The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Edward L. Pierce, March 26th, 1859


Milwaukee, March 26, 1859.

Your favor of the 15th came duly to hand. The action of the legislature of Massachusetts on the suffrage question cannot but be a matter of deep regret to every true friend of the anti-slavery cause. A political party, which professes devotion to the rights of man in the abstract, and violates them in practice, will seldom possess and can never preserve the confidence of the people. I do not understand the logic of those who consider the right to vote a less inalienable right than the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That right is as essential to the exercise of self-government, as self-government is essential to the enjoyment of liberty. A repudiation of this doctrine would upset the whole theory on which the Republican party rests. The naturalization laws have set certain restrictions to the right of suffrage which were necessary in order to regulate its exercise. But to invent new restrictions beyond the limits of that necessity is certainly incompatible with the principles of those who adopt the Declaration of Independence as the basis of their political creed. There may have been abuses, but it is a ruinous policy to disregard fundamental principles when pressing abuses are to be corrected.

This is deeply felt by all those members of the Republican party who are directly concerned in it. The foreign-born Republicans were drawn to that party by the irresistible force of principle and nothing else. No wing of the party has worked more faithfully and disinterestedly. They did not aspire to position and preferment; but the only thing desired was to see the principles they loved faithfully carried out in practice. The friends of freedom could always count upon them as their truest confederates. They joined the Republican party in spite of the cry of Know-Nothingism, placing their trust in the power of principle over the souls of men and in the good faith of their political friends. Their labors did not remain unrewarded. Republicanism spread among the German population of the Northern States with astonishing rapidity, and even in the South the Germans stood everywhere in the vanguard of the movement.

To no class of our population could the action of the Massachusetts legislature be more mortifying than to them. In the midst of successful exertions they saw themselves suddenly betrayed and insulted, and the predictions of their opponents, which they had so often contradicted, partly verified; and that, too, by the legislature of a State which claims to stand first and foremost in intelligence and progressive civilization. Do not think, sir, that the effects of the action of your legislature will be confined to the limits of your State. Massachusetts occupies a representative position, and the eyes of the whole nation are naturally directed towards her.

It cannot be expected that the foreign-born Republicans, after this, should place implicit confidence in a party that has given evidence of inconsistency and bad faith, and that they should work with equal enthusiasm as before; and I must confess, although I am no less devoted to the anti-slavery cause than any other man in this country, I can not blame them for it. If the people of Massachusetts adopt the proposed amendments to the constitution, the effect upon the political attitude of the Western States will be a very serious one. In most of the States west of the Alleghany Mountains, the Germans hold the balance of power between the parties. The Republican party would never have been able to carry a single one of these States without their co-operation. A change of a few thousand votes in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and even Ohio might throw those States into the hands of the pro-slavery party. And as for Indiana, we cannot carry it without receiving large accessions to the Republican ranks from the German population. If the just indignation called forth by the action of your legislature be not allayed by a contrary vote of the people, and if the intention (at present gaining ground among the Germans) to leave the Republican ranks en masse and to vote for independent candidates be carried out, the Republicans may lose three or four Western States in 1860, when the change of one may decide the result of the Presidential campaign. And then the State of Massachusetts, that bulwark of anti-slavery principles, would be responsible for the defeat of the anti-slavery cause, and that, too, at a time when, without this, success would have been almost certain.

Perhaps it would do the party good to learn that in order to be victorious it must first be consistent and true, and that without deserving success it will never have any. Valuable as this experience may be, yet it may be bought at too high a price.

I assure you, sir, that the drifting and scheming policy, which was one of the characteristics of the old parties, will never do for us. We can never conquer unless the convictions and enthusiasm of the masses are on our side. We cannot be ruled by the arts of secret diplomacy. Every attempt to buy over former opponents by concessions of principle will result in the loss of a large number of true and devoted friends. Expediency will always be for us a dangerous stumbling-block. We must command the esteem and confidence of the people in order to command their votes.

I repeat, sir, [the members of] the legislature of Massachusetts have taken a grave responsibility upon themselves. I wish the people would understand that the question to be decided by their vote on the amendments of the constitution is not, whether there shall be a little more or a little less illegal voting in Massachusetts, but whether the Republicans shall have the German vote and all the Western States in 1860 or not.

I do not know, sir, whether this letter will bear publication; perhaps not the whole of it. But I assure you that I have exaggerated nothing and that, much as I would wish to see the evil consequences of that unfortunate affair averted, it would hardly be possible to accomplish it.

P. S.—I apprehend a publication of what I say about the state of feeling among the Germans from my pen would encourage the Democrats out here a little too much. I would, therefore, recommend to you to use this letter with some discrimination.

  1. A young Massachusetts lawyer and reformer and, many years later, biographer of Charles Sumner.