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The Politicians: Gustave P. Koerner (1809-1896)

"Gustave Koerner was Lieutenant Governor, and if [Joel] Matteson was chosen Senator, would become the chief executive of Illinois. He was a man of fine character, good ability, and unusual education. But he was a 'foreigner,' a German immigrant, and like most people of his blood, had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act because he believed that it extended slavery," wrote Lincoln biographer Albert Beveridge. "The Know-Nothings in the Legislature, whether called Whigs, Free-Soilers or anti-Nebraska Democrats, would not permit Koerner to become Governor; and neither would the Douglas Democrats, who felt that he had deserted the party as Trumbull had done, and were accordingly bitter toward him."1

Koerner's acquaintance with Mary Todd Lincoln predated that with Mr. Lincoln. The refugee from Germany had met Mary Todd when he was a student at Transylvania University in Lexington; he had already earned a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg. He moved to Illinois and set up a legal practice He was a law partner of Democratic politician James Shields, who was like him an immigrant from Europe. Koerner became a Supreme Court Justice in Illinois before whom Abraham Lincoln practiced in the 1840s He served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois under Gov. Joel Matteson in 1853-54, and was an occasional co-counsel with Mr. Lincoln.

"In point of melody of voice and graceful delivery, though not in argument, most all other speakers surpassed him," recalled Koerner in his memoirs of his first sighting of Mr. Lincoln at an 1840 campaign rally. "His appearance was not very prepossessing. His exceedingly tall and very angular form made his movements rather awkward. Nor were his features, when he was not animated, pleasant, owing principally to his high cheek-bones. His complexion had no roseate hue of health, but was then rather billious, and when not speaking, his face seemed to be overshadowed by melancholy thoughts. I observed him closely, thought I saw a good deal of intellect in him, while his looks were genial and kind..."2

Koerner was a loyal Democrat until 1856 when controversies over the extension of slavery drove him into the Republican Party. He was elected Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party in 1856 and President of the 1858 Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Senate. His influence was particularly strong among German-Americans in the southern portion of the state and his advice was sought about how to appeal to them. For example, Koerner warned Mr. Lincoln about employing Friedrich K. F. Hecker to speak to German-Americans during the campaign: "While well calculated to animate friends, he cannot conciliate opponents, and amongst the Catholicks and even orthodox protestants he is considered as the very Anti-Christ."3

Koerner was also Lincoln's contact to Theodore Canisius, to whom Lincoln turned over management of the Illinois Staats Anzeiger, which Mr. Lincoln had bought to help spread the Republican cause among German-Americans. Naturally, Koerner was concerned about the Republican Party's position on immigration. In April 1859, Mr. Lincoln wrote him: "Reaching home last night, I found your letter of the 4th. The meeting of the Central committee was at Bloomington, and not here. I was there attending court, and, in common with several other outsiders, one of whom was Judge Trumbull, was in conference with the committee, to some extent. Judd privately mentioned the subject, of which you write, to me, and requested me to prepare a resolution, which I did. When I brought in the resolution and read it to the committee, and others present, in an informal way, Judge Trumbull suggested that it would be better to select some act of our adversaries, rather of our own friends, upon which to base a protest against any distinction between native and naturalized citizens, as to the right of suffrage. This led to a little parley, I was called from the room, the thing was done about it by the committee. Judge Trumbull will be in Belleville when this reaches you, and he probably can tell you all about it. Whether any thing was done or not, something must be, the next time the committee meetings, which I presume will be before long."4

Koerner warned Mr. Lincoln about the detrimental impact of Know-Nothings on his campaigns. In particular, Koerner singled out Mr. Lincoln's friend Joseph Gillespie, who had been a Know-Nothing leader in the mid-1850s. Gustave Koerner criticized Gillespie in a 1859 letter to Mr. Lincoln:
It is time that we should quit the absurd hope of gaining converts from the Knownothings by a tenderfooted course. In our State they have taken their sides. They do not pretend to exist as a party. This policy pursued by some of our friends, for instance, Gillespie has been from the start fatal to us for every Knownothing we gained we lost two Republicans. In our district alone we lost from 1854 (when we carried it by 2500 majority) to 1856, 5000 votes, nearly all Germans. Press this matter upon the committee.... 5

Koerner played a key role in the 1860 campaign - especially with the critical German-American voting block. Not all of Mr. Lincoln's friends trusted him, however, and David Davis maintained that "Koerner is really for Seward."6 Koerner is perhaps best remembered from that campaign as one of those leaders who sent a terse telegram to Mr. Lincoln from Chicago two days before the Republican National Convention made its presidential selection: "Don't come here."7

After the campaign, Koerner was one of those consulted by Mr. Lincoln about appointments. On January 6, 1861, Mr. Lincoln visited Koerner and Norman Judd in Koerner's hotel room. As Koerner remembered the incident years later in his memoirs: "I unbolted the door and in came Mr. Lincoln. "I want to see you and Judd. Where is his room? I gave him the number and presently he returned with Judd while I was dressing. 'I am in a quandary,' he said, 'Pennsylvania is entitled to a cabinet office. But whom shall I appoint?' 'Not Cameron,' Judd and myself spoke up simultaneously. 'But whom else?' We suggested [Ex-Governor A.H.] Reeder or [David] Wilmot] of ['Wilmot Proviso' fame]. 'Oh,' said he, 'they have no show. There have been delegation after delegation from Pennsylvania, hundreds of letters and the cry is Cameron, Cameron. Besides, you know I have already fixed on Cameron, Seward, and Bates, my competitors at the convention. The Pennsylvania people say if you leave out Cameron you disgrace him. Is there not something in that?' I said, 'Cameron cannot be trusted. He has the reputation of being a tricky and corrupt politician. 'I know, I know,' said Lincoln; 'but can I get along if that State should oppose my administration?' He was very much distressed. We told him he would greatly regret his appointment. Our interview ended in a protest on the part of Judd and myself against the appointment."8

