Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Carl Schurz (1877–1881): Secretary of the Interior

Carl Schurz was born in 1829 in Liblar, Germany. While in Prussia, he led a student revolutionary movement aimed at reforming the Prussian government. He had several conflicts with Prussian authorities, narrowly escaped capture, and, after fleeing to France, ultimately made his way to the United States.

Schurz settled in Wisconsin, where he bought a farm, joined the newly formed Republican Party, and, in 1857, was nominated for lieutenant governor of the state. Though he barely spoke English and was not even an American citizen, Schurz was only narrowly defeated in the election. After supporting Abraham Lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate in 1860, Schurz was appointed, in 1861, as U.S. Minister to Spain, where he served for one year before returning to the United States. He then joined the military and served as brigadier general of volunteers. Schurz saw action at several battles and was eventually promoted to the rank of major general.

Following the war, President Andrew Johnson asked Schurz to report on conditions in the South. By 1866, Schurz had shifted his attention to journalism, serving as the Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune for one year before becoming editor-in-chief of the Detroit Post; Schurz then founded the German-language St. Louis Westliche Post.

Still active in politics, Schurz served as the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in 1868. By the early 1870s, he had parted ways with the Republican Party over their support of President Ulysses S. Grant, and he helped form the short-lived Liberal Republican Party in 1871. Following the collapse of that party, Schurz returned to the Republican fold and supported its presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. Once elected, President Hayes offered Schurz either the post office or the interior portfolio, and Schurz chose the latter.

Serving as secretary of the interior from 1877 to 1881, Schurz worked to change and enlighten the government’s policies regarding Native Americans. After leaving his cabinet post at the end of the Hayes administration, Schurz returned to journalism, purchased the New York Evening Post, and began writing editorials for Harper’s Weekly. He opposed America’s war against Spain in 1898, an unpopular stance at the time -- especially for Republicans -- and ultimately supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President in 1900. Carl Schurz died in 1906.