The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Gottfried Kinkel, January 23d, 1855


Philadelphia, January 23, 1855.[2]

I quite understand your criticism of America. The present Administration, which took the helm under the most promising auspices, is what is called a total failure. The old parties are in a state of dissolution and the political atmosphere is impregnated with the odor of decay. Until this dissolution shall be accomplished and until there has been time for new developments to become fixed, there can be no thought of a decided policy. At this moment all is at loose ends. Confusion and intrigue reign. The Nebraska question, the tariff question, the homestead question, the naturalization question, the Pacific Railroad question, the Cuban question, the Sandwich Island question, the Nicaragua expedition—all these things are mixed up in a wild jumble and public opinion is unable to arrive at a sane conclusion. When Pierce went into office, public opinion forced him into the making of a new, strong program of foreign policy. He took a few steps in that direction. But hardly had the Cabinet been formed and the other offices filled, before the corruption of the old parties involved him in a lot of petty yet exhausting fights, which a character like Jackson would have crushed with prompt energy, but with which the weak Pierce was wholly unable to cope. He saw no other course than to seek refuge in the Nebraska bill, which was the product of the unscrupulous ambition of Douglas; and immediately the entire attention of the nation was diverted from foreign politics and concentrated upon the slavery question. Accordingly the Administration lost its natural program and was at the mercy of all the evil influences which the compromise of 1850 has cast about all the political parties. The Nebraska bill burst the moral bonds, and the struggle started again from the beginning. Minds became agitated and responsive to these influences. This condition of public sentiment was utilized by the native Americans for the purpose of advancing their political interests. This essentially weak, nativistic faction joined the majority which has its strongest basis in the Nebraska question. Thus the Know-Nothings suddenly attained enormous influence, which was all the more powerful because of the fact that they conceal their true power beneath the veil of a secret society. While the anti-Nebraska movement has carried away the entire North, and the admixture of the nativistic spirit is perceptible in all these victories, and is clouding the triumph of freedom, the slavery question and the foreign elements are the two points of view from which all political matters are regarded at present—and herein lies the confusion of the situation. What is favorable to the rights of the foreigners, is unfavorable to slavery; and yet, not only are the rights of slavery to be limited, but the influence of the foreigners is to be destroyed as well. That is the problem through which the free-soil Know-Nothing must work his way. It is certain that the nativistic movement will be wrecked on this rock of inconsistency. But there is danger that the anti-slavery movement will be weakened by it. Only the South can be consistent in both questions, and unite the strength of two formidable agitations. It will not be long before the slave States become the headquarters of the nativistic movement and there it will remain. This will suffice to secure the rights of the foreign elements in the North. I am convinced, moreover, that we have nothing further to fear from the Know-Nothings, except a weakening of the anti-slavery movement; this would be all the more deplorable because that movement is already so well under way.

The slavery question reveals itself in so many different aspects to him who has recently come to America, that he finds it difficult to work his way through the confusion of considerations and interests, especially where the existence of the Union is involved. After studying all the arguments I could find, with the exception of those in the Bible, I have at length come to the final conclusion that, whatever may be the considerations that demand compromise, there can be but one question of freedom, and the faithful adherence to that principle is, on the whole, more practical than it sometimes seems. It is not the philanthropic side of the question which has brought me to this conclusion, but the direct and indirect effect of the system upon the whole Government of the United States, the aristocratic character of Southern society, the demoralising influence of the slave-power upon the politicians of the North; the consequent partisanship of all political ideas of justice and especially the influence upon our foreign policy. When you ask me, “When will the United States interfere practically in the interest of the freedom of the peoples of the world?” I answer without hesitation and with unquestioning conviction, “As soon as the slaveholders have ceased to be a political power.” The slaveholder fears the propaganda of freedom, because he does not know how far it may go. Even the mere word of freedom has to him a dangerous and ambiguous sound. For these reasons, I am decidedly opposed to any extension of the domain of slavery, inclusive of the annexation of Cuba. It is true that this annexation would make the Creoles independent of Spain; but at the same time, it would so much increase the menace to freedom in the United States that the purchase would not be worth the price. It would be splendid if the Spanish Government were to avail itself of the favorable moment and establish the emancipation of the negro in Cuba; then, Cuba would be welcome. It is deplorable that although the anti-slavery party has many talented adherents, but few understand practical politics. They do not know that it is unwise to agitate violently unless there is an immediate object in view. They forget that, at the crucial moment, he predominates who has the reputation of practising calm moderation. They usually consume their best ammunition before the battle begins. Yet, great things were won in the last campaign. Perhaps in the year 1856 we shall completely succeed in breaking up the country-gentry party. I can think of no happier event for the politics of this country.

We have received news of peace in Europe to-day, which will, I trust, not be corroborated. To conclude the war by accepting the four points at issue would certainly be a most disgraceful result. . . .

My wife and I send our greetings with unchanged cordiality.

  1. Schurz's favorite professor at Bonn, by whose liberal ideas and eloquence he was much influenced, and whose escape from Spandau he effected, etc. See I Reminiscences, passim.
  2. Translated from the German.