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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Republican Connections, 1860-Style

When the Republican Party convention gets underway this week in Tampa (weather permitting), Wisconsin will play a prominent part. We were also close to the center of the party 150 years ago. The best-known Wisconsin Republican of that day was Watertown resident, Carl Schurz (1829-1906), a friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Early Life

As a student in Germany in the late 1840s, Schurz had been a colleague of Karl Marx and other visionaries who insisted that people should be able to choose their own leaders. When their movement was suppressed, the so-called Forty-Eighters fled for their lives. Marx ended up in London and Schurz in -- who'd have guessed -- Dodge County, Wisconsin.

First, however, he snuck back into Germany to spring a friend from a government prison in a famous jailbreak that endeared him to common people and enraged the authorities.

The Republican Convention of 1860

Schurz soon became a leader in the new Republican Party, and during the election of 1860 was chosen to head the state's delegation to the nominating convention in Chicago. The Wisconsin delegation, like the party members they represented, was whole-heartedly behind New York Sen. William Seward. Seward supposedly had the nomination locked up thanks to the machine of political boss Thurlow Weed.

But Seward failed to capture enough delegates on the first two ballots and momentum shifted to home-town favorite Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Schurz had first met during the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"I must confess that I was somewhat startled by his appearance," Schurz recalled about that first encounter. "There he stood, overtopping by several inches all those surrounding him. Although measuring something over six feet myself, I had, standing quite near to him, to throw my head backward in order to look into his eyes."

At the 1860 convention, Wisconsin and New York were the last holdouts for Seward, but they came around to Lincoln in the end. Schurz also wrote the articles of the party platform that demanded fair treatment for new immigrants and the abolition of slavery. Back home in Milwaukee a few days later, he announced at a Republican rally, "Let it be known that New York and Wisconsin, who stood together to the last for Seward in the Convention, will be the first and foremost in the battle for Lincoln and Liberty!"

Schurz and Lincoln

When the convention ended, Schurz was sent to Springfield to tell the future president the good news. "Mr. Lincoln received us in the parlor of his modest frame house…," he wrote in his memoirs. "There the Republican candidate for the Presidency stood, tall and ungainly in his black suit of apparently new but ill-fitting clothes, his long tawny neck emerging gauntly from his turn-down collar, his melancholy eyes sunken deep in his haggard face. Most of the members of the committee had never seen him before, and gazed at him with surprised curiosity. He certainly did not present the appearance of a statesman as people usually picture it in their imagination."

Schurz went on to play a crucial role in Lincoln's election by delivering the German-American vote. For this he was rewarded with an ambassadorship, but when the Civil War broke out he turned it down in order to fight as a brigadier general. After the war Schurz settled in St. Louis, where he was elected a U.S. senator (1869-1875). While in the Senate he uttered the statement for which he is perhaps best-remembered today:

"My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

Schurz also served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior (1877-1881) before moving to New York. He supported himself with his pen, worked for reform organizations, and served in various public capacities until his death in 1906. His library of 2,500 books, including a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates given to him by Lincoln, was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1962.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on August 23, 2012
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