The Writings of Carl Schurz/To J. F. Potter, December 24th, 1860


Boston, Mass., Dec. 24, 1860.

I thank you for your letter of the 20th inst. The description you give of the condition of things is rather gloomy, but if I may judge from the telegraphic reports in to-day's papers, the force of circumstances will whip our weak brethren into line. The Crittenden resolutions voted down in the Senate committee, Lincoln standing on the Chicago platform as firm as an oak, the fire-eaters fluttering, the effect of Ben. Wade's speech upon friends and opponents,—all these are things which cannot fail to encourage even the most timid. We are looking with the intensest anxiety for the report of the Committee of Thirty-three. As soon as that is made, then we shall have arrived at the decisive crisis, which will put the mettle and generalship of the Republicans in Congress to the test.

Now, I think, has the time come when they can abandon their awkward, miserable, demoralizing, defensive position. If the reports, for I think there will be more than one, are such as to remove all danger of the passage of a compromise, then let it be acted upon with promptness. But if there is any such danger, it will be necessary to shift the discussion upon a new field, so as to push the matter into the background.

For this there are two splendid opportunities. It is more than probable that Buchanan has been and is now playing into the hands of the seceders. If any facts can be ascertained which will give a substantial foundation to this suspicion, he is undoubtedly liable to impeachment. From what the newspapers tell us I have no doubt you can make a strong case of it. There is the point from which the Republicans can start a new aggressive movement. Whether the impeachment can be carried on or not, I care little; a vigorous and prompt movement in that direction will monopolize the attention of Congress and of the people. It will place our opponents on the defensive and the Republicans into a new commanding position, with the advantage all on their side. It will operate irresistibly upon the imaginations of the people, and cannot fail to drown the cry for a compromise. But let the movement be pressed with the utmost energy and determination. I know it requires boldness and backbone, but I should wonder, indeed, if times like these did not call into action latent powers and unconscious forces.

Another matter I want to call your attention to is this: The opinion is gaining ground, and I must confess I share it, that the revolutionists will attempt to take possession of Washington City and to prevent Mr. Lincoln's inauguration. I am led to believe by many things that there is such a plan entertained by the most desperate of Southern fire-eaters. The more the chances of the original secession movement decrease, the more will a plan like that come into prominence as their last resort. But, however vague and indefinite the rumors in circulation may be, the matter ought to be brought up before Congress, be it in the shape of a resolution calling upon the Administration to provide for such an emergency, or whatever other form. Whether such a resolution can be carried, or, if carried, will have any effect upon the Executive, is a matter of indifference. The introduction of this subject and the discussion it will necessarily draw out, will at all events serve two great objects: First, it will divert the attention of Congress from the plans of compromise and concentrate it upon subjects of practical importance. Two subjects like this and the impeachment, if well managed, will inevitably kill all concession schemes, however plausible. But the most important effect the discussion of this last point will have, is to draw the attention of the people of the North upon a danger which, at present, seems to be too little thought of.

A few days ago I addressed a letter to Governor Morgan as chairman of the National Committee, requesting him to send a circular to the different State committees and to invite them to make preparations for an escort of honor to the President on the 4th of March. As soon as the matter is broached in Congress, we may go one step further. The governors of the States may then proceed to arm and organize their militia for the emergency, and demand appropriations from their legislatures for that purpose. It may be said that the danger exists only in our imagination. I tell you, it does not; I am almost certain the attempt will be made if we are not prepared to meet it. It will probably not be made if we are on the spot with a force sufficient to make its success impossible. But I deem it absolutely necessary that the emergency should be provided for. I have a plan in my head, on which these preparations can be made; and as soon as the thing is brought into prominence by a movement in Congress I mean to write to the different Republican governors about it.

These are the two points I wish to bring to your notice. I deem it of the highest importance that the Republicans should drop their defensive attitude and resume the aggressive with resolution and vigor. Action, action is the great secret of success, and if ever a time called for it, it is now. I do not understand the men who, when the decision of one of the vital questions of the age is within their grasp, stand there chicken-hearted and cast about for small contemptible expedients. What right had they to demand the votes of the people, if, at the aspect of the first difficulty they find in their path, they are ready to throw away the victory gained by those votes? Let them know that the people want to have an end of it, and an end of them too, if they should wantonly fritter away what is the fruit of an arduous and earnest struggle of many years. Let them know that the stock exchange does not rule the popular heart, and shall not rule those who are commissioned to represent the feelings of the popular heart.

The change of public opinion in favor of vigorous and decisive action is most encouraging. Even timid men want no longer to hear of a timid policy, and our Republican compromisers, if they should succeed in bartering away our principles and our honor, will have to face a storm of popular indignation, which in the delusions of their puny statesmanship they do not dream of.

I am distressed to find myself tied down to this tame lecturing business, to be obliged to devote my time and energies to the poorest of all occupations—making money—while the time ripens for great decisions. I feel as though I could do something in Washington—but then I cannot help it. I have to pay my tribute to the necessities of life.

I shall write that speech on the crisis as soon as the report of the Thirty-three is out and distinct propositions are before the people. And then I shall let you know of it.

One word about personal matters. I received a letter from Doolittle (who, by the way, deserves the thanks of every true Republican for the firm stand he took in the Senate committee), asking me whether I wanted the Sardinian mission; in my reply I repeated in substance what I had written you about it. The matter seems to have been talked of in Senatorial circles. I am informed that George P. Marsh of Vermont and Jay Morris are pushing for the same position. Now let me say, however much an offer of that kind on the part of the Administration would gratify me, I do not want to engage in a scramble of aspirants. If the Government means to tender me anything, let it be a spontaneous offer. To ask for an office is, in my opinion, to pay too high a price for it. I shall not do that myself, nor do I wish to have others do it for me. I will tell you why I am somewhat scrupulous on that point. If I ask for a place, I lose part of my independence; if I merely accept what is spontaneously offered, I am bound by no obligation; and I must confess my independence in political life is worth more to me than all the favors which a government can shower upon a man.

Let me hear from you again and keep me well posted. Every letter from Washington will be considered a great favor.