True Americanism: A Speech by Carl Schurz, 1859.

True Americanism: A Speech by Carl Schurz, 1859.
Carl Schurz

Biography: Born in Germany in 1829, Carl Schurz fled his home country as a “forty-Eighter” after an unsuccessful revolution. He came to America in 1852 via France and England. Being against both slavery and its extension into the territories, he naturally joined the Republican party. He served as a Major General in the Union army and as a Senator from Missouri after the war (’69—’75). He also held various other government offices throughout his life.

Having become convinced that the Grant Administration was completely corrupt and, moreover, that Reconstruction had accomplished its goals and must come to end by restoring the South to self-government, he helped found the short-lived Liberal Republican Party. In the wake of electoral defeat, it disappeared from the political scene.

The following excerpted speech, given April 18, 1859, has interest rooted both in political philosophy and 19th century immigration. It is quite lengthy, so I have broken the speech into segments with titles so that readers may scan for what interests them should they not have time to read the entire post.

August Glen-James, editor

This general identity of interests is the only thing that can guarantee the stability of democratic institutions. Equality of rights, embodied in general self-government, is the great moral element of true democracy; it is the only reliable safety valve in the machinery of modern society. There is the solid foundation of our system of government; there is our mission; there is our greatness; there is our safety; there and nowhere else! This is true Americanism and to this I Pay the tribute of my devotion.

I, born in a foreign land, pay my tribute to Americanism? Yes, for to me the word “Americanism,” true “Americanism,” comprehends the noblest ideas which ever swelled a human heart with noble pride.

Segment 1: The Immigrant

It is one of the earliest recollections of my boyhood that one summer night our whole village was stirred up by an uncommon occurrence. . . . That night our neighbors were pressing around a few wagons covered with linen sheets and loaded with household utensils and boxes and trunks to their utmost capacity. One of our neighboring families was moving far away across a great water, and it was said that they would never again return. And I saw silent tears trickling down weather-beaten cheeks, and the hands of rough peasants firmly pressing each other, and some of the men and women hardly bale to speak when they nodded to one another a last farewell. At last the train started into motion, they gave three cheers for America, and then in the first gray dawn of the morning I saw them winding their way over the hill until they disappeared in the shadow of the forest. And I heard many a man say how happy he would be if he could go with them to that great and free country where a man could be himself.

That was the first time that I heard of America, and my childish imagination took possession of a land covered partly with majestic trees, partly with flowery prairies, immeasurable to the eye, and intersected with large rivers and broad lakes—a land where everybody could do what he thought best, and where nobody need be poor because everybody was free.

And later, when I was old enough to read, and descriptions of this country and books on American history fell into my hands, the offspring of my imagination acquired the colors of reality and I began to exercise my brain with the thought of what man might be and become when left perfectly free to himself. . . . I saw my nation shake her chains in order to burst them, and I heard a gigantic, universal shout for liberty rising up to the skies; and, at last, after having struggled manfully and drenched the earth of fatherland with the blood of thousands of noble beings, I saw the nation crushed down again, not only by overwhelming armies but by the deadweight of customs and institutions and notions and prejudices which past centuries had heaped upon them, and which a moment of enthusiasm, however sublime, could not destroy. . . . Then I turned my eyes instinctively across the Atlantic Ocean; and America and Americanism, as I fancied them, appeared to me as the last depositories of the hopes of all true friends of humanity . . . [and] what America is to the thousands of thinking men in the Old World who, disappointed in their fondest hopes and depressed by the saddest experience, cling with their last remnant of confidence in human nature to the last spot on earth where man is free to follow the road to attainable perfection, and where, unbiased by the disastrous influence of traditional notions, customs, and institutions, he acts on his own responsibility. They ask themselves: Was it but a wild delusion when we thought that man has the faculty to be free and to govern himself? Have we been fighting, were we ready to die for a mere phantom, for a mere product of a morbid imagination? This question downtrodden humanity cries out into the world, and from this country it expects an answer.

Segment 2: Americanism & the Anglo-Saxon

As its advocate I speak to you. I will speak of Americanism as the great representative of the reformatory age, as the great champion of the dignity of human nature, as the great repository of the last hopes of suffering mankind. I will speak of the ideal mission of this country and of this people. . . .

