The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Charles Francis Adams, Jr., February 3d, 1902


16 East 64th St., New York City, Feb. 3, 1902.

. . . I have read not only the pages relating to Sumner but the whole of your address[1] with the keenest interest and appreciation. Let me first give you a general impression. The unsophisticated reader having gone through your presentation of the conduct of England during our civil war—a presentation as strong as it is truthful—will be apt, when reading your account of the diplomatic negotiations leading to the Treaty of Washington, to conclude that those negotiations were carried on for the special purpose of helping England out of a hole dug by her own greed and ill-will towards this Republic, and that England was finally let off on terms altogether too easy.

As to Sumner, I find that a certain tone of contempt has crept into what you say of his character and abilities which you have probably not intended. His ideas with regard to the British neutrality-proclamation and, later, with regard to the “hemispheric flag-withdrawal” were at the time shared, the first by pretty much everybody connected with the Government and substantially by the whole North, and the second for some time by the Administration itself. To be sure, you say that yourself. But an impression is left as if he had been the main instigator of those notions, and as if he had been principally responsible for them. He was, indeed, stronger in his expressions than others, and he expressed only what a great many others thought, and what they would have thought had he not spoken.

His breach with Grant, as it stands very distinctly in my recollection, was caused by his refusal to [approve] the San Domingo business, as to which Sumner, as I think, was altogether right. I remember the debates that took place in the Foreign Relations Committee and in the executive sessions of the Senate. In these debates Sumner was at first entirely respectful to Grant. But Grant insisted that Sumner, at the interview in Sumner's house, had promised to support the San Domingo treaty and then “broken his word.” This was a gross misapprehension on the part of Grant, who had simply so misconstrued Sumner's polite expression of generally friendly feeling. I know this, because Sumner told me every word of the conversation the very next day, and he certainly did not lie. Then came no end of title-tattle and tale-bearing by persons who sought to ingratiate themselves with Grant, whose sharp sayings about Sumner's “treachery” and what not were also intentionally circulated. Sumner's personal attack on Grant was of a much later date.

Nothing could be more unjust than to hold him responsible for that quarrel, the origin of which consisted in nothing but Sumner's perfectly legitimate and for a considerable time certainly respectful opposition to Grant's San Domingo scheme. I remember distinctly that in the Foreign Relations Committee Sumner did not even lead that opposition. During several sessions of that Committee when those matters were under discussion, he maintained as Chairman presiding over the debate an entirely neutral attitude, giving his own opinion only after every other member had had abundant time for consideration and opportunity for expressing himself. In fact, Sumner was so reticent that I became somewhat impatient at his long silence.

His rupture with Fish became final only after the publication of Fish's assault upon him in the dispatch which you have mentioned. And I think Sumner was perfectly right in feeling outraged at this brutal attack upon him in a piece of diplomatic correspondence, and at the manner in which it was spread before the world. I do not know whether such treatment of a Senator by a Secretary of State has any precedent in our history. I doubt it. That this occurrence made further personal intercourse between the Secretary and the Senator impossible, is quite natural. Without it they might probably have gone on conferring, however widely disagreeing. Certainly, the rupture cannot with justice be altogether charged to Sumner's account. On the contrary, the provocation coming from the other side might have ruffled a temper less sensitive than his.

About the Treaty of Washington I had many confidential exchanges of opinion with him. He deplored that it had fallen short of what he called “the ideal solution”—a solution which had been seriously contemplated by the Administration likewise. But when the treaty had be come an accomplished fact, only requiring confirmation by the Senate, he supported it for the good things it contained—not because he was flattered and cajoled by the British members of the High Commission, nor because he felt himself “shorn of his power”—which, in fact, he was not nearly as much as you seem to suppose. I think you are mistaken if you believe that Sumner could not have got votes enough in the Senate to defeat the treaty if he had really wished to do so. His power in that body was still very great on such questions, in spite of his removal from his chairmanship; and by a presentation of the case just such as you have given in the first part of your address he might have carried more than one-third of the votes in the Senate, as well as public sentiment throughout the country, which at that period was still very far from friendly to England owing to her well-remembered conduct during our civil war.

But it was Sumner who actually led the debate in favor of the treaty in the executive sessions of the Senate; and he did this upon the highest order of motives, as I know from my frequent conversations with him at the time. I think I am well warranted in affirming that he was the only man there who had much of real weight to say.

I have already expressed to you my dissent from your opinion that the Administration is always entitled to have a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and especially its Chairman, in harmony with its views and purposes. The San Domingo treaty made by an aide-de-camp of Grant, a treaty to which even the Secretary of State was at heart opposed, is a case in point. Should the Chairman of the Committee have been removed because he was opposed to that treaty? Should the present Chairman be removed if he were opposed to any of the reciprocity treaties now hanging in the Senate? Should that Chairman understand that he would rightfully forfeit his place if he dared to oppose any treaty sent into the Senate by the Administration? Would not that be a state of things utterly obnoxious to our Constitutional scheme of government? What would thus become of the Senate as an independent factor in the treaty-making function?

It was at the time asserted that Sumner had to be removed because he had ceased to be on speaking terms with the Secretary of State. If that in itself were a sufficient cause for such a removal, any Secretary of State might bring about the removal of any Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee simply by offending him so as to make further personal intercourse impossible. As a general rule this certainly cannot hold.

As you ask me especially to give you my opinion of your treatment of Sumner, I must repeat what I said at the beginning: that treatment savors of a sort of contempt which you probably, I may say certainly, did not intend to put into it. The reader will be apt to receive the impression that in your view Sumner was a rhetorician full of inordinate egotism and vanity, inclined to make a fool of himself, and absolutely intolerant of dissent from his extravagant notions. This surely is not the picture you meant to draw. But with such quotations as that of what Richard H. Dana once said, in an irritated state of mind, and of many things you say yourself, it does convey something like that impression; and this impression is but little modified by what you drop in by way of disclaimers. Sumner has been much misjudged by those who did not intimately know him and who formed their opinions of him mainly from hearsay. I did know him intimately. I knew his weak as well as his strong points. I did not win his friendship by “deference.” We disagreed on things which he had very much at heart, for instance his civil rights bill. But this did not at all disturb our warm and confidential relations. I was in daily intercourse with him during the critical period you describe. I witnessed in him the working of motives deserving the highest respect, and I must confess, it touches me somewhat painfully when I find them called in question.

I also was well acquainted with the character and the doings of the White-House-crew of that time, which pursued Sumner and which likewise drove out of the Cabinet its best members—Hoar, Cox and Jewell—and came very near making Fish himself resign from sheer disgust.

Pardon the frankness of my criticisms. I have spoken without concealment because I thought that was what you desired.

P. S. I will not detain this letter any longer, and send it off without having copied it. Will you do me the favor of having a copy made by your typewriter, and of sending it to me? You will oblige me. I expect to use it in writing my memoirs.

  1. The Treaty of Washington, delivered before the N. Y. Hist. Society, Nov. 19, 1901; and published in Lee at Appomattox and Other Papers.