In your opinion, what does Frankenmuth tell us about the United States as a whole?
I would say it shows us that the United States is really a country of immigrants and that these immigrants have shaped the country and made it what it is today!
I would like to tell you the story of one man who particularly formed this country and who is a great example of the influence German immigrants have had on the development and history of the United States.
His name is Carl Schurz. He was America’s 13th Secretary of the Interior and a first generation immigrant from Germany! He is an extraordinary man and I’d like you to meet him!
It all began one early summer morning in 1849 at the Rastatt Fortress in the Black Forest, Baden, Germany.
A young revolutionary, Carl Schurz, is trapped there with his brothers in arms, surrounded by the Prussian army. He had fought for an independent German nation state with democratic civil rights in the Baden Revolution - part of the revolution that had been taking place in all of the German states and Europe in 1848/49.
The situation is hopeless, both for the revolution and for Carl Schurz personally. Rastatt is the last revolutionary stronghold, and it is only a matter of time before it, too, has to surrender to the Prussian troops. Carl Schurz is Prussian, and he faces summary execution while his comrades from other German states can expect to escape with their lives.
But Carl is undaunted and doesn't give up easily. He hatches a daring escape plan. He remembered a potential way out, as he describes in his Reminiscences later:
Toward daybreak I stretched myself once more on my accustomed sofa, and after several hours of profound sleep woke up with the thought, “To-day you will be taken by the Prussians, to be shot dead.” [...] Then a new idea suddenly flashed through my head. I remembered that only a few days previously my attention had been attracted to a subterranean sewer for the waters of the street gutters which, near the Steinmauerner gate, led from the interior of the city, under the fortifications, into an open field outside. [...] Outside it emptied into a ditch overgrown with shrubbery, which bordered a corn field. [..] Would it not be possible for me to escape through that sewer? Would it not, if I thus gained the open in this way, be possible in some manner to reach the Rhine, there to procure a boat and to cross the river to the French side? My resolution was promptly taken—I would at least try.
Karl does not hesitate for a second and starts an adventurous escape, together with two comrades. He has nothing to lose and even though he doesn’t know yet, many great things still lie ahead of him:
The sewer was a tube of brick masonry, sufficiently high and wide for us to move through it with bent knees and curved backs, half walking, half crawling. The water running through the sewer covered our feet and ankles. [...] We also perceived living creatures which suddenly, with great activity, rushed and crawled around us. They were undoubtedly rats. “We have to get out,” I said to my companions, “or we shall be drowned.”
Finally, after hours, they literally see a light at the end of the tunnel:
With a few hasty paces we reached the end of the sewer. Without looking around we jumped over a hedge into the nearest kitchen garden, and gained, with a rapid run, a second hedge, which we cleared in the same way. Then we halted, breathless under cover of some shrubs, to listen whether anybody was following us.
After this spectacular escape through the sewers, the failed revolutionary began a long odyssey through Europe. Before he finally emigrated to the States in 1852, Carl returned to Germany to rescue his University Professor, dear friend and fellow revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel from prison in Spandau near Berlin.
Schurz forges a cunning plan: he manages to get the guards drunk and finds an accomplice among the jailors. Schurz convinced a guard, using his rope, to lower the professor down from his cell to the street below.
Shortly before midnight I stood [...] well hidden in the dark recess of the house door opposite the penitentiary. [...] My eye was riveted to the roof of the penitentiary building, the dormer windows of which I could scarcely distinguish. The street lights flared dimly. Suddenly there appeared a light above by which I could observe the frame of one of the dormer windows; it moved three times up and down; that was the signal hoped for. A second later the light above disappeared and I perceived a dark object slowly moving across the edge of the wall. [...] Now the dark object had almost reached the ground. I jumped forward and touched him; it was indeed my friend, and there he stood alive and on his feet. “This is a bold deed,” were the first words he said to me. “Thank God,” I answered. “Now off with the rope and away.”
This extraordinary maneuver made Carl Schurz and Kinkel very popular.
So, when Carl Schurz immigrated to the United States in 1852, the country gained a true adventurer. A man that fights for his beliefs and finds creative and unconventional ways to stay true to them.
But what did this adventurer get up to in the United States?
Well, he was a man of many talents and after he had settled in Waterford, Wisconsin, he became a freemason, a land seller, a lawyer, and an orator in both English and German. Like many other Forty-Eighters, he also joined the Republicans and even became the American ambassador to Spain under Abraham Lincoln.
But he soon left Spain and came back to his new home country to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. As a battle-tested Forty-Eighter, he quickly went from unserved volunteer to Brigadier and finally Major General. When the Union suffered a bitter defeat at the battle of Chancellorsville, many sought to blame German volunteers, including those commanded by Carl Schurz. This led to increased anti-immigrant sentiment.
This 1872 caricature from Harper’s Weekly tries to depict Carl Schurz as a traitor in the Civil War.
After the war, he retreated from his diplomatic and military career and became a newspaper editor. Throughout his lifetime, he edited and wrote for about half a dozen American newspapers, among them the Detroit Post.
But Schurz did not settle down as an editor permanently. On the contrary, he was elected Senator of the State of Missouri in 1868 and thereby became the first German-born member of the U.S.-Senate.
He was a man that was always looking to improve things and wherever he saw defects, he tried to fix them. He still held onto his liberal ideas that had made him fight in the German Revolution and here in the States he did not approve of the current president U. S. Grant and his restrictive Reconstruction policies after the Civil War. So he used his influence as Senator to found the Liberal Republican Party that strongly opposed the President and tried to prevent his reelection. Unfortunately it did not have a long life and made him make a lot of enemies among the traditional Republicans.
This 1872 caricature from Harper’s Weekly compares Carl Schurz and the other members of the Liberal Republican Party to the Great Conspiracy against Caesar in Ancient Rome. It accuses them of betraying the Republican cause - President Grant being Caesar.
So was this the end of his political career? No, he was much too tough and determined for that! Instead he became Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876!
As Secretary of the Interior, the corruption in his ministry and in the government in general struck him. He became a vigorous opponent of corruption and joined the so-called Mugwump movement that took a firm stand against it.
He noticed that the most severe corruption in his ministry was happening in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where positions were used for personal enrichment off the reservations and granted through political patronage, not merit. He went on to reorganize the office and instore better practices. He also prevented the Bureau from being subordinated to the Ministry of War, which would have meant hard times for the Native Americans.
Since he was a young man, Schurz had seen mistakes and injustices very clearly and had tried to fight against them in various ways and on various occasions. However, he was far from being a saint. He did reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs and put a stop to corruption at the expense of Native Americans, but he continued the Bureau”s policy of Forced Displacement of Native Americans for a long time before finally changing his mind.
He definitely also had faults himself and some of his opponents would say that he only ever saw those of others.
Be that as it may, Carl Schurz was definitely a character and is worth being remembered as one of the most exceptional and ambitious German-American citizens of the 19th century. He was unconventional, adventurous, strong-willed and determined and he always looked to make things better. By doing so he definitely shaped the United States!
And his wife Margarethe founded the first Kindergarden in the United States!
Sonya is an FHA intern and a German graduate student pursuing museum studies.
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