The Writings of Carl Schurz/Dr. Abram Jacobi


About a year ago I passed through an ordeal very like that which my friend, Dr. Jacobi, is enjoying now. I know, therefore, from personal experience what it implies. To find one's self congratulated upon having arrived at an age, which, according to correct notions, marks the terminus of human vitality; to have it complimentarily announced that one is now classed among the ancients, whose right to claim a place on the stage of the present active generation may be considered open to question; to feel one's self still pretty young and capable of activity as well as enjoyment,—as I am sure Dr. Jacobi and I do,—and then to remember that you younger men may smile at us for indulging in such an amiable illusion, while you comfort us with the patronizing remark that we are remarkably well preserved all this is an entertainment of not altogether unmixed hilarity. And then, also, to be pelted with merciless exposure of all one's virtues and accomplishments and endeavors and achievements—compliments which modesty shrinks from accepting and which politeness to kind friends forbids to decline—well, one appreciates it very highly and with sincere gratitude, to be sure, but it is an experience, to say the least, of complex sensations.

I therefore offer to my friend Jacobi the sincere and profound sympathy of one who knows. I well understand that troubled gaze of his which he fixes abstractedly upon the table-cloth before him or upon the chandeliers above him, while the floods of eulogy are beating relentlessly upon his devoted head. I understand the peculiar dread with which, no doubt, he has seen me get upon my feet—me, a person that has been acquainted with him for fully fifty years—and who, as he is well aware, knows more about him than any one else here present. Still, in one respect he need have no fear. I shall not reveal about him any obnoxious secrets. Do not understand me as meaning that I could if I would. No, I would not if I could, being mindful of the proprieties of the occasion. I am going to tell the simple truth; and that he will have to bear as a brave man with becoming fortitude.

Yes, of Dr. Jacobi's friends assembled here, I am, no doubt, the oldest, probably the oldest in years, and certainly the oldest in friendship—for that friendship can look back upon just a half century of uninterrupted, and, I may add, unclouded duration. It was in the year 1850, in the German University town of Bonn-on-the-Rhine, that we first met. He was then still a student of medicine in regular standing. I was already an exile, but had secretly come back to Germany, engaged in a somewhat adventurous enterprise connected with the revolutionary movements of that period—an enterprise which made it necessary to conceal my whereabouts from those in power, with whom my relations were at the time, to speak within bounds, somewhat strained. I had the best reasons for desiring to avoid persons whose ill-will or indiscretion might have brought me into touch with the constituted authorities. It was then that a “mutual friend” introduced Jacobi and me to each other during a dark night in an out-of-the-way little garden house, having described him to me as a young man who could be absolutely depended upon in every respect and under all circumstances. And as the man who can be depended upon in every respect and under all circumstances, I have known and loved him ever since; and if we could live together another half century, I should be ready to vouch for him in that sense every day of the year and every hour of the day.

At the period of which I have been speaking our intercourse was very short. We travelled together a day or so—he going to Schleswig-Holstein where, as a budding physician, he expected to do service in the capacity of a volunteer surgeon in the war then going on, and I to the field of my operations. Several years later we met again in the city of New York. He had in the meantime suffered in our native country long imprisonment for his active and self-sacrificing desire to make the people free and happy; and then he sought and found a new home in this great Republic in which, if the people do not create or maintain conditions to make them free and happy, it is their own fault.

I have been asked to speak of Dr. Jacobi as a citizen, and I may say that the manner in which he got into jail in the old country—for I have to admit the fact that he did serve two years in state prisons, whatever you may at the first blush think of it—indicated at that early day very clearly what kind of a citizen he would make in this Republic. He was one of the young men of that period who had conceived certain ideals of right, justice, honor, liberty, popular government—but which they cherished and believed in with the fullest sincerity, and for which they were ready to work and to suffer, and, if necessary, to die. Theirs was a devotion, too, wholly free from self-seeking ambition—a devotion which found all its aims and aspirations and rewards within itself.

Of that class of young men he was one, struggling with poverty and no end of other discouragements in his laborious effort to become a good physician. He knew well that political activity could not possibly help him in reaching that end, but might rather become a serious obstacle in his path. Neither had he any craving to see his name in the newspapers, or to strike an attitude before the public. But moved by a simple sense of duty to his fellow-men, he associated himself, and unostentatiously coöperated with others in advocating and propagating the principles which formed his political creed. His convictions might have been honestly modified or changed by super-study, or larger experience, but they would not yield an inch to the reductions of fortunes, or to the frowns or favors of power. And as nothing could prevail upon him to renounce or even equivocate about the faith he honestly held, he went to jail for it, suffering his martyrdom with that inflexible and, at the same time, modest fortitude which is the touchstone of true manhood. Thus to have served a term in prison was with him a mark of fidelity to his conception of his duty as a citizen.

