Jesse Seligman Eulogy

Address of Carl Schurz at the Jesse Seligman memorial services, May 30, 1894, from a typescript in his papers in the Library of Congress.

by Carl Schurz

It is most fit that the memory of Jesse Seligman should be celebrated here, on this very spot. I see him now as he stood here years ago when the corner stone of this magnificent building was laid and when, owing to his friendly invitation, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in the dedication ceremonies; I see him, his face beaming with joy over the good that had been accomplished, and with glad anticipation of the greater good still to be done — for his whole heart was in this noble work. And here, where his monument stands — not a mere monument of stone or brass, but a living monument in grateful human hearts — here where he still lives and will not die, the lessons of his life may be most worthily learned, not to be forgotten. Indeed the legacy, not only of benefactions, but of lessons, which that life has left behind it, may be, especially to the young among us, if they understand them well and treasure them up to inspire and guide their hearts and minds, of far greater value than any amount of his money that Jesse Seligman might have bequeathed to them.

Some of us may, perhaps, have envied him while he lived, as an eminently successful man. But what do we consider in him worthy of envy now, since he is dead? Why do we honor his memory and wish that, when we shall be gone, we should in many respects be remembered as he is? Because he was a rich man? Certainly not, for that is in itself nothing to be really proud of. The ambition to be merely rich is only a small and a vulgar ambition. It may be gratified by the accident of birth or of good fortune. It may be gratified by the diligent and constant exertion of faculties which do not by any means belong to the higher attributes of human nature. Of those who in the history of mankind left most fragrant memories behind them, only very few were distinguished by great wealth, and the mere possession of that wealth never constituted their title to affection and reverence.

Are we honoring Jesse Seligman because he was a successful self-made man? This is, especially in our country of great opportunities, not in itself a distinction deserving uncommon esteem. I know, and, no doubt, you know self-made men so inordinately puffed up with their own success, so forgetful of the merits of others in comparison with their own, so oppressive with the ostentations and unceasing display of their riches as well as their self-appreciation, that they rank among the most disagreeable members of human society, making us which that they had made anything but themselves.

Or do we praise Jesse Seligman merely because he was a liberal giver for charitable purposes? No, for there is, especially in our country, nothing extraordinary in the mere spectacle of a rich man handing about his money freely. Not a few of the givers deal out their benefactions with the contemptuous air of one tossing a copper to a beggar to get rid of his importunities, or who advertise their charities so loudly on the marketplace to acquire social prestige, that they may be considered more benevolent to themselves than to others.

Or do we admire Jesse Seligman above others because he was a patriotic man? No, for under ordinary circumstances it is only a natural thing to be patriotic. Especially a citizen of this Republic is more apt to attract attention and to be blamed when he is not patriotic, than to be praised when he is.

All these things, therefore, are in themselves not sufficient to make a life valuable as a memory, and an inspiration. Jesse Seligman's life, as we look back upon it, is such a valuable memory and inspiring lesson because he rose above the ordinary level of the merely rich, self-made, liberal and patriotic man.

The ideal rich man is he who not only has come by his wealth honestly, but who uses his riches in such a fashion as to silence the voice of envy and to make those who know him, glad and grateful that he is rich. To reach this ideal completely is given to but few. But it may truly be said that Jesse Seligman approached it. No doubt, he wished to be rich and worked for it. He valued the acquisition of wealth, but he valued it most as the acquisition of opportunities for something larger and nobler. He saw his business success but not his higher ambition and his happiness in his balance sheets. He felt himself greater and happier in this orphan home than in his bank. He made his wealth a blessing to others; he enjoyed it the more the greater a blessing to others it became, and there were many who wished him to be much richer, knowing that his greater wealth would only have become to many others greater relief and comfort.

He was such a self-made man, as it is a joy and an encouragement to meet. In a high degree he had the self-made man's virtues, and was remarkably free from his faults. He never forgot his lowly beginnings but never boasted of them to contrast his success with other people's failures. His recollections only stimulated his sympathy with those less fortunate than himself. He did not in his affluence effect that rough simplicity and contempt of refinement in which upstarts sometimes demonstratively please themselves and which is only a coarse form of vanity; and still less was he an ostentatious swaggerer bent upon letting the world perceive that he possessed his millions. He lived with his family in a style becoming his means, but with the modesty becoming a gentleman. There was no gaudy display of riches, no obtrusive flashing of diamonds on hotel-piazzas, and no flaring exhibitions in opera boxes. But there was nothing mean about him or his. The hospitality of his house was hearty and most generous, but it abstained from anything that might have made any one of his guests feel poor or small. Nor was there anything in him of that superciliousness not unfrequently met with in rich men which claims for them much wisdom because they have much money. In all my experience I have never met a rich man more modest, more generous, more tolerant of adverse opinion, or a self-made man less overbearing, less vain-glorious, and less conceited, more sympathetic and more helpful. As a matter of fact he was thought richer than he really was — richer, not because of his display, but because of his benefactions. To judge from the good he did, his wealth should have been much greater.

