What to Do with Monuments Whose History We’ve Forgotten

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tags: Civil War, Carl Schurz



Nicholas Lemann joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1999, and has written the Letter from Washington and the Wayward Press columns for the magazine.

On a high parapet in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, there is a grand monument to a nineteenth-century American statesman. Cast in larger-than-life bronze, he stands, thin, bearded, and fierce-looking, wearing a waistcoat and a cape, a crumpled fedora in his right hand, gazing to the west. To either side of the statue are heroic black bas-reliefs; underneath it is a chiselled inscription:

Carl Schurz

Defender of Liberty

And a Friend of

Human Rights


Schurz is also the namesake of the park adjoining the official residence of the Mayor of New York, on the East River, and of several other monuments across the country, but many people won’t know who he was. (Famous people don’t always stay famous.) Schurz was America’s leading ethnic politician, back when German-Americans were a substantial and self-conscious group, and he was a crusading liberal reformer. Born in Prussia in 1829, Schurz, a youthful revolutionary, was forced to leave Germany and arrived in the United States in 1852. Within a few years, he had become a passionate abolitionist and a leader of the new Republican Party. In nineteenth-century America, career paths were not as established as they are now. Schurz, on the basis of strength of will more than expertise, went on to serve as a general in the Union Army, a prominent journalist, what we’d now call an activist, and a politician.

The end of the Civil War hardly settled the question of African-American rights in the South. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson sent Schurz there on an inspection tour. Schurz reported back that the insurrection had by no means ended: “Murder, assault with intent to kill, theft and robbery are matters of every day occurrence,” he wrote from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and much of this came from “the not-realizing on the part of the Southern people that the negro is a free man.” Therefore, “It is absolutely indispensable that the country be garrisoned with troops as thickly as possible.” Later that year, he warned, presciently, “it is of the highest importance that the people lately in rebellion be not permitted to build up another ‘peculiar institution’ whose spirit is in conflict with the fundamental principles of our political system.”

Schurz was right that only the presence of federal troops could effectively guarantee the safety and basic rights of black people in the South, even after these rights were built into the Constitution through the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. But, within just a few years, he had changed his mind. In 1868, Schurz was elected to the United States Senate from Missouri, a border state where his views on racial matters were not popular. In 1872, he joined the breakaway Liberal Republican Party, which opposed President Ulysses Grant’s enforcement of the policy that Schurz had helped to create. In January, 1875, he made an influential speech on the floor of the Senate calling for the withdrawal of troops and the restoration of “self-government” in the South. “I declare I shall hail the day as a most auspicious one for the colored race in the South … when they begin to see the identity of their own true interests with the interests of the white people among whom they have to live,” he said.

Schurz’s speech was prompted by an incident in which federal troops marched onto the floor of the Louisiana legislature to restore Republican members to their seats, after the Democrats stole an election. The white-liberal establishment of the day was horrified by the spectacle of armed soldiers entering a venue of civil government; mass meetings were held at the Cooper Union, in New York, and Faneuil Hall, in Boston, to protest the action. Liberals like Schurz had lost patience with Reconstruction, partly because the black Republican Party in the South gave off a feeling of machine politics, which they found abhorrent even in the North, where the machines were Irish and Democratic. Essentially all of Grant’s Cabinet—and, for that matter, such liberal publications as The Nation, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and the Times—agreed that the time had come to end Reconstruction. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker


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