The Writings of Carl Schurz/The Aims of the Liberal-Republican Movement


Nobody can survey this vast and enthusiastic assembly, gathered from all parts of the Republic, without an emotion of astonishment and hope—astonishment considering the spontaneity of the impulse which has brought it together, and hope considering the great purpose for which it has met. The Republic may well congratulate itself upon the fact that such a meeting was possible. Look at the circumstances from which it has sprung. We saw the American people just issued from a great and successful struggle, and in the full pride of their National strength, threatened with new evils and dangers of an insidious nature, and the masses of the population apparently not aware of them. We saw jobbery and corruption stimulated to unusual audacity by the opportunities of a protracted civil war, invading the public service of the Government, as well as almost all movements of the social body, and we saw a public opinion most deplorably lenient in its judgment of public and private dishonesty. We saw the Government indulging in wanton disregard of the laws of the land, and resorting to daring assumptions of unconstitutional power, and we saw the people, apparently at least acquiescing with reckless levity in the transgressions, threatening the very life of our free institutions. We saw those in authority with tyrannical insolence thrust the hand of power through the vast machinery of the public service into local and private affairs, and we saw the innumerable mass of their adherents accept those encroachments upon their independence without protest or resentment. We saw men in the highest places of the Republic employ their power and opportunities for selfish advantage, thus stimulating the demoralization of our political life, and by their conspicuous example, and the loud chorus of partisan sycophancy, drown the voice of honest criticism. We saw part of our common country, which had been convulsed by a disastrous rebellion, most grievously suffering from the consequences of the civil war; and we saw the haughty spirit of power refusing to lift up those who had gone astray and were now suffering, by a policy of generous conciliation and the statesmanship of common-sense. We observed this, and at the same time a reckless and greedy party spirit, in the name of a great organization, crowned with the laurels of glorious achievements, striving to palliate or justify these wrongs and abuses, to stifle the moral sense of the people, and to drive them by a tyrannical party discipline not only to submit to this for the present, but to perpetuate it, that the political power of the country might be preserved in the hands of those who possessed it. He who calmly and impartially surveyed this spectacle could not fail to be deeply alarmed, not only at the wrongs that had been and were being perpetrated, but at the subjugation of the popular spirit which did not rise up against them.

The question might well have been asked, have the American people become so utterly indifferent to their true interests, to their National harmony, to the purity of their political life, to the integrity of their free institutions, to the very honor of the American name, that they should permit themselves to be driven like a flock of sheep by those who assume to lord it over them? That question has now found an answer. The virtue, the spirit of independence, the love of liberty, the republican pride of the American people are not dead yet and do not mean to die, and that answer is given in thunder-tones by the convention of American freemen here assembled. Indeed, those who three months ago first raised their voices, did so with an abiding faith that their appeals could not remain without response, but the volume of that response has now far exceeded their anticipations. The crust of narrow prejudices, of selfish partisanship, which but yesterday seemed to stop every free pulsation of the popular heart, is suddenly burst asunder. The patriotic citizen rises above the partisan. We begin to breathe again as freemen. We dare again call things by their right names. We have once more the courage to break through the deceptions with which the popular mind has been befogged; we feel once more that our convictions of right and wrong are our own, and that our votes belong to the country, and thus we defiantly set our sense of duty against the arrogance of power, like the bugle blast of doomsday. The summons is resounding North and South and East and West. The conscience of the people, which seemed dead, has arisen. From every point of the compass the hosts are flocking together, and here we are, let me hope, ay, I do hope, with fearless determination, to do our whole duty, as if nothing could withstand a movement so irresistibly inspiring. Indeed, the breath of victory is in the very air which surrounds us, and that victory will not escape from our grasp if we are true to our mission, but you must bear with me if in this hour of enthusiasm, when our hearts are big with proud presentiments, I address to you a word of soberness.

We have a grand opportunity before us, grand and full of promise. We can crush corruption in our public concerns; we can give the Republic a pure and honest Government; we can revive the authority of the laws; we can restore to full value the Constitutional safeguard of our liberties; we can infuse a higher moral spirit into our political life; we can reanimate in the hearts of the whole people in every section of the land a fraternal and proud National feeling. We can do all this, but we can do it only by throwing behind us the selfish spirit of political trade. We obey the purest and loftiest inspirations of the popular uprising which sent us here. A great opportunity; it is as great as the noblest ambition might desire, but equally great—nay, to my mind, fearful—is the responsibility it brings with it, an opportunity like this momentous period in the history of a nation. An uprising of the people such as we behold will not occur every day, nor every year, for it must spring from the spontaneous impulse of the popular mind. Disappoint the high expectations brought forth by that spontaneous impulse, and you have not only lost a great opportunity, but you have struck a blow at the confidence which the people have in themselves, and for a long time popular reform movements will not rise again under the weight of the discredit which you will have brought upon them. Is it possible that such should be the result of our doings? It is possible, if we do not rise to the full height of our duty. It is possible, if, instead of following the grand impulse of the popular heart, we attempt to control and use this movement by the old tricks of the political trader, or fritter away our zeal in small bickerings and mean, selfish aspirations. We have come together to give shape, point and practical productive force to this great upheaval of the popular conscience. It is our business to lay down certain principles and propositions of policy, and we have to present to the suffrage of the people, men for the highest offices of the Republic, who, if elected, are to carry those principles and propositions into a living reality.