He was a liberal giver, but he gave much more than money. That rich man only manifests the true spirit of benevolence who not only gives to the needy, but who also thinks for them and works for them. It was by this that Jesse Seligman proved the genuine gold of his humanity, and nowhere did this gold shine more brightly than on this very spot. There was indeed no charitable enterprise within his reach that did not feel the generosity of his open hand and, when needed, the kindly thoughtfulness of his counsel — from the hospital and the home for the aged up to that remarkable triumph of wisely directed energy, the Hebrew Technical Institute, which not only successfully demonstrates that the Jew when well guided, will take to skilled handicraft with enthusiasm and with the whole force and ingenuity of his nature, but which also in its plan, organization and conduct may serve as a noble model of its kind to the creators of any country and of any creed. All such endeavors could count upon Jesse Seligman's bountiful aid; and when his last will was opened and the community saw the list of the benevolent institutions to which he had left bequests, without regard to religion or nationality, with unsurpassed catholicity of spirit, people asked with wonder, not what opportunities for doing good he had thought of, but whether there was any he had failed to remember.

It was, however, here in the orphan home that his heart found its favorite field for beneficent work. Here he lived out the best of his nature. It was truly touching to see this man, loaded down with the enormous responsibilities and cares of a vast financial business, at least once a week, every Sunday morning, wend his way to this house, forget all about bonds and stocks and syndicates and chances of gain and financial crises in which fortunes might be lost, and to give all his thoughts to the little ones who are cast upon the mercy of the world — and study and scheme and work — as indeed he die often also when he was not here — to turn sunshine upon their bereaved existence, to arm them for the struggles of life, and to enable them to become useful, self-reliant, self-respecting and happy citizens of a free country. This was the work he loved most, which satisfied his fondest ambition, and in which he found the most genuine happiness. In the best sense of the word he was the father of the fatherless, and it was his active, untiring, and unceasing care for the welfare of these children, more than any other of his benefactions, that stamped him as a truly benevolent man, a genuine friend of humanity, and therefore this is the noblest and most enduring of his monuments.

He was a patriotic man — not in the sense merely that he cheerfully performed all his duties as a citizen, or that he gave the government valuable advice and aid as a financier whenever called upon — but that he ardently loved his adopted country, was proud of it, and was not only willing but eager to serve it. Some gentlemen of high standing among us have in their published tributes to Jesse Seligman's memory regretfully mentioned the fact that he and his, too, had been struck at by anti-semitic hostility — by that narrow minded contemptible spirit which revives the prejudices of dark ages and seeks in barbarous persecution the remedy for evils, for which popular ignorance, sloth and improvidence are in the largest measure responsible — a spirit so utterly abhorrent to justice and enlightened reason that it is difficult to understand how a person of self-respect can share it or behold it in others without shame and indignation.

I have heard it said that a Jew can not be a patriot, because he has no fatherland. Those who say so, do not want the Jew to have a fatherland, and would, if they had their way, make it impossible to be a patriot. A country can hardly expect those of its inhabitants to be ardent patriots, whom it treats as aliens or outcasts. In the same measure as an anti-semitic spirit prevails, a Jew is a patriot under difficulties. If he is a patriot in spite of anti-semitic persecution, that patriotism is in him a virtue of especial merit. And this virtue Jesse Seligman possessed in the highest degree. I saw him and spoke with him when the smart he had suffered, was fresh. I know how keenly he felt it; but I know also that had at that moment the country, or what he understood to be the public interest, demanded of him any service or any sacrifice, he would have offered it with the same enthusiastic devotion that ever had animated him. He would have remained a patriot in spite of any difficulty — a shining example for his own race to follow, putting to shame its revilers — indeed, an example to every citizen of whatever creed or origin.

And now he lies in an honored grave; and by it stand with sadness but also with pride his dear ones whom he loved so much and who so warmly returned his love; and you all have come, rich and poor, native and foreign born, Christian and Jew and Gentile with hearts full of respect and affection for the man who understood the great truth, and whose life has taught the great lesson, that our truest and most enduring happiness springs from the contributions we make to the happiness of others — a lesson that every one may follow according to his means and opportunities, each in his sphere and in his way, to win the same happiness and to deserve the same honor. It may well be said that he has not lived in vain whose life has left its mark in the advanced well being of his kind. And there are multitudes of human beings whose tears he has dried, whose distress he has relieved, whom he has helped to make strong for the struggles of life, who now and ever will gratefully affirm and proclaim that Jesse Seligman had surely not lived in vain, and who will never cease to bless his memory.