A Mugwump Who Battled the Emerging American Empire

The career of Carl Schurz (1829–1906) illustrates the transformation of American liberalism from a philosophy of limited government to one that provided the beginnings of a welfare/warfare state. It was a model that Americans now take for granted. Schurz was part of a small group that fought this transformation. He was a German revolutionary and later a U.S. senator and journalist, among many other things, who came to America after the failed German revolution of 1848. As a result of that failure, Prussia, the most anti-democratic of the German states, would eventually dominate a unified German state. It was a militarist and highly centralized state, a state at odds with German liberal traditions.

A Prussian model was imposed on the rest of Germany in a series of wars. These included the seven-week-long war of 1866. It was a war of German brothers. It was a war in which Prussia — with a new general staff effectively using railroads — defeated the forces of the Hapsburg Empire and its liberal German allies including Bavaria and Hanover. Four years after the victory of Prussia over France, Germany was united under a Prussian model. German liberalism, except as an adjunct of the emerging German welfare state, was dead.

Schurz, the son of a schoolmaster in a small town near Bonn, had classical liberal values that had been formed by his early 20s and led him to abhor the militarist and centralizing values of Prussia, where the army and Junker class ruled. He barely escaped incarceration as one of the revolutionaries of 1848. He was also one of the leaders of the liberal Frankfurt parliament. Schurz, in his 20s, became an exile in America. Here he quickly learned English, becoming one of the leaders of the German-American community. He decided, wrote one historian, that if he could not “be the citizen of a free Germany,” he would “at least be the citizen of a free America.”

Clearly, the policies of war and militarism and their inevitable effect on the domestic policies of a nation had a formative effect on Schurz’s character. The revolutionaries of 1848 had wanted the Prussia king to rule with a parliament, to follow many of the principles of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. They offered the crown of a unified constitutional Germany to the Prussian king, with the king subordinate to the law. But the king had disdained it like something offered from the gutter. Ultimately, Prussian militarism acted as a counter-revolutionary force.

But later, toward the end of his life, Schurz fought the same militarist forces in America when the United States started to copy some of the features of the Prussian warfare/welfare state. These features would lead the United States to fight two controversial wars: the Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I — one just before Schurz’s death and other about a decade after it. These wars began the transformation of a classical liberal America to an America that embraced the responsibilities — or what Schurz called the evils — of world power. Schurz, at the end of his life, feared that the United States had virtually become another Prussia. Schurz preferred that the United States become “the greatest neutral power of the world.” That phrase is significant and tells us a bit about Schurz’s life. When he had fled from his native Prussia, he went first to Switzerland. This was a nation that avoided the responsibilities of a great power by avoiding militarism and military alliances.

Who Were the Mugwumps?

In his last 20 years, Schurz became one of the Mugwumps: disaffected Americans who broke with the Republican Party in the 1880s. They favored limited government, civil service reform, free trade, and having the United States pursue noninterventionist foreign policies. For some 20 years, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, they waged a relentless yet ultimately futile battle against the expansion of the American state. Schurz was one of their leaders.

Schurz began in America as an abolitionist Republican. That put him in the political mainstream of his adopted country. A Civil War veteran, he advocated hard money, a money backed by gold so the United States wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the Revolutionary War era. That’s when the government had overissued a paper money, the continental, not backed by gold, and it became worthless.

Schurz understood monetary issues. So when the United States returned to the gold standard after the Civil War, he said he “was absolutely against inflation of any kind.” He also fought against the imperial presidency in the crisis over the acquisition of and intervention of U.S. forces in Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) without congressional approval during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Here was Schurz, as a senator, speaking in 1870 against sending the navy to Santo Domingo and putting the country at risk of war:

Sir, that simple provision of the constitution that Congress shall have the power to declare war cannot by any rule of construction be interpreted to mean anything less than Congress, and not the president alone, shall define the contingencies in which the belligerent powers of the United States are to be used.

This time Schurz and his allies won. Grant backed down. But here was a warmup for the later actions of imperial presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump.

