The Writings of Carl Schurz/To a Republican, April 22d, 1876


New York, April 22, 1876.

My dear Sir: Knowing you as a patriotic man and a sincere friend of reform, I am gratified, but by no means surprised, to learn that you cordially approve of the objects which the signers of the call for the conference on the 15th of May have in view. But you are in doubt as to the policy of such a movement outside of the Republican party, as I understand your letter, because the expression of any desire by the independents as to what the party should do would be apt to be taken as an attempt at dictation and provoke antagonistic feelings, and also because your party friends look with great distrust and disfavor upon anything like a third-party movement.

In my opinion, when a thing is right in itself, it will be very apt to turn out, in the end, as the best policy. But as you address me from the standpoint of a Republican, I will, for the sake of argument, in my answer waive higher considerations and ask you to look at this matter from a partisan point of view. I think even the most sanguine Republicans will scarcely question the following facts: The Republican party, in order to succeed in the National election, cannot afford to lose the votes of many of the Northern States. New York is so far in the hands of the Democrats; likewise Connecticut; Ohio was last fall carried by a majority of 5000 in a poll of 500,000, and that majority included the whole independent vote; Indiana is strongly inclined to be Democratic; of Illinois neither party is sure; in Wisconsin the Republicans last fall lost their whole State ticket with the exception of the governor who was elected by a very small majority, owing to his personal popularity with certain classes of Democrats in Milwaukee; California and Oregon you cannot count upon with certainty. Probably not one of these States can the Republicans expect to carry without the support of all, or at least a large majority, of those who of late years have acted independently of party control.

Now, suppose this independent element, through some organ of opinion, informs you that such support can be secured to the Republican party only by a quite satisfactory assurance of a genuine and thorough reform of the Government, in the shape of nominations of a certain character, and that, if such satisfactory assurance be given, the support and coöperation will be hearty and active; would it be quite wise or patriotic on the part of Republicans to say: “It cannot be denied that the thing they ask for is in itself most just and desirable; but their asking for it is a piece of impudence and an attempt at dictation which must be resented, and therefore it shall not be done”? Would not that be like little children s play with the great interests of the Republic, and a folly suicidal in its consequences? You tell me there are many good men in the Republican party earnestly in favor of thorough reform, which is certainly true. You express a hope that they may be strong enough to carry the necessary reforms by efforts “inside of the Republican party,” which I fervently wish may become true. But what should we think of the sincerity of that reform spirit inside of the Republican party, if it could be suddenly moved to turn against its very objects by the mere fact that other people, not inside the party, seek to accomplish the same ends, and say so? If such a thing could happen, then you will admit, it would in itself be conclusive proof that such a reform spirit is of too fickle a temper to deserve confidence, and that a party controlled by such a temper in its most important action has no claim on the support of any sincere friend of reform. And the result as to party success, under present circumstances, would be obvious.

No; I trust, if the friends of reform inside of the Republican party are strong enough in the Cincinnati Convention to control it, they will not permit themselves to be seduced by a mere childish whim to do a bad thing, simply because the independents want them to do a good one, and then lose the election. But if the reform element inside of the Republican party is not strongly enough represented in the Cincinnati Convention to control it, then it has good reason to be glad of any encouragement and aid it can get from public opinion outside. Indeed, the alliance between the sincere reform element inside and the independent element outside appears so natural and necessary that many patriotic men, hitherto strongly attached to their party, and considered as members in good standing, have expressed to me their hearty approval of the course the callers of the conference are pursuing, and have promised their active aid and coöperation.

As to the second point of objection, I may say to you candidly that we are not at all ambitious to organize and lead a third-party movement. On the contrary, I feel authorized to say, in the name of all my friends, that we shall be heartily glad if you and others succeed in evolving from the Cincinnati Convention so good a result that we can conscientiously follow you. I fervently hope you will succeed; and, if such nominations as you tell me you desire are made, I pledge you our active efforts in their favor. For the sake of the country, I wish both parties to do the very best they can, believing with you that the Republicans have the safest shot in their locker. At the same time I do not conceal from you that, if nothing but a choice of evils should be presented to us, I should not feel bound to content myself with such a choice, and I am glad to know that a large number of men who have so far been faithful partisans are now of the same way of thinking. It is time for the moral sense of the people to revolt against that kind of degradation, to which we have too long been subjected, and I am confident, strong partisan as you may be, you too feel that there is something more precious than mere party association and fealty. In such an emergency, therefore, there will undoubtedly be an effort, outside of the old parties, for that which honest endeavor inside failed to accomplish.

