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Schurz: The True Americanism



What is the rule of honor to be observed by a power so strongly and so advantageously situated as this Republic is? Of course I do not expect it meekly to pocket real insults if they should be offered to it. But, surely, it should not, as our boyish jingoes wish it to do, swagger about among the nations of the world, with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody’s face. Of course, it should not tamely submit to real encroachments upon its rights. But, surely, it should not, whenever its own notions of right or interest collide with the notions of others, fall into hysterics and act as if it really feared for its own security and its very independence. As a true gentleman, conscious of his strength and his dignity, it should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with other nations it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great peace power of the world. It should never forget what a proud privilege and what an inestimable blessing it is not to need and not to have big armies or navies to support. It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented. It should be so invariably just and fair, so trustworthy, so good tempered, so conciliatory, that other nations would instinctively turn to it as their mutual friend and the natural adjuster of their differences, thus making it the greatest preserver of the world’s peace. This is not a mere idealistic fancy. It is the natural position of this great republic among the nations of the earth. It is its noblest vocation, and it will be a glorious day for the United States when the good sense and the self-respect of the American people see in this their “manifest destiny.” It all rests upon peace. Is not this peace with honor? There has, of late, been much loose speech about “Americanism.” Is not this good Americanism? It is surely today the Americanism of those who love their country most. And I fervently hope that it will be and ever remain the Americanism of our children and our children’s children.

Carl Schurz, “The True Americanism,” speech delivered on Jan. 2, 1896 in: Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 5, p. 258 (F. Bancroft ed. 1913)

In an interview that Rachel Maddow conducted on Thursday with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama–an interview that must figure as one of the best of the campaign–I was fascinated by this exchange:

MADDOW: Senator, you criticize the Bush administration frequently. But, you almost never criticize the Republican Party itself. Other Democrats, you will hear them talk about the GOP as the party that’s been wrong on all the big stuff. Creating Social Security, civil rights, the War in Iraq. But, you don’t really do that. Do you think there is a stark difference between the parties?

OBAMA: Well, I do think there’s a difference between the parties, but here’s my belief. That I’m talking to voters. And I think they’re a lot of Republican voters out there, self-identified, who actually think that what the Bush administration has done, has been damaging to the country.

And, what I’m interested in, is how do we build a working majority for change? And if I start off with the premise that it’s only self-identified Democrats who I’m speaking to, then I’m not going to get to where we need to go. If I can describe it as not a blanket indictment of the Republican Party, but instead describe it as the Republican Party having been kidnapped by a incompetent, highly ideological subset of the Republican Party, then that means I can still reach out to a whole bunch of Republican moderates who I think are hungry for change, as well.

Indeed, the groundswell of support flowing to Obama from the “Obamacons,” Republican conservatives who have broken with their party to support Obama, suggests that Obama’s hesitancy to criticize the Republican Party as a party is sound politics.

So as the visage of George W. Bush taints the good name of the Republican Party, it is time to remember that the Republicans did far better in the past. Now they drag politics in the gutter, but once they elevated the nation’s political dialogue, gave us hope and preached a new form of patriotism which sought to include rather than divide, which valued education and chastised ignorance, which extolled the liberties of our constitutional order and cursed tyrants and slaveholders.

Among those Republicans, several were associated closely with Harper’s. Today, as thoughts come to focus on the polls, I remember Carl Schurz. He launched his political career at the side of his mentor, Abraham Lincoln, served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, stood for office as a Republican candidate in Wisconsin, Illinois and finally became U.S. senator from Missouri. He served as a diplomat and as secretary of the interior. And he was a prolific editor and writer throughout, succeeding George William Curtis as editor of Harper’s Weekly in 1892. Schurz was one of a handful of Republicans of the generation of Lincoln who carried the promise of the man from Springfield to the end of the century, pushing to the end for an expansion of the electoral franchise to all citizens and for a realization of the promise of freedom and citizenship that the Civil War held out for all the newly made citizens, especially those languishing in fear and intimidation in the American South. As Mark Twain wrote of his friend and editor in Harper’s at the time of Schurz’s death in 1906, Schurz could face the greatest political tempest and never lose his moral bearings:

I had this same confidence in Carl Schurz as a political channel-finder. I had the highest opinion of his inborn qualifications for the office: his blemishless honor, his unassailable patriotism, his high intelligence, his penetration; I also had the highest opinion of his acquired qualifications as a channel-finder. I believed he could read the political surfaces as accurately as Bixby could read the faint and fleeting signs upon the Mississippi’s face — the pretty dimple that hid a deadly rock, the ostentatious wind-reef that had nothing under it; the sleek and inviting dead stretch that promised quarter-less-twain and couldn’t furnish six feet.

Among Schurz’s writings, his speech on the true Americanism—a blistering attack on those who attempt to undermine democratic principles in the interests of war-mongering—remains a classic. He defines the true Americanism in terms that Lincoln would have recognized, begging to be inclusive, proud, but valuing justice and rejecting ignorance, fear and bigotry. This is the lost legacy of the Republican Party. And it’s curious that the candidate in the 2008 race who recalls it is not the Republican.

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