Letter to the President

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Letter to the President

Will you, after the great political defeat we have suffered, listen a moment to the words of a true friend who means to serve you faithfully, and in whose judgment you once, perhaps, reposed some confidence?

The defeat of the Administration is owing neither to your proclamations, nor to the financial policy of the Government, nor to a desire of the people to have peace at any price. I can speak openly, for you must know that I am your friend. The defeat of the Administration is the Administration’s own fault.

It admitted its professed opponents to its counsels. It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its enemies. In all personal questions to be hostile to the party of the Government seemed to be a title to consideration. It forgot the great rule, that, if you are true to your friends, your friends will be true to you, and that you make your enemies stronger by placing them upon an equality with your friends. Is it surprising that the opponents of the Administration should have got into their hands the government of the principal States after they have had for so long a time the principal management of the war, the great business of the National Government?

Great sacrifices and enormous efforts had been made and they had been rewarded only by small results. The people felt the necessity of a change. Many of your friends had no longer any heart for the Administration as soon as they felt justified in believing that the Administration had no heart for them. I do not speak of personal favors but of the general conduct of the war. A change was sought in the wrong direction. This was the true cause of the defeat of your Government.

You have now made a change. This evening the news reaches us that the command of the Army… has passed into new hands. But the change of persons means little if it does not imply a change of system. Let us be commanded by generals whose heart is in the war, and only by such. Let every general who does not show himself strong enough to command success, be deposed at once. Let every trust of power be accompanied by a corresponding responsibility, and all may be well yet.

There is but one way in which you can sustain your Administration, and that is by success; and there is but one thing which will command success, and that is energy. In whatever hands the State governments may be, – as soon as you are victorious, they will be obliged to support you; and if they were all in the hands of your friends, – if you do not give them victories, they will after a while be obliged to oppose you. Therefore let us have energy without regard to anything that may stand in your way. Let not the Government be endangered by tender considerations. If West Point cannot do the business, let West Point go down. Who cares? It is better that a thousand generals should fall than that the Republic should be jeopardized a single moment.

To-day we are still strong enough to meet the difficulties that stand against us. We do not know what we shall be to-morrow.

Except for the slightly archaic way of stating his ideas, you might think that this is a modern person speaking about the modern problem of executing a war properly. This was actually a letter sent to President Abraham Lincoln about seven and a half weeks after the bloodiest single day of battle in American history – Battle of Sharpsburg / Antietam (September 17, 1862). There were 3654 killed, 17,292 wounded and 1771 captured or missing. The letter was dated November 8, 1862, and written by General Carl Schurz. If you haven’t heard of Carl Schurz, he is a man who has almost completely faded into the background of history. During my research for this book, I came across his name and decided to dig a little deeper. After reading his accomplishments I became enthralled this “friend” of President Abraham Lincoln.

Carl Schurz was born in Liblar (now part of Erftstadt), Germany on March 2, 1829. During the German revolution of 1848, Schurz and Gottfried Kinkel (University of Bonn professor) founded the Bonner Zeitung, a paper advocating democratic reforms. When the Frankfurt parliament called for people to take up arms in defense of the new German constitution, Schurz, Kinkel, and others from the University of Bonn community did so. During this struggle, Schurz became acquainted with Franz Sigel, Alexander Schimmelfennig, Fritz Anneke, Friedrich Beust, Ludwig Blenker and others, many of whom he would meet again in the Union Army during the US Civil War. The revolution in Germany failed when the fortress at Rastatt surrendered with Schurz inside. Schurz escaped to Zurich, Switzerland. He married fellow revolutionary Johannes Ronge’s sister-in-law, Margarethe Meyer, in July 1852 and then moved to the United States. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln sent him as ambassador to Spain. He succeeded in quietly dissuading Spain from supporting the Confederacy. Persuading Lincoln to grant him a commission in the Union army, Schurz was commissioned Brigadier General of Union volunteers. He took part in the Second Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Chancellorsville, Battle of Gettysburg and Battle of Chattanooga. And when Rutherford B. Hayes was named the 19th President of the United States, Schurz was named the 13th United States Secretary of the Interior. Margarethe Schurz, his wife, was instrumental in establishing the kindergarten system in the United States.

Part of Carl’s legacy are some essays that he had written. Here are some of his quotes:

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.

“The True Americanism”, address delivered in New York City, Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, January 2, 1896.

The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to “loving and faithfully serving his country,” at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.

“About Patriotism”, Harper’s Weekly, April 16, 1898.

I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: “Our country, right or wrong!” They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: “Our country – when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”

“The Policy of Imperialism”, in Speeches, Correspondence
and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6 (1913), pp. 119–20.

One Response to “Letter to the President”

  • Roxanne says:

    I remember your post from last year, and it uesprisrd me as much then as it does now. To me, saying you don’t understand patriotism is like saying you don’t understand love. Patriotism is not a rational feeling, anymore than love is. Patriotism can bring out your ugly side, and it can be used to exploit you, but in those ways it’s no different from love.A country is not a place on a map, it is a system of reciprocal duties. I grew up dirt poor, poorer than most people realize you can be and still live in the U.S. The people of the United States put me through elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school. By being born an American, I have been granted a fantastic privilege. I am the beneficiary of a system that allows me immense freedom, freedom that in many other places I would be denied. If I am killed by foreign attack, it is the people of the United States that will bury me, mourn me, and yes, even avenge me. What have I done to merit this level of sacrifice from total strangers? I don’t know. But it makes me love my country, and fills me with a sense of duty to these very same strangers.True patriotism is not exclusionary. The fact that I love America doesn’t mean that I begrudge that the French love France. It doesn’t even mean that I can’t also love other countries. But it is my country that sacrificed for me, and that I feel duty towards.That’s why I feel worse about what American soldiers did in Abu Ghraib than what Saddam did there, even though Saddam did worse things. The acts of Saddam sicken me, but the acts of Americans _dishonor_ me. I feel not only disgust, but _shame_.

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