The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Malwida von Meysenbug, 1852


[No date given; autumn or early winter of 1852.]

I have not yet seen much in America, but I have learned much. I have never before lived in a democratic country and been able to observe the conduct of a free people. I confess without a blush that until now I had only a faint conception of it. My political views have undergone a kind of internal revolution since I began to read the book that alone contains the truth—the book of reality. When I now picture to myself the majority of the hot-headed professional revolutionists that are fostered by emigration or many of the strong-minded ladies of the educated class with their sentimental ideas of democracy; when I imagine them all transplanted in the conditions prevailing here, and when I think how terribly they would harangue, the former about the tone of the bourgeoisie and the machinations of the clericals and the latter about the wild lawlessness of the people, and how they would come to the conclusion that, after all, their Eldorado is not realized here—then, indeed, I begin to fear a little for the future European Republic that must find its support in these two elements. It is true, indeed, that the first sight of this country fills one with dumb amazement. Here you see the principle of individual freedom carried to its ultimate consequences: voluntarily made laws treated with contempt; in another place you notice the crassest religious fanaticism venting itself in brutal acts; on the one hand you see the great mass of the laboring people in complete freedom striving for emancipation, and by their side the speculative spirit of capital plunging into unheard of enterprises; here is a party that calls itself Democratic and is at the same time the mainstay of the institution of slavery; there another party thunders against slavery but bases all its arguments on the authority of the Bible and mentally is incredibly abject in its dependence,—at one time it displays an impetuous impulse for emancipation, while at another it has an active lust for oppression;—all these in complete liberty, moving in a confused tumult, one with the other, one by the side of the other. The democrat just arrived from Europe, who has so far lived in a world of ideas and has had no opportunity to see these ideas put into actual, sound practice will ask himself, hesitatingly, Is this, indeed, a free people? Is this a real democracy? Is democracy a fact if it shelters under one cloak such conflicting principles? Is this my ideal? Thus he will doubtingly question himself, as he steps into this new, really new world. He observes and reflects, gradually casting aside, one after the other, the prejudices with which Europe has burdened him and finally he will arrive at the solution of the problem. Yes, this is humanity when it is free. Liberty breaks the chain of development. All strength, all weakness, all that is good, all that is bad, is here in full view and in free activity. The struggle of principles goes on unimpeded; outward freedom shows us which enemies have to be overcome before we can gain inner freedom. He who wishes liberty must not be surprised if men do not appear better than they are. Freedom is the only state in which it is possible for men to learn to know themselves, in which they show themselves as they really are. It is true, the ideal is not necessarily evolved, but it would be an unhappy thought to force the ideal in spite of humanity. Here they allow the Jesuits to manage their own affairs; they are not killed, they are not driven out, because democracy admits the liberty of every creed as long as it does not impair the civic liberty of others. They are not opposed with the weapon of official power but simply with that of public opinion. That is not only more democratic but also much more effective, for if the struggle of public opinion with mental subserviency is slow, it is only a sign that humanity is not more mature. This struggle has the advantage that it continually keeps pace with the point of view of the masses and for that reason its victories are less rapid, less brilliant, but more enduring and more decisive. So it is here with everything. The European revolutionist becomes impatient at this and would like to apply some vigorous blows; but such is humanity that it does not like to be beaten even into reason, and such is true democracy that it will be governed by the public mind not as it ought to be but as it actually is. It is my firm conviction that the European revolutionists will drive the next revolution into a reaction merely through their lust for government, through their desire to improve things quickly and positively. Every glance into the political life of America strengthens my convictions that the aim of a revolution can be nothing else than to make room for the will of the people—in other words, to break every authority which has its organization in the life of the state, and, as far as is possible, to overturn the barriers to individual liberty. The will of the people will have its fling and indulge in all kinds of foolishness—but that is its way; if you want to show it the way and then give it liberty of action, it will, nevertheless, commit its own follies. Each one of these follies clears away something, while the wisest thing that is done for the people accomplishes nothing until the popular judgment has progressed far enough to be able to do it for itself. Until then, conditions must stand à force de l'autorité, or they will totter. But if they exist by the force of authority, then democracy is in a bad way. Here in America you can every day see how slightly a people needs to be governed. In fact, the thing that is not named in Europe without a shudder, anarchy, exists here in full bloom. Here are governments but no rulers—governors, but they are clerks. All the great educational establishments, the churches, the great means of transportation etc., that are being organized here—almost all of these things owe their existence not to official authority but to the spontaneous co-operation of private individuals. One has glimpses here into the productivity of liberty. Here you see a gorgeously built church; a stock company founded it. There a university; a wealthy man left a large endowment, which is its main capital, and the university is almost entirely supported by subscription. In another place you see an orphan asylum of white marble; a rich citizen built it. And so it goes with an endless list of things. It is only here that you realize how superfluous governments are in many affairs in which, in Europe, they are considered entirely indispensable, and how the possibility of doing something inspires a desire to do it.

  1. Published in her Memoiren einer Idealistin, ii., 77-82. Translated from the German.