the activists Wisconsin Mosaic Home the 48ers the republicans woman's suffrage activists image map


Contributions of the Wisconsin Forty-Eighters

Even though their number was small in terms of the entire German-born population in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin '48ers made their mark in political activism, leadership, and education.

  • Political Activism: Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Wisconsin Forty-Eighters is their commitment to political activism--an activism, some would say, that is part of the fabric of Wisconsin progressivism. Exiles and revolutionaries, the '48ers promoted liberty and freedom in America. They were especially active in the abolition movement, denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law and championing anti-slavery ideals. While perhaps debatable, Carl Schurz is often credited with getting Abraham Lincoln elected (see Rippley, 32). The '48ers were also involved in the founding of the Republican party, often seeing themselves as the German wing of the Republican party.

  • Leadership: Wisconsin '48ers provided leadership at both the Wisconsin level (Edward Solomon served as governor) and at the national level (Carl Schurz served a Secretary of the Interior). Interestingly, the '48ers served both as representatives of German culture and as Americans. At the opening of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Carl Schurz said, "I have always been in favor of a healthy Americanization, but that does not mean a complete disavowal of our German heritage. It means that our character should take on the best of that which is American, and combine it with the best of that which is German. By doing this, we can best serve the American people and their civilization" (quoted in German Heritage).

  • Education: In 1856, Margarethe Meyer Schurz used part of the Schurz's Watertown home as a kindergarten for their daughter and other neighborhood children. Her friend Elizabeth Peabody was so inspired by this model, based on Freidrich Froebel's work, that she started the first public kindergartens in St. Louis, introducing the rest of America to the concept.

the first kindergarten

Interestingly, the Wisconsin '48ers were often not popular with other German immigrants. This division largely stemmed from the differences between Democratic beliefs and Republican beliefs. Carl Schurz moved to the Democratic German town of Watertown, Wisconsin, where he knew fellow Germans were calling him "ein verdammter Repulikaner" (quoted in Kiessling, 78). It probably did not help that Schurz often referred to other (Democratic) Germans not only as sorcerers (below) but as "Stimmvieh" (stupid cattle blundering aimlessly in the ballot box" (Rippley, 30).

Carl Schurz summed up his ideas about the Democrats in this 1857 speech given in Madison when he was a (unsuccessful) candidate for lieutenant governor:

See how far subserviency to slavery has led the Democratic party. Was it not far enough that they with more or less success, endeavored to abridge free speech and free press, for the benefit of the slave holding system? Was it not enough that they trampled upon the true doctrines of the Constitution, and violated sacred compacts and engagements? Not enough that they demoralized political life to the core by the premium paid for political baseness and hypocrisy? Not enough, that by all this they have discredited our democratic institutions in the eyes of all civilized mankind? No, to them it is not enough. A restless demon urges them forward. For Slavery, they would dig up the graves of the great Father of this Republic and pluck the well earned laurels of patriotism from their sacred brows.

As it is, the democratic party is like the sorcerer, who possessed the art of making a giant snake; but when he had made it he forgot the magic word that would kill it again. And the giant snake threw his terrible coils around him, and the unfortunate man was choked to death by the monster of his own creation.

Liberty is valued most when lost, but then it is too late, and I tell you, your institutions do not stand as firmly as the pillars of heaven. You are free yet, men of Wisconsin. You are wielding yet the formidable mace of self-government. Lift it high and throw it down with a crushing blow on the head of the serpent! (Daily State Journal, Madison, October 19, 1857)

Other groups were also not thrilled with the Wisconsin '48ers, namely Irish Catholics. By and large, the '48ers saw the Irish as holding onto papist beliefs and as unwilling to become American. Newspaper man and '48er Bernhard Domschke put it this way in 1854: "In our struggle we are not concerned with nationality, but with principles; we are for liberty, and against union with Irishmen who stand nearer barbarism and brutality than civilization and humanity. The Irish are our natural enemies, not because they are Irishmen, but because they are the truest guards of Popery" (quoted in Rippley, 30). Ironically, the only Wisconsin monument to Carl Schurz was erected by an Irishman.

The '48ers present an interesting case in American immigration history because they remind us that there is not one "German" experience, let alone one immigrant experience. All in all, Schurz did see an extremely positive role for Germans to play. In a speech on "Political Morals" given in Milwaukee on November 18, 1858, Schurz summed up the widespread contributions Germans could make to American politics and American life:

Look over this broad land: at Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, aye, and Milwaukee also, the German together with the Americans, crowding around the banner of liberty. See there the old Germanic idea showing its true identity in all the branches of the good old German stock....Let this alliance spread and flourish all over this State, all over this Republic--and the cause of liberty will triumph and our honor will be safe.

[Contributions of the '48ers] [Prominent '48ers] [German Revolution of 1848]

[The '48ers] [The Republican Party] [Woman's Suffrage]
[Sources and Credits] [Wisconsin Mosaic Home] [The Activists Home]