I sincerely trust that such an emergency will be averted, and you and I, each in his way, should make our best possible efforts to avert it. I am sure our conference will render a most valuable service in that respect. It will furnish an opportunity to the independents and the party men to deal fairly with each other. If you and your friends, as Republicans, want the support of the independents, you ought not to be left in doubt as to the things which will secure and those which would repel that support. I notice here and there statements in the newspapers assuming that a nomination of this or that character would command the whole vote of the independent friends of reform, some of which assumptions I have good reason to think erroneous. Such mistakes ought to be avoided by a candid declaration of views and purposes, so that if the nomination you make does not receive the support you desire, you shall have no reason to say to us, “Why did you not tell us of your objections before?” It is fair we should do so in time, and the conference will furnish an excellent opportunity, especially as there will be so large a number of party men in it that a full exchange of views from different standpoints may take place. It will be neither an attempt to coerce, nor to dictate to, nor to assume any authority over the Republican or any other party. It will, as I expect, be simply the exercise of the right of American citizens openly to state their opinions on public affairs and to declare what course they may think it their duty to pursue under certain circumstances, so that their subsequent conduct may not be a surprise to anybody, every one taking part in it being bound only by the dictates of his own conscience, and not by the verdict of a majority if he does not agree with it. This can and will be done not only by no-party men, but also, with perfect consistency, by men who have not forsaken their party, but are willing to employ every legitimate means to advance a good end. And so you might join us as well as others who will be present.

I must confess I have been somewhat surprised at the ill-temper with which some Republican papers have denounced the proposed conference as a sort of gunpowder plot, gotten up for revolutionary purposes, by a set of reckless idealists, as they call us when they want to make the moral superiority of the “practical politician” strikingly apparent. It might, perhaps, be well for them to remember that some of those “idealists” four or five years ago strongly denounced the abuses of the Government which then and since came to light, and warned the party in power of the consequences which inevitably would follow if the iniquitous agencies then at work were not sternly resisted. If the “idealists” had been listened to, McDonald would not have been permitted to organize the whisky ring in St. Louis, the Belknaps and Babcocks would not have remained great and powerful men in the Government and the Republican party would not now be obliged to struggle under that load of disgrace which to-day is its greatest element of weakness. We were then told by the “practical politicians” that if such abuses existed they would be corrected, and everything put right “inside.” The “idealists” were put outside, and the “practical politicians” had their way “inside.” You know the result. The “idealists” do not appear to have been quite wrong, after all. Now I find some newspapers exercising their wit at the notion that the “idealists” insist upon “a perfect angel” for the Presidency, and will not be satisfied with anything less. As the “idealists” were not quite wrong four or five years ago, so I apprehend they are not quite wrong now. They think that, in its present situation, the country needs a man for the Presidency who can be depended upon to possess the moral courage and ability required for as great an effort as human energy is capable of to crush corruption and to make this a pure government once more, whatever opposition he may have to encounter, even if it should come from his own party friends. This may be called an ideal notion, but it is also an eminently practical one; so much, indeed, that it must be carried out if the honor of the country is to be saved and republican institutions preserved. If, to use an expression employed by Governor Allen of Ohio with regard to specie payments, honest government can be laughed down as a “barren ideality,” then we may tremble for the future of the Republic. It seems to me the papers referred to are not quite prudent in scoffing at the “idealists,” for, unless I am greatly mistaken, “idealists” will be in great demand as soon as the Presidential campaign is opened, as they were last summer in Ohio and many times before.

As your letter embodies suggestions which have appeared in some journals not unfriendly, I deem it proper to give this reply to the Public. I shall also send you an invitation to our conference, and hope you will accept.

  1. In answer to objections to Fifth Avenue conference.