The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Gottfried Kinkel, December 1st, 17th, 1856


Watertown, Dec. 1, 1856.[1]

How often have I wished during recent months that you were here![2] There is a struggle going on in this country in which we should all take part and, after all, a spirited conflict for an idea gives true zest to life! The most contented person cannot deny that he has to suffer many deprivations here, but the consciousness of being able to do something worth while, of casting a thought, a deed, into the balance for the good of humanity, compensates me for everything. To have aims that lie outside ourselves and our immediate circle is a great thing and well worth the sacrifice.

The papers have probably kept you informed of the events that have occurred here during the last few months. Nothing more strange can be imagined than the attitude of the two parties since the campaign. The Democrats, although they have been victorious, are discouraged and depressed and full of dread of what may happen; the Republicans, though beaten, are full of the sense of power, full of assurance in consequence of the first results gained, and full of confidence for the future. Frémont has already been mentioned as a candidate for 1860 by a number of papers; the organization is everywhere preserved, and the agitation is continued as if nothing had happened. The spirit of the party is what might be called buoyant. It is rumored that Buchanan, moved by the imposing expression of opinion in the North, will do all in his power to keep slavery out of Kansas. He may secretly wish this result, but he will not be able to bring it about. He is not his own master. Because elected by a party that has its main strength in the South, he must follow Southern policies in order to preserve the party that is the only support of his Administration. He is placed between two factions of the Democratic party—the Southern and the Northern. They differ greatly in numbers, in character and in methods. The Southern faction knows what it wants and is ready at any moment to sacrifice the existence of the party to the interests of slavery. It is constantly trying to break the resistance of the Northern Democrats by threats of secession. The Northern faction is not so sure of itself; it has sacrificed the interests of the free North to the existence of the party and is accustomed to yield to the threats of secession and to the arrogance of the South. The first of these factions considers itself victorious; the other looks upon itself as beaten; the former is continually growing bolder in its demands; the other is afraid to submit unconditionally, but is too timid to refuse submission. Which one will be able to exert the greater influence on the impressionable character of Buchanan? If New York or Boston were the seat of the Federal Government, the Northern Democracy might have a chance, but in Washington the Southern element predominates. It is probable that Kansas will be forced into the Union as a slave State, unless part of the Northern Democrats in Kansas should become rebellious, or the fight in Kansas should develop into a revolutionary uprising on a large scale. In either case, I believe that Buchanan's Administration will be to the Democratic party what Fillmore's was to the Whig party—namely, the end.

From now on there can be only two parties in the Union: a Northern and a Southern party—an anti- and a proslavery party, and at the present moment the Democrats up here are only the outposts of the slave-power in the free States. At last the slavery issue has become the watchword of the day; the time for compromise has passed, and the last chance for a peaceful solution has come. The next four years will decide the fate of the United States; in both camps there is firm determination. We have on our side the spirit of the age, a great inspiring idea and superior ability. The South has unanimity and brutality. I am not sure that this fight can be decided without powder. I doubt it. However, should the force of arms be resorted to as a last measure, the result cannot be doubtful, for the material superiority of the North is immense.

Our victory in this State was gratifyingly brilliant. Wisconsin went for Frémont with fifteen thousand majority. Much persevering and devoted work was done and I honestly did my share. During my short activity I gained a relatively great influence and I shall soon have a voice in the affairs of Wisconsin. During the last four months I have been obliged to speak a great deal in public and I have made great progress. My voice and my limbs have become more supple, and I begin to understand the secret of the use of pathos. I have quite often succeeded in rousing my audience to the fire of enthusiasm, and I am no longer diffident when I wish to appeal to their sentiment. In short, I have gained courage as an orator, and I hope, should I enter the legislature next year, to be able to accomplish something. The foreign tongue no longer troubles me, and I even find that in many things English is more convenient and effective than German.

I am giving as much time as possible to the study of the law this winter, for I expect to begin my legal practice in March. The governor has appointed me a notary public, and I am also president of an insurance company. These things, together with the real-estate business and the matters that turn up accidentally, keep me sufficiently occupied. I also occasionally write political letters and articles; and if there is a vacancy in the city council and I become a member of it, I shall have only as much time for study as is absolutely necessary.

Our town is developing remarkably. We are going to have enormous railroad connections, which are already under construction, and in a few years the value of real estate will rise so much that we need no longer be anxious as to our financial situation.

December 17th.

My letter has been interrupted for two weeks, during which time I could not possibly finish it. In the meantime honors and burdens have been heaped upon me, and I have had little rest. We have succeeded in making our town the county-seat, and there are many public enterprises connected with the change which will have to be carried out—court-houses, administration offices, school-houses, bridges etc. I have been appointed commissioner of public improvements, a position which is just now really the most important of all the municipal offices. Although the building and improving will not actually begin before the spring, there are many preparations to be made, and one of my principal duties will be to obtain fifty thousand dollars on city bonds.

The sphere in which I now move and work is strangely foreign to the preparations of my early youth, yet how easily we adapt ourselves, if once we have tasted the joy of effort—the joy of seeing things around us develop and thrive. That is the peculiar charm of my present life, which it is difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it. It is strange how quickly we here learn without studying, and, after living in this atmosphere for a time, how easily we are suddenly able to do things which we never before paid attention to. And this gives us a glimpse into the fruitfulness of political freedom.

I have lately taken up for my recreation T. Livii Patavini Historias, and often you might have found me looking up words in the dictionary like a dutiful schoolboy. I have lost much of my classic knowledge, but I find after reading a few pages that my Latin comes back to me with a rush. I am expecting to receive Cicero s orations and shall probably read them with greater appreciation than at the gymnasium.

You may be surprised that I should turn again to the Roman classics in the midst of the material activities of this Western life. This is due less to the fact that I do not wish to forget my Latin than that I believe one can learn from such authors much that has a bearing on American politics. . . .

  1. Translated from the German.
  2. Kinkel was then living in London.