This is a presidency in which our chief executive can order the nation into war without Congress, a nation without a separation of powers. The latter is an idea enumerated by, among others, Montesquieu in “In the Spirit of the Laws.” He wrote, “Il faut que le pouvoir arrete le pouvoir [It is necessary that power stops power].”

That principle was embodied in the Constitution as originally interpreted. Indeed, in the debates in the press late in 1787, the Pennsylvania minority wrote, “The celebrated Montesquieu tells us that when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same power of magistrates, there can be no liberty because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Toward the end of Schurz’s life, in the late 19th century, Schurz feared America would become what Montesquieu had criticized.

Why did America turn from its classical liberal origins?

One theory is that these were imperial policies numerous Republicans were ready to adopt in the 1890s during a depression to keep themselves in power. (The technique is not unusual. Think of the numerous times Bismarck invented foreign crises when he faced problems with parliament.)

The triumph of these republican imperialists was presaged by the Republican presidential candidate of 1884, James Blaine. He believed the “party’s salvation lay in launching under the Republican aegis a new assertive foreign policy for the United States, one that would put an end to its isolation and place it once for all in the international arena as a major world power,” according to “The Politics of War” by Walter Karp.

Even before this, Schurz and Blaine were political opponents. Schurz objected to Blaine’s ethics before Blaine called for America to ditch “isolationism,” which I prefer to call non-interventionism. Republicans such as Blaine later became advocates of the American Empire, which came out of the Spanish-American War of 1898. This was a war Schurz lobbied President McKinley not to fight. Initially the president agreed and promised Schurz in a letter not to give in to the “jingo spirit.” But then he let himself drift into war with the collapsing Spanish Empire. John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, later called it “a splendid little war.”

McKinley gave in to popular opinion stoked by publisher Randolph Hearst and other yellow-press barons with often-false atrocity stories that even rival yellow-press publisher Joseph Pulitzer complained were often exaggerations (ironically, when a Spanish general, Valeriano Weyler, committed real atrocities against the Cuban people, he named as his inspiration the Civil War General William Sherman and his rampage through the South in 1864).

Hearst insisted that the Spanish had blown up the American battleship the Maine in Havana Harbor. Decades later, Admiral Hyman Rickover published a book both in Spanish and English that proved there was no evidence of Spanish sabotage. The most likely cause of the explosion was an internal explosion caused by the American captain, who had a poor record of maintaining the ship, Rickover wrote. By the way, when the ship exploded, many Spanish sailors dived into the sea to try to save Americans. A few months later, those Spanish sailors would be enemies of the Americans.

Yet Spain, with a collapsing empire, ill-equipped armed forces — its ships were old, and the navy, readying for war with the Americans, didn’t know where it could find enough coaling stations — also had many domestic problems. So it had no desire to fight the United States or any great power in 1898.

But Schurz, along with sociologist William Graham Sumner, warned that victory over Spain could be dangerous for the victor. They believed that the United States was taking on the mantle of Spanish imperialism. A democracy, Schurz argued in opposing annexations after the Spanish-American War, could not “play the king over subject populations without creating in itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality.”

Opponent of the Warfare State

Schurz detested the militarization of society that came with war along with relentless war preparations. He had seen too much of the former in his lifetime. As a one-star general in the Civil War he had been disgusted by its slaughters. By the way, our civil war, which many have called the first total war (as detailed in the book “Sherman’s Ghosts”), astounded many European military observers. They could not believe how generals on both sides threw away lives through their blunders. Their insane massed formations and charges straight into the efficient, murderous fire of the newly developed long rifle were at times virtually suicidal.

Both the victors and the losers of these battles and war paid an incredible price in human slaughter. Think of Gen. Grant’s enormous loss of men at the Wilderness in 1864, a time when the North was on the offensive and about to win the war, and Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s stubborn insistence on charging and charging again into murderous Confederate fire at Fredericksburg in 1862. Burnside’s actions practically led to a mutiny of corps commanders when he wanted to continue the attack on heavily fortified Confederate positions.

Schurz viewed these events with disgust. He saw them firsthand and wanted them to never happen again. Schurz knew the Civil War was a slaughterhouse, even for the winning side.