As to our platform, we shall be wise enough to keep in mind those things which a republic stands most in need of. The very fact of our having come together is proof of our substantial agreement. Let us only, in what we promise to the people, be honest and straightforward and not attempt to cheat those whom we ask to follow our lead, by deceitful representations. As to the men whom we shall present for the high offices of the Government, let us, I entreat you, not lose sight of the fact that great reforms, the overthrow of inveterate abuses, the establishment of a better order of things are not accomplished by mere promises and declarations, but require the wise and energetic action of statesmen if this is to be truly a reform movement, and if it be not merely on paper. But it must be embodied in the men we trust with the power to infuse the spirit of reform into practical action. If you want to know how reforms are not executed, look at those now in power. You will hardly excel them in the profusion of high-sounding professions and you will never excel them in the art of how not to do it.

Reform must become a farce in the hands of those who either do not understand it or do not care for it. If you mean reform, intrust the work to none but those who understand it and honestly do care, and care more for it than for their own personal ends. Pardon me if I express myself on this point with freedom and frankness. I have not, I assure you, come here for the purpose of urging the claims or advancing the interest of any one man against all others. I have come here with sincere and ardent devotion to a cause, and to use my best endeavors to have that cause put under the care of men who are devoted to it with equal sincerity and possess those qualities of mind and heart which will make it safe in their keeping. I earnestly deprecate the cry we have heard so frequently, “Anybody to beat Grant.” There is something more wanted than to beat Grant. Not anybody who might, by cheap popularity, or by astute bargains and combinations, or by all the tricks of political wirepulling, manage to scrape together votes enough to be elected President. We do not merely want another, but we want a better President than we now have. We do not want a mere change of persons in the Administration of the Government; we want the overthrow of a pernicious system; we want the eradication of flagrant abuses; we want the infusion of a loftier moral spirit into our political organization; we want a Government which the best people of this country will be proud of. Not anybody can accomplish that, and, therefore, away with the cry, “Anybody to beat Grant”; a cry too paltry, too unworthy of the great enterprise in which we are engaged. I do not struggle for the mere punishment of an opponent, nor for a temporary lease of power. There is to me a thing no less, nay, more important even than our success in this campaign, and that is that the American people shall not be disappointed in the fruits which our victory is to bear. If we should fail to select men who will carry out the beneficent reforms we contemplate, then, let me say it boldly, it would be better had this movement never been undertaken; for continuance of those in power who possess it now would mean only a reformatory movement deferred and an opportunity lost. Still, while our failure now would mean a great reform movement sunk to the level of a farce, a great opportunity lost and the hope of a people turned into discouragement and disgust, let us discard at least the fatal error into which many seem to have fallen, that no statesmanship is required to conduct the affairs of a great government.

I candidly believe the people are waking up to the truth, for, unless I greatly mistake the spirit of this day, what the people now most earnestly demand is, not that mere good intentions, but that a superior intelligence, coupled with superior virtue, should guide our affairs; not that merely an honest and a popular man, but that a statesman be put at the head of our Government. In selecting candidates for office, politicians are accustomed to discuss the question of availability. What does availability mean in our case? Let us look for the best men we have, and from the very best let us select the strongest. The people earnestly desire a thorough reform of our Government. They want not only a change, but a change for the better. They want also, therefore, to be assured that it will be for the better, and that the best candidate is likely to be the most available. If we present men to the suffrages of the people whose character and names appeal to the loftiest instincts and aspirations of the patriot-citizen, we shall have on our side that which ought to be and now I trust will be the ruling arbiter of political contests, the conscience of the Nation. If that be done, success will be certain. Then we can appeal to the minds and hearts, to the loftiest ambition of the people, with these arguments and entreaties which spring only from a clear conviction of right. Then we shall not appeal in vain for their support to those of our fellow-citizens who hitherto were separated from us by party divisions, who desire honestly to work for the best interests of the country in this crisis, and whom we shall welcome with fraternal greeting in this struggle for a great cause, whether they call themselves Democrats or Republicans. Then we shall successfully overcome those prejudices which now confront us, and the insidious accusation, that this great Convention is a mere gathering of disappointed and greedy politicians, will fall harmless at our feet, for we shall have demonstrated by our action that we were guided by the purest and most patriotic of motives. And this can be done.

Let us despise as unworthy of our cause the tricky manipulations by which, to the detriment of the Republic, political bodies have so frequently been controlled. Let us, in the face of the great things to be accomplished, rise above all petty considerations. Personal friendship and State pride are noble sentiments; but what is personal friendship, what is State pride, compared with the great duty we owe to our common country, and the awful responsibility resting upon our action as sensible men? We know that not every one of us can be gratified by the choice of his favorite; many of us will have to be disappointed; but in this solemn hour our hearts should know but one favorite, and that is the American Republic.

Pardon me for these words of warning and entreaty. I trust nobody will consider them misplaced. I fervently hope the result of our deliberations will show that they were not spoken in vain. I know that they have sprung from the most anxious desire to do what is best for our country, and thus I appeal to you with all the fervor of anxious earnestness. We stand on the threshold of a great victory, and victory will surely be ours if we truly deserve it.

  1. Speech on taking the chair as permanent president of the Liberal-Republican Convention, Cincinnati, May 2, 1872.