November 19, 1936 – Something About Presidential Elections in Times Long Ago

This article by Gotthilf Birkmann first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 19 November 1936. It last appeared in Worthy of Double Honor: The Rev G. Birkmnn, D. D. written by his grandson Ray Martens and published by Concordia University Press.

Something About Presidential Elections in Times Long Ago          

The recent election campaign, happily behind us with the glorious victory [sarcastic? serious?] of the present national administration, awakened in me memories of some of the campaigns of my childhood and youth. The time of the Civil War, along with the difficult years after the war, was a serious and fateful time for our land and people, one in which the South was significantly wiped out, but one in which the North also suffered under a serious depression after the war. Sixty and more years have gone by since then, and the terrible world war has caused earlier events largely to be forgotten.

I was ten when I was permitted to attend a political gathering held in Waterloo, Monroe County, Illinois, my hometown. It was 1864, the year in which the Republicans had nominated Abe Lincoln for re-election, while the Democrats had produced General McClellan. Lincoln’s significance is now generally well known, but at that time he had many embittered opponents even in the North, in spite of the fact that he had done an excellent job of leading the country and conducting the war in a masterly way. Inexperienced boy that I was, and one who understood too little English besides, I got nothing more out of the gathering in Waterloo than what I could observe with my eyes, watching closely, as a child does. I saw a crowd of people standing around under the trees of the little park or walking back and forth until a speaker ascended the platform, when they took a seat on the benches before him and listened. I gained the impression that the man was supporting Lincoln, by the fact that his name was often mentioned, with applause, and by the fact that Lincoln was repeatedly quoted as saying, “Let us not swap horses while crossing a stream” [written in English, but then dutifully translated into German]. At such a critical time, a change in leadership would have been dangerous. As a general, McClellan had been a great procrastinator, but intended to do better as president. Lincoln, however, was re-elected, and the next year the war came to a good end.  General U.S. Grant, after long struggles in Virginia, forced General Robert E. Lee to surrender with his army, but that certainly under favorable terms, as, for example, that every cavalryman in the southern army could take his horse home so that he could cultivate his land.

GENERAL GRANT’S CANDIDACY IN 1868. People like to elect victorious leaders in war to be their leaders after the war. That is the way it was when Harrison was nominated in 1840 under the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” (Harrison had defeated the Indians at Tippecanoe.) Tyler was elected in 1848, after he had played a major role in the war against Mexico.

Grant was the hero whom people wanted to be president after the [Civil] War. Grant and Colfax were the Republican ticket, Seymour and Blair the Democratic. Seymour was from New York, Blair from Missouri. I was in St. Louis a number of times in the summer of 1868, where I saw and heard for the first time, how it was in a large city during such an exciting time. The processions down the street and the battles of the brass bands and the clamor and roar of the crowds made a lasting impression on me. Grant was our man – that is, of the quintaners [high school sophomores] from Fort Wayne who were in St. Louis at the time – Grant, and not Seymour, and, as it turned out, Grant was elected in the fall.

He wished to show good will in his new position by not going along with those who wanted to enslave and silence [knechten und knebeln is a nice alliteration] the South. Grant’s campaign slogan had been, “Let us have peace.” But he was not always successful in the choice of his officials, too trusting of his friends, as is said, with the result that they often abused his trust, choosing to enrich themselves by embezzling government funds. The courts prosecuted a number of these officials and found them guilty. The result was that Grant lost favor among a large part of the population and that respected and capable men opposed him and sought to prevent his re-election in 1872.

Among these opponents was Karl Schurz, often mentioned with respect in the history of our country. Schurz was born in Germany, but, because of his role in the revolution of 1848 and 1849, had to seek sanctuary in a foreign country. He came to Philadelphia and became so proficient in English that few speakers of the time were his equal. He moved to Watertown, Wisconsin, where he published a German newspaper, then to St. Louis, where he attached himself to the editor of the Western Post. During the Civil War, Lincoln named him ambassador to Spain, but he soon returned and became a general in the Union army. After the war, Missouri elected him a senator in Washington, where he distinguished himself with his brilliant oratory. Schurz concerned himself with honesty in the administration of our country, coming forward, for example, as one of the first to favor the reform of civil service, which is to say, that officials not be chosen because of a specific party affiliation but because of their degree of competence, etc.  ·

Schurz was not satisfied with Grant’s stance in this matter, and so, when Grant presented himself again as a candidate in 1872, Schurz supported the candidate of the other party, the nominee Greeley. Schurz traveled here and there in the country speaking in support of Greeley and Brown, the Democratic ticket. He came to Fort Wayne too, where he was met at the train station by a large crowd, which formed a procession through town to the place where he was to speak. We college students were permitted to join in and watch what turned out to be a great spectacle and a welcome change in my ordinary life on campus. I also heard him later when I was a student in St. Louis. When the newspaper shared with us that Schurz would be speaking tonight at Mercantile Hall in St. Louis, most of us went there.

Grant was re-elected in 1872 and remained in office until March 4, 1877. Hayes followed him on the Republican ticket of Hayes and Wheeler. Tilden and Hendricks were the Democratic candidates. Tilden was a New Yorker, gifted and capable, who gathered so many votes that we were in doubt for a long time as to who had the majority. An arbitration court in Washington finally determined that Hayes was the winner. We had a quiet period under Hayes, without the kind of political scandal we had during Grant’s administration. Hayes named the respected and enthusiastic Schurz to a post in his cabinet, Minister of the Interior. Schurz took up the reform of the civil service system, and especially also the often poorly handled treatment of the Indians in our country. Later he went back to private life and died in New York in 1906.

He held to the principle that his family should not forget its German language, but that right alongside the English, German also be cherished and cared for [hegte und pflegte is yet another example of clever word choice]. German was spoken in his home, and German songs sung with diligence.