The Anglo-Saxon may justly be proud of the growth and development of this country, and if he ascribes most of it to the undaunted spirit of his race, we may not accuse him of overweening self-glorification. He possesses, in an eminent degree, the enviable talent of acting when others only think; of promptly executing his own ideas and of appropriating the ideas of other peoples to his own use. There is, perhaps, no other race that at so early a day would have founded the stern democracy of the Plymouth settlement; no other race that would have defied the trials and hardships of the original settler’s life so victoriously. No other race, perhaps, possesses in so high a degree, not only the daring spirit of independent enterprise but at the same time the stubborn steadfastness necessary to the final execution of great designs. The Anglo-Saxon spirit has been the locomotive of progress; but do not forget that this locomotive would be of little use to the world if it refused to draw its train over the iron highway and carry its valuable freight toward its destination. That train consists of the vigorous elements of all nations; that freight is the vital ideas of our age; that destination is universal freedom and the ideal development of man. That is the true greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race; that ought to be the source of Anglo-Saxon pride. I esteem the son who is proud of his father, if at the same time he is worthy of him.

Thus, I say, was founded the colony of free humanity on virgin soil. The youthful elements which constitute people of the New World cannot submit to rules which are not of their own making; they must throw off the fetters which bind them to an old, decrepit order of things. They resolve to enter the great family of nations as an independent member. And in the colony of free humanity, whose mother country is the world, they establish the republic of equal rights, where the title of manhood is the title to citizenship. My friends, if I had a thousand tongues and a voice strong as the thunder of heaven, they would not be sufficient to impress upon your minds forcibly enough the greatness of this idea, the overshadowing glory of this result. This was the dream of the truest friends of man from the beginning; for this the noblest blood of martyrs has been shed; for this has mankind waded through seas of blood and tears. There it is now; there it stands, the noble fabric in all the splendor of reality.

Segment 3: The Roman Republic versus the American Republic

They speak of the greatness of the Roman Republic! Oh, sir, if I could call the proudest of Romans from his grave, I would take him by the hand and say to him, Look at this picture, and at this! The greatness of thy Roman Republic consisted in its despotic rule over the world; the greatness of the American Republic consists in the secured right of man to govern himself. The dignity of the Roman citizen consisted in his exclusive privileges; the dignity of the American citizen consists in his holding the natural rights of his neighbor just as sacred as his own. The Roman Republic recognized and protected the rights of the citizen, at the same dime disregarding and leaving unprotected the rights of man; Roman citizenship was founded upon monopoly, not upon the claims of human nature. What the citizen of Rome claimed for himself, he did not respect in others; his own greatness was his only object; his own liberty, as he regarded it, gave him the privilege to oppress his fellow beings. His democracy, instead of elevating mankind to his own level, trampled the rights of man into dust. The security of the Roman Republic, therefore, consisted in the power of the sword; the security of the American Republic rests in the equality of human rights! The Roman Republic perished by the sword; The American Republic will stand as long as the equality of human rights remains inviolate. Which of the two republics is the greater—the republic of the Roman or the republic of man?

Segment 4: The Ideas of the Revolutionary Fathers

Sir, I wish the words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created free and equal, and are endowed with certain inalienable rights,” were inscribed upon every gatepost within the limits of this republic. From this principle the revolutionary fathers derived their claim to independence; upon this they founded the institutions of this country; and the whole structure was to be the living incarnation of this idea. This principle contains the program of our political existence. It is the most progressive and at the same time the most conservative one; the most progressive, for it takes even the lowliest members of the human family out of their degradation and inspires them with the elevating consciousness of equal human dignity; the most conservative, for it makes a common cause of individual rights. From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights with striking a dangerous blow at your own. And when the rights of one cannot be infringed without finding a ready defense in all others who defend their own rights in defending his, then and only then are the rights of all safe against the usurpations of governmental authority.

This general identity of interests is the only thing that can guarantee the stability of democratic institutions. Equality of rights, embodied in general self-government, is the great moral element of true democracy; it is the only reliable safety valve in the machinery of modern society. There is the solid foundation of our system of government; there is our mission; there is our greatness; there is our safety; there and nowhere else! This is true Americanism and to this I Pay the tribute of my devotion.

