"The sun has risen bright and clear," a German immigrant named Carl Schurz wrote to his wife, Margarethe, on this date in 1855, "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."
Schurz was writing from Watertown, Wis., where he and his family would prosper. But as far as being "very happy," Carl Schurz was not the kind of person who could be content while other people were in bondage. Although he had escaped the civic unrest then roiling Europe, he found himself called to enter politics here. His career would take him to Washington and Spain, to Civil War battlefields, and later to the U.S. Senate and a Cabinet position in Washington -- and, ultimately, into the New York publishing business.
Astute readers of my morning essays may recall this man: I've written about him before. But at this point in the political season, we're busy at RCP, so I'll ask your indulgence while I reprise Carl Schurz's story, which is particularly fitting this week: Five years to the day after writing that letter to his wife, the man penned another missive to Margarethe, this one from the campaign trail.
As a college student in Bonn, Carl Schurz joined the fighting in a democratic revolution sweeping Europe in 1848. Crushed in the streets by Prussian troops, and branded enemies of the state who would be imprisoned or executed, these "Forty-Eighters," as they came to be known, dispersed as best they could. Schurz escaped to Switzerland, then worked at a newspaper in Paris and taught school in England before leaving for the nation that beckoned from across the sea. As he told his brother-in-law, if he could not "be the citizen of a free Germany," he would "be a citizen of free America."
He landed in New York in 1852 before making his way to Philadelphia. From there he headed west, to Chicago and then Milwaukee in the autumn of 1855. Finally, he alighted in Watertown, a new burg being settled by Germans, before sending for his family.
Both he and Margarethe would make their marks in the new country. The Schurzes became prosperous farmers, while she started the first kindergarten in the United States. But her husband's passion was politics -- specifically the politics of liberation -- and he immersed himself in the formation of a new entity that would alter the governmental equation in this country. That organization was the Republican Party.
Carl Schurz campaigned in 1856 for John C. Fremont, the GOP's first presidential candidate. Undaunted by Fremont's defeat, he was heavily involved four years later. After initially supporting William H. Seward as the party standard-bearer, Schurz enthusiastically embraced the man chosen as the new anti-slavery party's nominee.
"I shall carry into this struggle all the zeal and ardor and enthusiasm of which my nature is capable," Schurz wrote to Abraham Lincoln. "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 lived up to that promise. On this date in 1860, with the election only a week away, he wrote his wife a letter that reminds contemporary Americans worried by the state of our self-governance that politics has never been, as the saying goes, a game of beanbag.
It seems that some 200 members of a Republican group called the Wide-Awakes gathered to hear Schurz speak at a pro-Lincoln rally. The Wide-Awakes, who existed throughout the Midwest, were all-male groups that weren't above the occasional brawl. The tipoff that this rally might not end amicably is that the boys had assembled a few nights beforehand at a place called Rieber's Saloon.
There they were set upon by an equivalent group of Democratic Party rowdies headed by a man named Emil Rothe. Many knuckles were bloodied in this encounter -- noses, too. But punches aren't bullets, and when Rothe was captured by the Wide-Awakes, they decided to let him go, thereby enhancing the Republicans' reputation for charity.
"By this incident," Schurz wrote to his wife, "the Wide-Awakes have gained great respect, and since then nothing more has been heard about any kind of disturbance. But it is said that even the Democrats -- that is, the decent ones -- were so angered by the conduct of their fellows that many of them have come over to the Republican Party."
Schurz never stopped caring about his political party or its cause. After Lincoln's election, he was sent by the new president to Spain as an ambassador. In March 1862, Schurz made a personal appeal to Lincoln to come home and fight in the Union Army. He didn't feel he could avoid combat, he told his commander-in-chief, while his adopted nation was "fighting for its life."
Pleasantly surprised by this request, and in need of generals who would engage the enemy, Lincoln appointed the 33-year-old immigrant a brigadier general. In the ranks of the officer corps, Schurz would find several other Forty-Eighters. He himself would command troops at Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.
After Lincoln's assassination, Schurz was sent as an emissary to the South by President Andrew Johnson. Afterward, he returned to the Midwest, this time to St. Louis, where he became a newspaper editor and then a U.S. senator from Missouri. Disillusioned by the Reconstruction policies of President Grant, Schurz briefly helped form the Liberal Republican Party, but re-entered the fold after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, who named him secretary of the interior.
Four years earlier, Schurz had given his adopted country an evocative phrase, one that is occasionally shortened in a way that alters, and trivializes, its meaning. "My country, right or wrong," he said in a Feb. 29, 1872, Senate floor speech. But it's the second part of his quote that carries the moral weight and defines America at its best: "If right, to be kept right," he added. "And if wrong, to be set right."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.