 1841-1869. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1928. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910 General Collections; Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Although Schurz initially supported William H. Seward for the Republican nomination, he welcomed the prospect of a Lincoln presidency and assured the nominee that
. . . I shall carry into this struggle all the zeal and ardor and enthusiasm of which my nature is capable. The same disinterested motives that led me and my friends to support Gov. Seward in the Convention,
will animate and urge us on in our work for you, and wherever my voice is heard and my influence
extends you may count upon hosts of true and devoted friends.
Schurz’s efforts on behalf of Lincoln and his commitment to the nascent Republican Party resulted in his appointment as envoy to Spain. A year later, Schurz returned to America to serve as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War.
After the war’s conclusion and Lincoln’s assassination, Schurz toured the South on behalf of President Andrew Johnson. In his report to Johnson, the former abolitionist urged extension of the franchise to freedmen as a condition for the South’s readmission to the Union. Johnson ignored his recommendations.
After a stint as a journalist, Schurz served as a U.S. senator from Missouri from 1869 to 1875. Over the course of his term, dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Grant administration and disappointment with its Reconstruction policies led Schurz to take an active role in the short-lived reformist Liberal Republican Party. By 1876, however, he was back in the traditional Republican fold advocating the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, who he believed would restore integrity to government.
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
Carl Schurz, speech in the Senate, February 29, 1872. In Congressional Globe. Senate, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875. Law Library
As secretary of the interior under Hayes, Schurz had lasting impact on the American environment. For the first time, the Department of the Interior addressed conservation issues. During Schurz’s tenure, the U.S. Geological Survey was officially established as a bureau within the department. Schurz himself urged the creation of forest reserves and a federal forest service. Although these recommendations were not enacted until 1891 and 1905, respectively, Schurz’s administration is considered a turning point in the history of government participation in the American conservation movement.
After leaving government in 1881, Schurz returned to journalism. As an editor for national publications including The Nation and Harper’s Weekly, he continued to influence U.S. opinion and policy and was recognized as perhaps the leading spokesman for German Americans. Never one to place party loyalty before principle, he urged reformist Republicans to vote for Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884.
Continuing his early advocacy of clean government, Schurz headed the National Civil Service Reform League from 1892 to 1901. Though his anti-imperialism placed him strongly at odds with President Theodore Roosevelt, he lived to see the latter create the Forest Service in 1905 and vigorously expand the conservation policies he himself had advocated. Carl Schurz died the following year at age seventy-seven.