Segment 5: Consequences of deviating from Equal Rights

Shall I point out to you’re the consequences of a deviation from this principle [i.e., equal rights]? Look at the slave states. There is a class of men who are deprived of their natural rights. But this is not the only deplorable feature of that peculiar organization of society. Equally deplorable is it that there is another class of men who keep the former in subjection. That there are slaves is bad; but almost worse is it that there are masters. Are not the masters freemen? No sir! Where is their liberty of speech? Where is the man among them who dares to advocate openly principles not in strict accordance with the ruling system? They speak of a republican form of government, they speak of democracy; but the despotic spirit of slavery and mastership combined pervades their whole political life like a liquid poison. They do not dare to be free lest the spirit of liberty become contagious. The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way—it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.

Segment 6: Difficulties Connected with a Society of Equal Rights

True, there are difficulties connected with an organization of society founded upon the basis of equal rights. Nobody denies it. A large number of those who come to you from foreign lands are not as capable of taking part in the administration of government as the man who was fortunate enough to drink the milk of liberty in his cradle. And certain religious denominations do, perhaps, nourish principles which are hardly in accordance with the doctrines of true democracy. There is a conglomeration on this continent of heterogeneous elements; there is a warfare of clashing interest and unruly aspirations; and, with all this, our democratic system gives rights to the ignorant and power to the inexperienced. And the billows of passion will lash the sides of the ship, and the storm of party warfare will bend its masts, and the pusillanimous will cry out—“Master, master, we perish!” But the genius of true democracy will arise from his slumber and rebuke the winds and the raging of the water, and say unto them—“Where is your faith?” Aye, where is the faith that led the fathers of this republic to invite the weary and burdened of all nations to the enjoyment of equal rights? Where is that broad and generous confidence in the efficiency of true democratic institutions? Has the present generation forgotten that true democracy bears in itself the remedy for all the difficulties that may grow out of it?

It is an old dodge of the advocates of despotism throughout the world that the people who are not experienced in self-government are not fit for the exercise of self-government and must first be educated under the rule of a superior authority. But at the same time the advocates of despotism will never offer them an opportunity to acquire experience in self-government lest they suddenly become fit for its independent exercise. To this treacherous sophistry the fathers of this republic opposed the noble doctrine that liberty is the best school for liberty, and that self-government cannot be learned but by practicing it. This, sir, is a truly American idea; this is true Americanism; and to this I pay the tribute of my devotion.

You object that some people do not understand their own interests? There is nothing that, in the course of time, will make a man better understand his interests than the independent management of his own affairs on his own responsibility. You object that people are ignorant? There is no better schoolmaster in the world than self-government independently exercised. You object that people have no just idea of their duties as citizens? There is no other source from which they can derive a just notion of their duties than the enjoyment of the rights from which they arise.

Segment 7: True Americanism’s Influence on Religion

You object that people are misled by their religious prejudices and by the intrigues of the Roman hierarchy? Since when have the enlightened citizens of this republic lost their faith in the final invincibility of truth? Since when have they forgotten that if the Roman or any other church plants the seed of superstition, liberty sows broadcast the seed of enlightenment? Do they no longer believe in the invincible spirit of inquiry, which characterizes the reformatory age? If the struggle be fair, can the victory be doubtful?

As to religious fanaticism, it will prosper under oppression; it will feed on persecution; it will grow strong by proscription; but it is powerless against genuine democracy. It may indulge in short-lived freaks of passion or in wily intrigues, but it will die of itself, for its lungs are not adapted to breathe the atmosphere of liberty. It is like the shark of the sea: drag him into the air and the monster will perhaps struggle fearfully and frighten timid people with the powerful blows of his tail and the terrible array of his teeth; but leave him quietly to died and he will die. But engage with him in a hand-to-had struggle even then, and the last of his convulsions may fatally punish your rash attempt. Against fanaticism, genuine democracy wields an irresistible weapon—it is toleration. Toleration will not strike down the fanatic but it will quietly and gently disarm him. But fight fanaticism with fanaticism and you will restore it to its own congenial element. It is like Antaeus, who gained strength when touching his native earth.

Whoever reads the history of this country calmly and thoroughly cannot but discover that religious liberty is slowly but steadily rooting out the elements of superstition, and even of prejudice. It has dissolved the war of sects, of which persecution was characteristic, into a contest of abstract opinions, which creates convictions without oppressing men. By recognizing perfect freedom of inquiry, it will engender among men of different belief that mutual respect of true convictions which makes inquiry earnest and discussion fair. It will recognize as supremely inviolable what Roger Williams, one of the most luminous stars of the American sky, called the sanctity of conscience. Read your history and add the thousands and thousands of Romanists and their offspring together who, from the first establishment of the colonies, gradually came to this country, and the sum will amount to many millions; compare that number with the number of Romanists who are now here and you will find that millions are missing.

