The Writings of Carl Schurz/Opposition to Roosevelt for the Governorship of New York


New York, Oct. 21, 1898.

Sir: From various parts of the State I have received letters asking me what I think of Colonel Roosevelt's candidacy. There being more of such inquiries than I can answer separately, you will oblige me by giving me space for a public statement of my views.

Colonel Roosevelt and myself have long been personal friends, and I have always respected his many excellent qualities very highly. When he was first spoken of as a candidate for the governorship, I greatly wished and hoped to be able to support him; and it is no mere empty figure of speech when I say that with painful reluctance I have come to an adverse conclusion. Although somewhat disappointed by some things he did immediately before his nomination, I continued to hope that he would, in opening his campaign, take a position entirely consistent with the character of a champion of good government, and that, if he touched National questions at all, he would at least refrain from making his extreme imperialism one of the issues of the election.

I was much startled when I read that in response to the declaration of the Republican State platform, “We commend the administration of Governor Black; it has been wise, statesmanlike, careful and economical,” Colonel Roosevelt, in accepting the nomination for the governorship, went so far in his concession to the Republican party machine as to say: “The record made by the Republican administration in the State of New York is a guarantee that upon all questions involving the property rights and interests and liberty of all citizens the Republican party can be safely trusted.” Considering what the record of that administration notoriously is, Mr. Roosevelt's language betrayed a kind of partisan spirit which has been fatal to many good intentions such as Colonel Roosevelt now—no doubt, honestly—avows in general terms.

But, while in this respect we might still be inclined to hope for the best, we can hardly do the same with regard to certain utterances put forth in his speech at the Carnegie Hall meeting, in which he “sounded the keynote of the campaign.” There he told us that the question is not merely whether he or his competitor will make the better governor of New York, but that by electing him we are to declare to the whole world that the State of New York stands behind the National Administration in its annexation policy, how far that policy may ever go. And even more than that. He virtually asks us to endorse, by electing him, his kind of militant imperialism, which has no bounds. According to him, we need a big navy and “a far larger regular army than we now have,” not for the purpose of keeping order at home, but for action abroad. The American people who, we have always supposed, have so far enjoyed the reputation of being the most enterprising, active, stirring and energetic people in the world, are, according to him, in danger of “rusting out” and of drifting into stagnation, like that of China. He is afraid lest the “soft, easy life” which, it seems, the American people have been and are now leading, may “impair the fiber of brain and heart and muscle.” He thinks that to avoid so sad a fate we must have more occupation—that is, occupation abroad—and that we must constantly “live in the harness and strive mightily,” even at the risk of “wearing out”; and, of course, for this “living in harness and striving mightily” big armies and navies—how big nobody can tell—will be very much needed.

I repeat, such a program goes beyond the mere present annexation of the Philippines. But, extravagant as it may seem, every one acquainted with Mr. Roosevelt knows that this is the thing in which he really believes and which is nearest to his heart.

It may be said that as governor of New York he would not have the power to carry such ideas into effect. This is true enough. But we have to consider that, since those things have been by him injected into this campaign in so prominent—I might say so ostentatious—a way, we cannot elect him without seemingly countenancing this sort of imperialism—at any rate, we cannot elect him without approving and encouraging the annexation policy so far as it may go at present—for that is what he has emphatically told us his election is to mean. We cannot elect him without making him in a large sense the spokesman of the State of New York as to these things—and we may count upon it that he would not be silent.

Moreover, it is by no means improper to point out the fact that an election to the governorship of New York, as it repeatedly has been, may again become, in Colonel Roosevelt's case, the stepping-stone to the nomination for the Presidency. Indeed, it is in everybody's mouth that if Colonel Roosevelt succeeds, it will be so. I am, therefore, not dealing with a vague and remote contingency, but with a question of immediate interest which will call for actual decision in less than twenty months, when I say that we have to consider the probable effect of Colonel Roosevelt's election to the governorship from this point of view.

Colonel Roosevelt deserves much honor for his gallant conduct in the Santiago campaign. He is, no doubt, one of the bravest of soldiers, and if I had the power, I would, in case of another war, give him any number of Rough Riders to command, with perfect confidence that he would acquit himself gloriously. But I would not put him in a position, nor open to him the way to a position, in which he would exercise any influence upon the foreign policy of the Republic; for I candidly believe that, owing to his exceptionally bellicose temperament and to the sincerity of his fantastic notions as to the bodily exercise the American people need to keep them from Chinese degeneracy, and as to the necessity always to “live in the harness and strive mightily,” he is very dangerously deficient in that patient prudence which is necessary for the peaceable conduct of international relations. I cannot, therefore, consistently with my conception of duty, support Colonel Roosevelt when a vote for him is to mean an approval and encouragement of the manifest-destiny swindle. I call it so because it is a flagrant breach of faith in turning a solemnly proclaimed war of humanity into a vulgar land-grabbing operation, glossed over by high-sounding cant about destiny and duty and what not. I cannot support him when his election is generally admitted to be the stepping-stone to a place in which his hot impulses and his extreme notions of militant imperialism might do the country greater and more irreparable harm than anything I can think of.

I am asked whether the defeat of Colonel Roosevelt might not benefit the silver movement and Tammany. I candidly do not think that it will benefit the silver movement. It may even serve to stir up the Republicans during the short session of Congress to apply themselves more vigorously to a long neglected duty regarding the needed currency legislation. But as a veteran in the fight against unsound currency and against Tammany, whose sincerity and zeal nobody has a right to question, I do not hesitate to express the solemn conviction that there are worse things even than free silver and Tammany, and that one of them is the imperialism which in its effects upon the character and the durability of the Republic I consider as pernicious as slavery itself was, and which we are now asked to countenance and encourage.

I shall vote for the Independent State ticket, which has Mr. Theodore Bacon at the top and Colonel Waring at the bottom. The candidates are men of high character, of correct principles on every point and of patriotic spirit. Although knowing that they have no chance of election, they courageously assume the leadership of those citizens who have come to the conclusion that the game of the bosses to confine the voters to a choice between two evils must be stopped. At one time it was thought possible to use one boss as a club for annihilating the other. That has turned out a vain hope, for they have too good an understanding among themselves as to the interests they have in common. Nor can I agree with those of our friends who think that Colonel Roosevelt, if made governor, will destroy Boss Platt, who has been pronounced by Dr. Parkhurst to be five times as bad as Boss Croker. The case of Governor Black has shown that a rebellious governor cannot destroy a boss so long as the boss controls the legislature and the party organization. And so far the element of popularity in Colonel Roosevelt's candidacy has only served to encourage Mr. Platt in preventing the renomination of every Republican who in the legislature had given the least sign of an independent spirit, and to substitute for them men who can be counted upon to be his abject tools, so that, if he succeeds, the legislature will be more subservient to him than ever. It does not look as if Boss Platt could thus be shorn of his power. He certainly will never again be afraid of those of our friends who last year execrated him as the archenemy of good government, and who now, because he has been clever enough to flatter a popular demand, salute him as “the presiding genius of the Republican party,” while he strengthens himself by riveting his chains upon the legislature and the party organization. This sort of intermittent independence is to the boss only amusing.

But bossism can be really crippled if a strong body of men absolutely refuse to be confined to a choice between evils. The present independent force may be small, but those are mistaken who think that it is without immediate practical usefulness. It will accomplish an important result at this election if it gets votes enough to entitle it, for future occasions, to a place on the official ballot. And of these votes mine will be one.

  1. An open letter to the Editor of the Evening Post.