arl Schurz was born in Liblar, Germany, to Marianne Jüssen and Christian
Schurz, a small businessman and teacher. He was educated at Marcellen Gymnasium
in Cologne and at the University of Bonn, where he was powerfully affected by
the nationalist and democratic views of Professor Gottfried Kinkel. During the
failed Revolution of 1848, the youth collaborated with his mentor to agitate for
radical democratic reforms. He took part in an unsuccessful plot to capture the
Siegburg arsenal, then fled to the Palatinate and joined the revolutionary
militia. Serving as a lieutenant, he fought in battles at Übstadt and Bruchsal.
At Rastatt, he narrowly escaped capture, and thus possible execution for
treason, but managed to reach France. Professor Kinkel was not so lucky: he was
captured and sentenced to life imprisonment at Spandau. In a daring feat, Schurz
clandestinely returned to Germany and freed Kinkel from jail.
Schurz worked as a journalist and teacher in England and France for two years
before migrating to the United States in 1852. That same year he married
Margarethe Meyer, a rich heiress from Hamburg. The couple first lived in
Philadelphia, then moved to Watertown, Wisconsin, which had a substantial
enclave of German immigrants. Schurz worked as a journalist and real estate
agent, but primarily engaged in Republican politics. An anti-slavery advocate
and rousing bilingual speaker, he was an effective recruiter for the Republican
party among German-Americans. In 1857 the party nominated him for lieutenant
governor even before he had become a citizen. While the Republicans did well,
Schurz lost due to nativist prejudice against immigrants. In 1859 he failed in a
bid to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee, but continued speaking for
In 1861 newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln appointed Schurz minister to
Spain as a reward for his tireless electioneering during the previous campaign.
Before departing for Europe, he recruited several cavalry regiments of
German-Americans. Once in Madrid, he became convinced that a policy of
emancipation was necessary to prevent European intervention in the American
Civil War, and so advised the president. In April 1862 Schurz resigned the
ministership and returned to serve in the Union army as brigadier general. He
was promoted to major general after the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
His performance was criticized, however, at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and
Wauhatchie, for which a court of inquiry exonerated him. He was reassigned to
command of a training camp outside Nashville and, finally, as chief of staff to
General Henry Slocum in North Carolina.
After the war, Schurz toured the South on a fact-finding tour in the summer of
1865. His blistering report to Congress condemned President Johnson's lenient
Reconstruction policies for allowing anti-black and anti-Unionist atrocities.
Returning to journalism, Schurz took positions with the New York Tribune (as
Washington correspondent), the Detroit Post, and the German-language St. Louis
Westliche Post (as editor and part-owner). He increasingly became identified as
the leading national spokesman for German-Americans. In 1868 he delivered the
keynote address at the Republican National Convention, and in 1869 was elected
to the U. S. Senate by the Missouri legislature.
Schurz soon broke with the Grant administration over its policies on civil
service reform, patronage for Missouri, the attempted annexation of the
Dominican Republic, and Reconstruction. One of the key instigators of the
Liberal Republican movement, he presided at its 1872 national convention in
Cincinnati. The new party's platform endorsed civil service reform and a
conciliatory southern policy, while denouncing Grant administration corruption
and expansionist foreign policy. They nominated eccentric newspaper editor
Horace Greeley for president and Missouri's other senator, Gratz Brown, for vice
president, as did the Democratic party. Schurz thought the Greeley nomination
was a political mistake, but he supported the ticket. The senator was refused a
second term in 1875 by the Democratically-controlled Missouri legislature.
In 1876 Schurz aligned himself with the Republican party and campaigned for
Rutherford Hayes. Once elected, the new president named him as Secretary of the
Interior. Schurz replaced patronage within the Interior Department with merit
hiring and promotion procedures (civil service reform), began the federal policy
of environmental conservation, and uprooted corruption in the Indian Bureau. He
came under fire for continuing the removal of Indians from their tribal lands to
reservations, especially the forced resettlement of the Poncas, and eventually
moderated that policy.
In 1881 he became co-editor of the New York Evening Post, sharing duties with E.
L. Godkin and Horace White. He promoted civil service reform and other causes
and, as anti-Semitism gained momentum in Europe, called for religious and ethnic
tolerance (his wife was half-Jewish). He was forced to resign in 1883 when he
disagreed publicly with Godkin's criticism of striking telegraphers. The next
year Schurz joined the "Mugwump" revolt of liberals from the
Republican party to protest the presidential nomination of James Blaine, a
politico with a reputation for corruption and opposition to reform. Schurz
remained thereafter a political independent, endorsing candidates of either
party who supported his reform agenda.
In 1892 Schurz assumed the presidency of the National Civil Service Reform
League and the editorship of Harper's Weekly upon the death of George William
Curtis who had previously filled both positions. Schurz was also a leading
anti-imperialist, opposing the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii
and Puerto Rico. He forged a friendship with Booker T. Washington and once again
publicly spoke out for the civil rights of black Americans. Schurz was the
author of a two-volume biography of Henry Clay (1887) and a three-volume
autobiography called Reminiscences-the first volume, which explored his youth in
Europe, was written in German, and the third volume was published posthumously.