Where are they? You did not kill them; you did not drive them away; they did not perish as the victims of persecution. But where are they? The peaceable workings of the great principles which called this republic into existence has gradually and silently absorbed them. True Americanism, toleration, the equality of rights has absorbed their prejudices and will peaceably absorb everything that is not consistent with the victorious spirit of our institutions.

Segment 8: Liberty and the Vitality of Democracy Founded on Equality of Rights

Oh, sir, there is a wonderful vitality in true democracy founded upon the equality of rights. There is an inexhaustible power of resistance in that system of government which makes the protection of individual rights a matter of common interest If preserved in its purity there is no warfare of opinions which can endager it—there is no conspiracy of despotic aspirations that can destroy it. But is not preserved in its purity—there are dangers which only blindness cannot see and which only stubborn party prejudice will not see. . . . One of these is the propensity of men to lose sight of fundamental principles when passing abuses are to be corrected.

Is it not wonderful how nations who have won their liberty by the severest struggles become so easily impatient of the small inconveniences and passing difficulties which are almost inseparably connected with the practical working of general self-government. How they so easily forget that rights may be abused and yet remain inalienable rights? Europe has witnessed many an attempt for the establishment of democratic institutions; some of them were at first successful and the people were free, but the abuses and inconveniences connected with liberty became at once apparent. Then the ruling classes of society, in order to get rid of the abuses, restricted liberty; they did, indeed, get rid of the abused but they got rid of liberty at the same time. You heard liberal governments there speak of protecting and regulating the liberty of the press; and in order to prevent that liberty from being abused they adopted measures, apparently harmless at first, which ultimately resulted in a absolute censorship. Would it be much better if we, recognizing the right of man to the exercise of self-government, should, in order to protect the purity of the ballot box, restrict the right of suffrage?

Liberty, sir, is like a spirited housewife; she will have her whims, she will be somewhat unruly sometimes, and, like so many husbands, you cannot always have it all your own way. She may spoil your favorite dish sometimes; but will you, therefore, at once smash her china, break her kettles, and shut her out from the kitchen? Let her practice, let her try again and again, and even when she makes a mistake encourage her with a benignant smile and your broth will be right after a while. But meddle with her concerns, tease her, bore her, and your little squabbles, spirited as she is, will ultimately result in a divorce. What then? It is one of Jefferson’s wisest words that “he would much rather be exposed to the inconveniences arising from too much liberty than to those arising from too small a degree of it.” It is a matter of historical experience that nothing that is wrong in principle can be right in practice. People are apt to delude themselves on that point; but the ultimate result will always prove the truth of the maxim.

A violation of equal rights can never serve to maintain institutions which are founded upon equal rights. A contrary policy is not only pusillanimous and small but it is senseless. It reminds me of the soldier who, for fear of being shot in battle, committed suicide on the march; or of the man who would cut off his foot because he had a corn on his toe. It is that ridiculous policy of premature despair which commences to throw the freight overboard when there is a suspicious cloud in the sky.

Segment 9: The Struggle against Human Thralldom & the Propensity of Political Parties

Another danger for the safety of our institutions, and perhaps the most formidable one, arises from the general propensity of political parties and public men to act on a policy of mere expediency and to sacrifice principle to local and temporary success. And here, sir, let me address a solemn appeal to the conscience of those with whom I am proud to struggle side by side against human thralldom.

You hate kingcraft, and you would sacrifice your fortunes and your lives in order to prevent its establishment on the soil of this republic. But let me tell you that the rule of political parties which sacrifice principle to expediency is no less dangerous, no less disastrous, no less aggressive, of no less despotic a nature than the rule of monarchs. Do not indulge in the delusion that in order to make a government fair and liberal the only thing necessary is to make it elective. When a political party in power, however liberal their principles may be, have once adopted the policy of knocking down their opponents instead of voting them down, there is an end of justice and equal rights. . . .