“The Horrors of War”

Schurz was explicit in his memoirs that “he must be an inhuman brute or a slave of wild, unscrupulous ambition, who having seen the horrors of war, will not admit that war brought on without the most absolute necessity, is the greatest and most unpardonable of crimes.” As we might expect, Schurz spent the last years of his life as one of the leaders of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

Schurz’s hatred of war’s destruction and what he believed was its inevitably accompanying destruction of liberty put him in the pantheon of American anti-war critics. His comments remind one of Randolph Bourne’s warning during World War I that “war is the health of the state.”

But, unlike Bourne’s, Schurz’s anti-militarism stemmed from his attachment to laissez-faire, a fact that embarrasses the many elites of latter-day liberalism (democratic socialism) who have examined his life. They are disturbed by his constant opposition to a big state running the economy through inflation and other state tools.

Indeed, Prof. Hans L. Trefousse, in “Carl Schurz, a Biography,” generally depicts this leading Mugwump in a good light. Nevertheless, Trefousse writes almost in shame at discovering that Schurz believed in limited government and laissez-faire. Writes Trefousse, “A nineteenth century liberal in the original sense of that term, he was unable to fully grasp the implications of the changing industrial order, particularly in the shortcomings of laissez-faire.”

Honest Money

Trefousse also bemoans Schurz’s devotion to hard money. “Honest money,” Trefousse writes of Schurz, “became one of his most frequently expressed prescriptions for national health. If later generations might find this position somewhat inflexible, it nevertheless appealed to his strongly anti-inflationist fellow Germans as well as Liberals.”

For Schurz, “honest money” and laissez-faire were part of a set of classical liberal beliefs. They tended to go along with the antiwar principles among typical Mugwumps. Schurz, along with almost all other classical liberals in the 19th century, tended to combine these economic beliefs with their antiwar sentiments (small militaries and a noninterventionist foreign policy). One usually went with the other. Theodore Roosevelt, by contrast, had a very different state of beliefs that called for an expansion of the central government. He wanted America to be a great power — with the president as the lead player in foreign policy and Congress a distant second. Contrast that with Schurz’s views on the Santo Domingo crisis.

But Roosevelt also supported the founding of the American welfare state, which implied the use of inflation and a central bank. The triumph of this view can be seen in its eventual support by Roosevelt’s one-time supposed philosophical rival, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt essentially was a Hamiltonian, while Schurz was a Jeffersonian.

Yet Schurz’s ideas, along with his devotion to limited government, put him in the American political mainstream through much of the 19th century.

Liberty in Retreat

However, in the last decade and a half or so of the century, Schurz and a select group of Republicans, the Mugwumps, along with some disaffected Democrats, suddenly found themselves on the outside of the political mainstream. They became opponents of a nascent American warfare state with the United States as a world power. They opposed those Republicans who were building the foundations of an American warfare state.

American liberalism in Schurz’s lifetime was discarding the original values of classical liberalism and transforming itself into a power liberalism that has triumphed in both major parties since the beginning of the 20th century. This faux liberalism is really a kind of socialism, a socialism without doctrines in which no one mentions Karl Marx (someone who had a tendency to alienate most people, including would-be allies, and whom Schurz met during the revolution of 1848 and was put off by).

But socialism was something Schurz fought throughout his life. That embarrasses some contemporary biographers who are disturbed by Schurz’s support of laissez-faire policies but sometimes interested in his opposition to the policies of the American warfare state. These biographers’ philosophy has celebrated the power of central governments, enabled the welfare/warfare state to begin, and moved the United States into the realm of becoming “a world power.” These were all ideas that were pushed by Theodore Roosevelt, one of Schurz’s friends.

Schurz vs. Roosevelt on the Madness of War

Schurz once backed a young Theodore Roosevelt in his efforts on behalf of civil service reform, but would break with Roosevelt because of Roosevelt’s support for American Empire. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt is the prototypical figure of the young welfare/warfare state. And one of the characteristics of this state is its tendency, if not affinity, for war.

