The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Charlotte Voss, October 20th, 1852


Philadelphia, October 20, 1852.[2]

Doubtless you expected that I should be pleased with the United States. If Margarethe [Mrs. Schurz] occasionally has her little jests with me for thinking every shanty charming and heavenly, it is only because I am interested in every little thing that is characteristic. You know how she imagined this wild America would be. The facts quickly undeceived her. During the last few days of our voyage the monotonous sea became animated by the signs of distant land;[3] even the sky prepared us for new sights. The vast horizon, the deep transparent blue of the heavens and an unusually brilliant atmosphere announced the vicinity of land. At last one evening the purple hills of New Jersey appeared on the horizon. At night the brilliant illumination of light-houses surrounded us in a wide semicircle; and the rising sun, seeming to come up out of a sea fringed with luxuriant trees and gleaming villas, called us on deck to enjoy the sights of the nearby shore. Indeed, the first view of the bay of New York was a great surprise. The water was alive with innumerable boats and ships of all kinds, crossing hither and thither in gay confusion; on the shore we saw the luxuriance of nature and the splendor of wealth; before our eyes was the mighty city bedecked with flags, and above us the brilliant American sky.

New York is as bustling as the most animated parts of London, yet it is very different. Life is much more cheerful, is free from the English monotony of physiognomy and morose taciturnity in the business transactions. Here the faces of all nationalities mingle, marked by their distinctive types, from the African negro to the native Indian. Here there is laughter and talk in a hundred different languages and manners. New York somewhat resembles Paris. Broadway, the principal street, has not the proud magnificence of Regent Street in London, but it approaches the rich elegance of the Parisian boulevards. In it gorgeous shops, restaurants and hotels stand in closely-built rows and an endless rumble of business traffic is concentrated. It is also the arena for the competition of feminine beauty and elegance. The side-streets are all the more quiet, with rows of trees planted on either side, and to a great extent built up with comfortable dwelling-houses. One day we drove out of the city streets to see the immediate neighborhood and we found the fields full of life, where streets were being laid out and already stately stone buildings stood near the original block-houses—strange juxtaposition of the old and the new. In a short time all these will be united within the continuously extending city limits.

From New York we went to Philadelphia. Philadelphia is more quiet than New York, but not at all quiet compared to any city on the continent. The placid, speculative Quakers founded this city and raised it to a high state of prosperity. It has not a proud metropolitan character like New York, nor the same aspiring element, nor adventurous recklessness of mercantile enterprise, but it has solid affluence and German industry. The aspect of the city would be more cheerful if the brick walls of the houses were covered with a coat of white paint, but in the better quarters a surprising luxury in the architecture is prevalent. All the door-steps, the bases of the windows and doors gleam in splendid white marble; often the ground floors, and not rarely the whole front of a house, are built of this dazzling stone. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is historically the most remarkable building of the Union. It is only a small court-house, insignificant and poor outside and inside and evidently not planned for so large a city. In its hall the Declaration of Independence of the United States was signed and from its windows it was proclaimed. Now the small building is living evidence of the insignificance of the North America of that time; and all around it is the populous city, a sign of its present increasing greatness. When the Declaration of Independence was signed—seventy years ago—Philadelphia had only five thousand inhabitants. Few things remain beside Independence Hall to remind us of that period.

We chanced to arrive during the municipal and State election; the campaign between the parties was nearing its end; only the final great efforts were to be made. In the streets we frequently met omnibuses filled with bands of music and drawn by gayly decorated horses. On all sides of the wagons were the names of the candidates, in enormous letters. Mass-meetings, attended by thousands, followed each other in quick succession. An American mass-meeting is a strange spectacle when compared with one of our popular meetings during the revolution. The American speaker is violent, aggressive, not rarely abusive. But respect for freedom of speech at a meeting is so great that a speaker is hardly ever interrupted, even if he says very foolish or exasperating things. Every one feels himself personally responsible for the order of the meeting and, if necessary, every one is a representative of the police. This characteristic trait contrasts strongly with the otherwise irrepressible exuberance of the American. Every one here feels the most complete independence.

This nation has a strange indifference to life, which manifests itself in its sports, its races, its wars and also in its daily life. Men who daily win their life anew in sustained effort give it up with reckless indifference. Nevertheless, there is the same personal safety as in Paris or London. There is much less stealing, and the stories of murder usually revolve around the question of “gentleman” or no “gentleman.” An educated man lives as quietly as anywhere else, and to annoy a woman is considered a social crime. The cult of woman is almost enjoined by law; her social liberty is unlimited, she is mistress of herself. A woman can travel alone over the whole country and every gentleman must be ready to render her any service she may demand. Her privileges may sometimes be abused, but an admirable trait of the American character comes to the rescue. The abuse of the good does not prompt the American to abolish it. The abuse of liberty does not tempt him to curtail liberty. The American knows that liberty is the best means of education and that it is the highest guarantee for the Republic. We have not yet seen how a free people exercises its freedom. We have not seen in real life the practical application of the principles which we preach. Here all is spread before our gaze in a vast tableau. There is only one shrill discord, and that is slavery in the South. But of that later.

  1. An intimate friend of Mrs. Schurz from girlhood and who a little later married Friedrich Althaus, Schurz's fellow-student at Bonn. Schurz had been in the United States only since Sept. 17, 1852. His arrival and early experiences are described in his Reminiscences, vol. ii., chap. i.
  2. Translated from the German. See Preface as to the translators and the translations.
  3. They came in a large sailing-vessel and the voyage occupied twenty-eight days.