Remember the shout of indignation that went all over the Northern states when we heard that the border ruffians of Kansas had crowded the free-state men away from the polls and had not allowed them to vote. That indignation was just, not only because the men thus terrorized were free-state men and friends of liberty but because they were deprived of their right of suffrage and because the government of that territory was placed on the basis of force instead of equal rights. Sir, if ever the party of liberty should use their local predominance for the purpose of disarming their opponents instead of convincing them, they will but follow the example set by the ruffians of Kansas, although legislative enactments may be a genteeler weapon than the revolver and Bowie knife. They may perhaps achieve some petty local success, they may gain some small, temporary advantage, but they will help to introduce a system of action into our politics which will gradually undermine the very foundations upon which our republican edifice rests.

Of all the dangers and difficulties that beset us, there is none more horrible than the hideous monster whose name is “Proscription for opinion’s sake.” I am an antislavery man, and I have a right to my opinion in South Carolina just as well as in Massachusetts. My neighbor is a pro-slavery man; I may be sorry for it, but I solemnly acknowledge his right to his opinion in Massachusetts as well as in South Carolina. You tell me that for my opinion they would mob me in South Carolina? Sir, there is the difference between South Carolina and Massachusetts. There is the difference between an antislavery man, who is a freeman, and a slaveholder, who is himself a slave.

Segment 10: The Solid Basis of Equal Rights

Our present issues will pass away. The slavery question will be settled, liberty will be triumphant, and other matters of difference will divide the political parties of this country. What if we, in our struggle against slavery, had removed the solid basis of equal rights on which such new matters of difference may be peaceably settled? What if we had based the institutions of this country upon a difference of rights between different classes of people? What if, in destroying the generality of natural rights, we had resolved them into privileges? There is a thing which stands above the command of the most ingenious of politicians: it is the logic of things and events. It cannot be turned and twisted by artificial arrangements and delusive statements; it will go its own way with the steady step of fate. It will force you, with uncompromising severity, to choose between two social organizations, one of which is founded upon privilege and the other upon the doctrine of equal rights.

Force instead of right, privilege instead of equality, expediency instead of principle being once the leading motives of your policy, you will have no power to stem the current. There will be new abuses to be corrected, new inconveniences to be remedied, new supposed dangers to be obviated, new equally exacting ends to be subserved; and your encroachments upon the natural rights of your opponents now will be used as welcome precedents for the mutual oppression of parties then. Having once knowingly disregarded the doctrine of equal rights, the ruling parties will soon accustom themselves to consult only their interests where fundamental principles are at stake. Those who lead us into this channel will be like the sorcerer who knew the art of making a giant snake. And when he had made it, he forgot the charm word that would destroy it again. And the giant snake threw its horrid coils around him, and the unfortunate man was choked by the monster of his own creation.

Segment 11: Republicanism at the West

Strenuous advocate of individual rights and of local self-government as I am, if you ever hear of any movement in the West against the integrity of the fundamental principles underlying our system of government, I invite you, I entreat you, I conjure you, come one and all, and make our prairies resound and our forests shake and our ears ring and tingle with your appeals for the equal rights of man. . . . This is Western republicanism. These are its principles, and I am proud to say its principles are its policy. These are the ideas which have rallied around the banner of liberty, not only the natives of the soil but an innumerable host of Germans, Scandinavians, Scotchmen, Frenchmen, and a goodly number of Irishmen, also.

Under this banner all the languages of civilized mankind are spoken, every creed is protected, every right is sacred. There stands every element of Western society, with enthusiasm for a great cause, with confidence in each other, with honor to themselves. This is the banner floating over the glorious valley which stretches from the western slope of the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains—that Valley of Jehoshaphat where the nations of the world assemble to celebrate the resurrection of human freedom. The inscription on that banner . . . is “Liberty and equal rights, common as the air of heaven—liberty and equal rights, one and inseparable!”

With this banner we stand before the world. In this sign—in this sign alone, and no other—there is victory. And thus, sir, we mean to realize the great cosmopolitan idea upon the existence of the American nation rests. Thus we mean to fulfill the great mission of true Americanism, thus we mean to answer the anxious question of downtrodden humanity: “Has man the faculty to be free and to govern himself?” The answer is a triumphant “Aye,” thundering into the ears of the despots of the Old World that “am man is a man for all that”; proclaiming to the oppressed that they are held in subjection on false pretenses; cheering the hearts of the despondent friends of man with consolation and renewed confidence.

This is true Americanism, clasping mankind to its great heart. Under its banner we march; let the world follow.

[Carl Schurz, True Americanism—April 18, 1859, Massachusetts, Annals of America. (Vol. 9 pp. 97-106)]