Speeches of Carl Schurz
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Milwaukee Musical SocietyAddress of Carl Schurz at the 50th anniversary celebration for the Milwaukee Musical Society as it appeared in the May 2, 1900, issue of The Milwaukee Sentinel.
Although advancing age warns me that the days of man are numbered, and that if I wish to accomplish anything, I must make the best of time and strength. I have not been able to withstand the pressure to lay aside all other calls of the moment in order to avail myself of your invitation to this jubilee. I assure you that it was a voice from the heart that guided me hither. Here in Wisconsin I have, so to say, spent my American youth. The recollections I took with me from this city and state have always been among the most beautiful and warmest I have ever known, and as such I have cherished them in all their freshness and sweetness. I come to you not only as a guest, but as one who feels in relationship to you. Of the friends of that youth many have now passed away, and I find only a few whom I can greet with that cordial handshake of old, but the children of the departed, and those who have since joined them, will permit me to extend to them the same feeling of friendship.
We are celebrating to-day in this fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Milwaukee Musical society the memory of a time that has been of the utmost importance to what we call the “Deutschthum” of America. I mean the time of the 1848 immigration. There flowed into the United States at that time a stream of young people, and elderly people of youthful mind, who because of the revolutionary upheaval of the day were driven beyond the borders of the Fatherland — people in many cases of unusual intelligence, full of enthusiastic striving for freedom and the ideal men of able minds. Quite a large number of these 1848'ers came to Wisconsin to found a new home here, and to live according to their ideas of freedom. Here they found some Germans, but they brought with them a newer and fresher blood.
That their social passtimes and endeavors did not trend to the puritanical goes without saying. That here and there extravagances were indulged in that sometimes astonished the public, is not to be denied; but this was only the exuberance of a youthful joy in living, in which, with a bright serenity, they planned and worked, composed and dreamed, talked and sang, and on occasion indulged in revelry. Those who are still among us will remember the time with vivid pleasure.
Nothing could be more natural than that in this social life, the German love of enjoyment and the study or art in various forms should break out and that there should be strivings not only to make life useful, but sweet. A German theater of remarkable excellence was soon established. Living pictures of great historical and poetical beauty were presented amidst the enthusiastic reception of the public. But the general interest manifested itself in music, and thus the “Musikverein” of Milwaukee was born. This was in truth the child of the spirit of the 1848'ers. It did not confine itself to the singing of German songs. It undertook, at first, with wholly local talent, the presentation of oratorios and operas, which were so artistically given as to arouse comment beyond this city and state upon the excellence of the work. How varied and good the work of this youthful period was, may be better told by others than myself. Enough that the Milwaukee Musical society was principally answerable for the name “German Athens” of America bestowed upon Milwaukee; and the name was well earned.
Having glanced at the youthful efforts of the society, we may look over the work of half a century of its history, and we may truly say, I believe, that it has accomplished much that was good and welcome. The question is often asked what influence the German immigration has had upon the national character and life of America, and it has often been said that the influence has been slight and even almost imperceptible. We have heard this said by accomplished Germans, who have high standing: but I must controvert the statement emphatically.
Even though it were true that German thought, love of justice and industry had failed to make themselves felt in the political, educational and commercial life of America — even though this were true, I say — what I have to contend after my long experience is that the German nature has done a service in the social unfolding of the land that only the blindest pre-judgment will fail to see, and the value of which cannot be over-estimated.
It is well known that the American born of English blood has, in spite of his remarkable capacity, industry and energy of character, failed to properly appreciate the value of harmless amusements. I do not now mean the sad-faced man who knows no other Sunday enjoyment than to take a stroll through a churchyard and read the inscriptions upon the grave-stones; I mean the average American, who daily occupies himself with useful employment, and strives for refinement and would gladly win for himself and his family the real enjoyments of life, if he only knew how.
He who adds anything to mitigate the nervous haste and grim earnestness of the American life with the light and warmth of a harmless social cheer, confers a benefit upon the American people. And among these beneficent people the Germans stand in the front rank.
More than any other portion of the
of Germans have shown the native
born how he may enjoy himself with small
things; how enjoyments that cost little or
nothing may be of great value; how art,
and especially music, improves and
elevates social life, how one may take a
liberal view of life and still remain an
order-loving citizen. How this example has
intertwined, how it has in the past fifty years
altered the tone of American life, how old
prejudices have given way before a wholesome
living, we elder ones can testify. And
the citizens of Milwaukee may take it to
their credit that whenever this free manner
of living has been questioned, Milwaukee,
more than any other city, has been an
example in refutation. And of this you may
My many years of observation of American life have brought me to the conclusion that the good accomplished by the German would not have measured its present proportions but for the fostering of the mother tongue. The mother tongue was the social tie among us. I know that in this I jar the opinion of many native-born Americans — the opinion, namely, that the German immigrant should forget his German and speak only English in order to become a good American — I hold this opinion to be a nonsensical prejudice.
Certainly, the German immigrant should learn the English language as well as possible. He owes this to his new fatherland and to his own interest. I have therefore, so far as I am personally concerned, endeavored to learn English; but I have never discovered that, in order to learn the English, I must forget the German. On the contrary, I have discovered that he who understands both German and English possesses a double treasure. He becomes from that fact not a worse, but a more cultured American. The German immigrant should Americanize himself. Certainly. But the process of assimilation consists for the German in taking to himself the best that the American life affords, and at the same time retaining the best in the German life. Only thus will he give to this cosmopolitan people what he is in duty bound to give, for I maintain that we have brought from the old fatherland some things that were worth grafting upon the American life, for the general weal. He who says that the immigrant who continues to foster the German language cannot be a good American patriot, talks nonsense.
If the patriotism of the American consists in English speech only, it is a poor sort. We know better. He who saw the Twenty-sixth regiment (prolonged applause), as it with self-sacrificing valor shed its blood for the American fatherland, knows that not more patriotic blood could be found. It has at times appeared to me as though the remark I have referred to had its rise with some politician through whose reckoning the German-American had drawn a line (laughter), and who then cried in anger that it were time German were forgotten. I maintain that our politics will be uninjured by an occasional sturdy German “Spruechlein.”
Do not permit yourselves to be confused by anything of the sort. The fostering of German speech is an important culture element in the unfolding of American civilization, which in its fruits has great wealth, a value that is appreciated by constantly increasing number of native born citizens. Many thousands of native born Americans are endeavoring with great pains to learn the tongue. From them we may learn in its full force the great error committed by German families upon themselves and the American fatherland in carelessly permitting the German to die out. What the “Musikverein” has done to keep alive the German language is not the least of its services.
And so I bring to the Musical society my heartiest good wishes upon this, the fiftieth anniversary of its birth. In the fifty years that are now behind us it has seen critical as well as joyous days, but earnest and energetic fellow-members have always stood at its side and guided it safely through all danger. Let this be an example and appeal in the present and coming generations never to permit trials to rob them of their courage, so that this school of the beautiful and desirable may retain its vigor, and that our children and children's children may some day celebrate its hundredth anniversary with the same pride and joy as we have celebrated the fiftieth anniversary to-day.
And now, in parting, I thank you again most sincerely, for thinking of me in connection with this celebration as one of you, as well as for the good wishes you have extended to me, the memory of which I shall prize all my remaining days.
Speeches of Carl Schurz