Carl Schurz

“He Offered the Hand of Friendship to those who had opposed him”

Posted on Updated on

I called upon Mr. Lincoln on a hot afternoon late in July. He greeted me cordially, and asked me to wait in the office until he should be through with the current business of the day, and then to spend the evening with him at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, which he occupied during the summer. In the carriage on the way thither he made various inquiries concerning the attitude of this and that public man, and this and that group of people, and we discussed the question whether it would be good policy to attempt an active campaign before the Democrats should have “shown their hand” in their National Convention. He argued that such an attempt would be unwise unless some unforeseen change in the situation called for it. Arrived at the cottage, he asked me to sit down with him on a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished, and began to speak about the attacks made upon him by party friends, and their efforts to force his withdrawal from the candidacy. The substance of what he said I can recount from a letter written at the time to an intimate friend.

He spoke as if he felt a pressing need to ease his heart by giving voice to the sorrowful thoughts distressing him. He would not complain of the fearful burden of care and responsibility put upon his shoulders. Nobody knew the weight of that burden save himself. But was it necessary, was it generous, was it right, to impeach even the rectitude of his motives? “They urge me with almost violent language,” he said, “to withdraw from the contest, although I have been unanimously nominated, in order to make room for a better man. I wish I could. Perhaps some other man might do this business better than I. That is possible. I do not deny it. But I am here, and that better man is not here. And if I should step aside to make room for him, it is not at all sure – perhaps not even probable -that he would get here. It is much more likely that the factions opposed to me would fall to fighting among themselves, and that those who want me to make room for a better man would get a man whom most of them would not want in at all. My withdrawal, therefore, might, and probably would, bring on a confusion worse confounded. God knows, I have at least tried very hard to do my duty – to do right to everybody and wrong to nobody. And now to have it said by men who have been my friends and who ought to know me better, that I have been seduced by what they call the lust of power, and that I have been doing this and that unscrupulous thing hurtful to the common cause, only to keep myself in office! Have they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down? I hope they have.”
So he went on, as if speaking to himself, now pausing for a second, then uttering a sentence or two with vehement emphasis. Meanwhile the dusk of evening had set in, and when the room was lighted I thought I saw his sad eyes moist and his rugged features working strangely, as if under a very strong and painful emotion. At last he stopped, as if waiting for me to say something, and, deeply touched as I was, I only expressed as well as I could, my confident assurance that the people, undisturbed by the bickerings of his critics, believed in him and would faithfully stand by him. The conversation, then turning upon things to be done, became more cheerful, and in the course of the evening he explained to me various acts of the administration which in the campaign might be questioned and call for defense. As to his differences with members of Congress concerning reconstruction, he laid particular stress. upon the fact that, looked at from a constitutional standpoint, the Executive could do many things by virtue of the war power, which Congress could not do in the way of ordinary legislation. When I took my leave that night he was in a calm mood, indulged himself in a few humorous remarks, shook my hand heartily, and said : “Well, things might look better, and they might look worse. Go in, and let us all do the best we can.”

The campaign did not become spirited until after the Democratic National Convention. But then it started in good earnest, and the prospects brightened at once. The Democrats, made overconfident by the apparent lethargy of the popular mind and the acrimonious wrangling inside of the Union party, had recklessly overshot the mark. They declared in their platform that the war against the rebellion was a failure, and that immediate efforts must be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of all the States for a peaceable settlement on the basis of reunion. Considering the fact that the leaders of the rebellion vociferously, defiantly insisted upon the independence of the Southern Confederacy as a condition sine qua non of any settlement, this proposition looked like a complete surrender. It was too much, not only for the malcontents within the Union party, but also for many Democrats. Even the candidate of their own party, General McClellan, who had been nominated for the purpose of conciliating the patriotic war-spirit still alive in the Democratic ranks, found it necessary to repudiate that part of the platform – first, in justice to his own feelings, and secondly to save the last chance of success in the election. Then came the inspiring tidings of Sherman’s victorious march into the heart of Georgia and the capture of Atlanta, kindling all over the North a blaze of jubilant enthusiasm, and covering the declaration that the war was a failure, with contemptuous derision. And, finally, more potent perhaps than all else, the tender affection of the popular heart for Abraham Lincoln burst forth with all its warmth. This tender affection, cherished among the plain people of the land, among the soldiers in the field, and their “folks at home,” was a sentimental element of strength which Lincoln’s critical opponents in the Union party had wholly ignored. Now they became aware of it, not without surprise. I believe that, had the Democratic Convention been more prudent, and had no victories happened to cheer the masses, even then “Father Abraham’s” personal popularity alone would have been sufficient to give him the victory in the election of 1864!. I made many speeches in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Western States as far as Wisconsin, three of which were printed in the collection which was published in 1865. While writing these reminiscences I read them over – let me confess it – with much satisfaction. But that they contributed much to Lincoln’s success, I candidly do not believe. They were well meant, but, although they had a wide circulation and much praise at the time, they were really superfluous. In fact, during its last two months, the presidential campaign of 1864 seemed to run itself. With a thoroughly reunited Union party, it became more and more a popular jubilee as the election approached. However, the size of his majority did not come up to the expectation of Lincoln’s friends.

A few days after the election I read in the papers the report of a speech delivered by Lincoln in response to a serenade, in which he offered the hand of friendship to those who had opposed him in these words : “Now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, reunite in a common effort to save our common community? For my own part, I have striven, and will strive, to place no obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom. While I am deeply sensible of the high compliment of a re-election, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be pained or disappointed by the result. May I ask those who were with me to join with me in the same spirit towards those who were against me?” When I read those noble words, which so touchingly revealed the whole tender generosity of Lincoln’s great soul, the haggard face I had seen that evening in the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home rose up vividly in my memory.

Quoted in Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Vol. II: 1852-1863 (New York: McClure Co., 1907), p. 102. 

The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, May 19, 1860

Posted on Updated on

    I had the honor of being appointed a member of the committee that was sent to Springfield to carry to Mr. Lincoln the official announcement of his nomination. At every railway station we passed in daylight we were received with demonstrations of joy. Mr. Lincoln received us in the parlor of his modest frame house – a rather bare-looking room ; in the center the customary Kttle table with a white marble top, and on it the silver-plated ice-water pitcher and the family Bible or the photograph albiun; and some chairs and a sofa ranged along the walls. 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. Standing up with folded hands, he quietly, without visible embarrassment or emotion, listened to the dignified little speech addressed to him by Mr. Ashmim, the president of the Convention, and then he responded with a few appropriate, earnest, and well-shaped sentences, expressing his gratitude for the confidence reposed in him, and his doubts of his own abilities, and his trust in a helping Providence. Then followed some informal talk, partly of a jovial kind, in which the hearty simplicity of Lincoln’s nature shone out, and after the usual hand-shaking the committee took its leave. One of its members, Mr. Kelley of Pennsylvania, remarked to me as we passed out of the house : ” Well, we might have done a more brilliant thing, but we could hardly have done a better thing.” I heard similar utterances from other members in which, however, an undertone of resignation and of suppressed doubt was perceptible. Some of them, who were entirely unused to Western men and Western ways, and who, on this occasion, saw Mr. Lincoln for the first time, could not quite conceal their misgivings as to how this single-minded man, this child of nature, would bear himself in the contact with the great world and in the face of the large and complicated problems, for grappling with which he had apparently so scant an equipment. 

Quoted in Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Vol. II: 1852-1863 (New York: McClure Co., 1907), p. 188.