And that has been the type of his citizenship ever since. To be sure, the danger of being clapped into jail for the assertion or propagation of one's opinions is not very great in this Republic—at least, not yet. But we often hear it said—and, I fear, not without reason—that in our democracy as well as in others, public opinion—a term which is not seldom used to dignify a widespread prejudice, or an unreasoning craze—exercises a tyrannical sway, and that there are many people whose dread of becoming unpopular, or of incurring the displeasure of the influential elements of society, yield obedience to that power as readily as if it were a monarch with soldiers and jailers at his heels. Indeed, the moral courage of conviction against adverse currents is the most necessary, but, I apprehend, not the most general of civic virtues.

Those who know our friend here as well as I do will agree with me that he possesses that civic virtue in a rare degree, and may emphatically be called a man never afraid, a man of that grim independence which is bent upon thinking right and doing right, no matter what others may think or do. There has hardly been an earnest effort for the enforcement of correct principles of government, or for the vindication of justice and right, or against evil practices or demoralizing tendencies in our public concerns, since Dr. Jacobi became a citizen of this Republic, that he did not vigorously support in his effective, although quiet and unpretentious way, no matter whether other people liked it or not, or what it might cost him. I need not go into detail and tell of his services as a member of the famous Committee of Seventy, or as a co-worker with the Chamber of Commerce in cholera times, and in various other ways which, although equally, if not even more meritorious, have never come to public notice. Moreover, he was not only animated with a warm enthusiasm for high ideals and the accomplishment of important public objects, but also with that healthy righteous wrath which abhors and attacks not only sin in the abstract, but the sinner in the concrete—a wrath far more wholesome to a democracy like ours than that facile and pliable tolerance which holds that sin is bad, to be sure, but that to disturb a sinner of respectable position would be to indulge in ungenteel personalities.

As in the realm of science he has always been the personification of scientific conscience, so in the realm of civic duty he has always been the personification of civic conscience, not one of those optimists who always comfort themselves with the belief that everything, however bad, will come right without a struggle; nor one of those pessimists who, whenever anything goes wrong, give up everything as lost, and whine that further effort is useless—but a sturdy patriot who, whatever discouragements there be, never despairs of the Republic, and remains ever ready to do his best and to sacrifice without counting, and to stand in the breach.

In him we see one of the adopted citizens whose peculiar patriotism is not always quite understood and appreciated by our native friends. It may strike some of you as somewhat audacious when I say that the adopted citizen may in a certain sense be a more jealously patriotic American than the native. And yet it is true. The adopted citizen usually preserves a certain sentimental and reverential attachment to the country of his birth. But just because of this many of them are especially anxious to see the country of their adoption, by its virtues and the high character of its achievements, justify their separation from their native land, and enable them to point with just pride to the choice they have made. They may for this very reason, when they see the character of their adopted country put in jeopardy, or its good name in the family of nations endangered, resent this and stand up for the cause of right and of integrity and of honor in their adopted country, with an intensity of feeling even greater than that which ordinarily animates the native.

Neither is it always a mere necessity or an interest that keeps the adopted citizen here. Full of attractions and of opportunity though this country may be, it may happen that material interest or legitimate ambition suggests a return to the native land; and of fidelity to the adopted country, with which such temptations are sometimes resisted, Dr. Jacobi has furnished a striking example. Any man of science would consider it a high honor to be called to a professor's chair in one of the great universities of Germany. But when, some years ago, Dr. Jacobi received an intimation that such a position in the greatest of them all was open to him, he subdued the pride he might have felt in appearing in the same country, in which he had adorned a political prisoner's cell, now crowned with high distinction, and he promptly resolved that, having cast his lot with this Republic, here he would stay. Surely his title to American citizenship, and to the name of a patriotic American could not be more complete.

I feel now that I ought to stop, out of regard for his feelings; for if I were to say all that I know of him as his old and intimate friend, I might too severely shock his modesty, as he shocked mine on a similar occasion a year ago. But, after all, I find no fault with him for that; for there can hardly be a more wholesome and comfortable institution among men than a firmly established, well regulated, honest and steadfast mutual admiration society. And if by this time you have concluded that my friend Dr. Jacobi and myself have formed such a club of two, and find no end of satisfaction and pleasure in it, I shall not demur. I might even reveal some of the secret details of the comforts of our companionship, and say that frequently, when we had written something for publication or in print, or for delivery in speech, we read it to one another before it came out. You will admit that a friendship which has for many years endured like this can endure anything. To be sure, the ordeal was mitigated by the fact that we not only did not bore one another in that way, but we rather enjoyed it; for we always, reciprocally, found our productions quite excellent, whatever others might think of them. I trust my friend will pardon me for taking unusual liberties with him in such public revelations of private intercourse, for these are liberties which without offense may be taken by an older man with one so much younger.

To conclude, for fifty years I have loved him and been proud of him as a man of science of whom I know how learned, how conscientious, how indefatigable, how helpful and how justly renowned he is; as a citizen of whom I know how patriotic, how courageous, how unselfish and how public spirited he is; and as a friend whose nobility of heart only those can cherish and esteem as it deserves who know him best. And I can hardly describe how profoundly happy I am to be permitted to take part in this tribute which so many of the best men of the country are here assembled to pay to such genuine, sterling and eminent worth.

  1. Response to the toast, “The Citizen,” at a complimentary dinner at Delmonico's, New York City, May 5, 1900, tendered to Dr. Jacobi on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of his birth.