Theodore Roosevelt, said Mark Twain, “was mad” for war. As Evan Thomas writes in his book “The War Lovers,” Roosevelt delighted in taking the field during the Spanish-American War. He bragged that he personally shot some Spanish soldiers and that his regiment took more casualties than others. He thought war was beer and skittles. “Holy Godfrey what fun,” he said in the midst of battle of San Juan Hill.

In Roosevelt’s book “Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States,” he rails against those who thought twice about going to war. He charges that McKinley had initially lacked “backbone” in the crisis over Cuba. Roosevelt didn’t need yellow journals to get in a fighting mood. “I have felt,” he wrote, “that every consideration of national interest and humanity made war imperative before the destruction of the Maine.” The Maine’s destruction in Havana harbor was the last step in America’s road to war.

Roosevelt believed, unlike Schurz, that war is a good thing, that it strengthens the character of a nation. He held that war was necessary from time to time, that it keeps a society from becoming weak and too attached to commerce.

Roosevelt almost had a point. The spirit of commerce, as many philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Baron de Montesquieu have told us, is the opposite of the spirit of war. That is why nations that trade with each other are less likely to make war against each other. They are not likely to feel the jingoist instincts that make war and killing socially acceptable, even admired in some quarters. Economist David Ricardo once said that someone is unlikely to kill a person who puts food on his table.

Roosevelt was right to see Schurz and his friends as his philosophical opposites. Indeed, in a letter to his ally Henry Cabot Lodge in 1896, Roosevelt blamed Schurz and his Mugwump allies for trying to take the country in the wrong direction: the direction of commerce, peace, and arbitration as a way of preventing war (the latter was one of the principles of Richard Cobden, John Bright, and the rest of the Manchester school). These principles, largely adopted by the Mugwumps, disgusted Roosevelt.

“If we come to nothing as a nation,” Roosevelt wrote, “it will be because of the teaching of Carl Schurz, [Harvard] President Eliot, the Evening Post and the futile sentimentalists of the internationalist arbitration types, bears it legitimate fruit in producing a flabby, timid type of character, which eats away the great fighting features of our race.”

Roosevelt’s “war is great” reasoning sickened Schurz, a friend of Roosevelt, although he didn’t support him in politics. The glorification of war was something that Schurz not only opposed in practice — he would not support Roosevelt for governor of New York when Roosevelt returned from the Spanish-American War — but found immoral. Much of Schurz’s criticism of American foreign policy presaged the problems of the American Empire that continue to this day. These come from the attempts of the United States to play the role of policeman of the world just as Otto von Bismarck, whom Schurz would come to know later in life, would attempt to have a unified Germany play the role of the policeman of Europe.

The Irony of History

In the last years of his life, the movement of America toward becoming a great power reminded Schurz of what had happened in his native land.

Yet Schurz fought for classical liberal ideas throughout his celebrated life. It was an active life that included many independent positions. That included his experience as a one-star general in the Civil War and as a Republican senator who broke with the Grant administration. He disagreed with his own party in 1884 over its nomination of the ethically compromised Blaine. Schurz supported William Jennings Bryan against McKinley in the election of 1900 despite disagreeing with Bryan over his easy-money (free silver) and various big-government proposals (Bryan, for example, was convinced the government should own the railroads). Schurz sided with Bryan only because Bryan said he opposed the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Once the war had concluded, Schurz argued that the United States should give freedom to the nations it overran in the war. Schurz and the other Mugwumps were ignored. The United States couldn’t resist the imperial impulse and started running these countries directly or indirectly.

Schurz was saddened by a related irony. In a letter to a friend in 1902, he wrote that he had come to America to escape militarism but now believed his beloved republic was “in the clutches of sinister powers which seduce and betray it into an abandonment of its most sacred principles and traditions and push it into policies and practices worse than those which once he had to flee from.”

I believe that Schurz, if he could come back and see the growth of the welfare/warfare state — the interventions around the globe, the myriad threats of war, the endless debt, and the central bank’s use of soft-money policies to expand state programs both domestic and foreign — would be disgusted. His words and philosophy of anti-imperialism and limited government remain relevant for those who revere liberty.