Koerner backed fellow former Democrat Judd for a Cabinet position but was angered when Judd instead received an appointment as Minister to Berlin. He complained in a letter to President Lincoln: "Before the 4th of March it was currently reported, that you would confer the Berlin mission on me. As you had not intimated to me any intention of the kind, I sought to contradict it, even in a card published in the St. Louis papers. But all in vain. The entire Press, American & German mentioned the appointment as almost a positive fact. It got into the German Papers in Europe. I received letters from here and from Germany of congratulation, and also containing applications for office, as to Secretary of Legation, private Secretary. My clients wrote me in many instances to recommend them other counsel & to hand them over my business."

The situation mortified him, he told the President and was a grave disappointment to German-Americans. "I learned the appointment of Judd before I came to Washington. I found it proper under the circumstances. You will do me the Justice to say, that I did not utter a word of complaint to you, in as much as I never spoke to you in my life of myself in connection with any office. I candidly confess however, that as the thing happened, under the peculiar attitude in which I had been placed, I felt deeply affected. It certainly disappointed all my friends. When I left Washington I was in hopes, that it might occur to you to offer me the Austrian or Swiss Mission. As I know the language of those countries, in addition to the french, the diplomatic language of the world, as I know the history of the people, their manners, their laws, and by my vast acquaintance with men now high in office, could have done something just at this crisis to retain for our Country their sympathy, I considered myself as being in any mission in Germany more useful, than perhaps many others who aspired to the respective places."

Koerner felt betrayed by the failure of the Administration to offer him a diplomatic post to a German-speaking country. He seemed particularly chagrined by the appointment of Wisconsin's Carl Schurz to the Madrid embassy. He wrote President Lincoln: "I am of your age. Have worked very hard in my profession. My health has been greatly shattered by the 3 terrible last campaigns where I acted one day as a General, the next as a private. I desired repose. Young active Germans, of merits, undoubtedly, but not half so well known to the Germans of the United States, and who had great prospects before them at home in the sphere, in which they excel, were favored in the missions. I stood disgraced in the eyes of others, not in my own. I had done nothing to forfeit your friendship and the regard you have always shown me. I think my quiet and unobtrusive manner has not lowered me in your estimation. I know I could not have pressed my claims on your attention for all the world."

"Pardon me for writing so long a letter, but as I have never before troubled you about myself I hope you will be indulgent," Koerner wrote Mr. Lincoln in closing. When he did not received an appointment from President Lincoln in the first few month of his administration, Koerner was "being considered every where as neglected & orphaned by your administration."9 He joined the staff of General John C. Fremont in Missouri, but wrote President Lincoln that "I have no desire to retain my place, for I have already deeply regretted that at the solicitations of so many friends I took it."10

When Koerner's military status became clouded in November 1861, President Lincoln wrote General George B. McClellan: "By the enclosed order Gustavus Koerner, of Illinois supposes himself to be thrown out of the service, he having been on Fremont's staff. He is an educated German, once Lieut Govr, one of the best men in the State, and ought to be with Gen. Halleck, as affording him the best clue to Illinoisians generally, and especially to the germans. He was appointed from civil life, but from here, and not by Gen. Fremont, as I remember. I wish you would have him sent to Gen. Halleck."11

President Lincoln was concerned about the alienation of German-Americans in Missouri and recommended Koerner to General Henry Halleck for an appointment as a brigadier general in January 1862: "He is an educated and talented German gentleman, as true a man as lives. With his assistance you can set everything right with the Germans."12 Halleck said hewould be willing to employ Koerner as a brigadier general but had already appointed his as an aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel and noted that staff officers could not be named generals. But Halleck added: "Being a German myself by descent, I know something of the German character, and I am confident that in a few weeks, if the Govt does not interfere I can reduce these disaffected elements to order & discipline." Schurz helped with domestic German-American relations - especially when German-American General Franz Sigel got involved in a fight with General Halleck in January 1862.

It took over a year into the Lincoln Administration for Schurz to receive the political reward he felt he deserved. He protested strongly in March 1861 when he heard that Secretary of State William H. Seward would prohibit foreign-born Americans from serving in diplomatic posts. He wrote President Lincoln: "I need hardly inform you, that this information, which has not been contradicted, and not been disproved by an appointment of a naturalised citizen to such a mission, has created the most intense sensation amongst the German Republicans all through the country."13

After fellow German-American Schurz resigned as Minister to Madrid in 1862, Koerner took his place. Once Koerner settled in Madrid with his family, he grew restless. Within months of his appointment, he wrote President Lincoln about a report that the Minister to Turin had resigned and stating: "For many reasons I would greatly prefer that mission to the one to Madrid. Unless you have already made an appointment to Turin which cannot be changed".14 Then in May 1863, Koerner wrote the President to complain about rumors that he was to be replaced by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin:
You may have excellent reasons for giving the place to Governor Curtin, and I surely would not complain for a moment about the change. But the slightest intimation from you of a desire to give me a substitute, would have produced my instant resignation, or offer to be recalled. To make however an appointment at once, and thereby remove me against what might be my desire, is a proceeding which has never, as I recollect, taken place in the case of foreign ministers, while the same administration which made the appointment remained in power. I think if such was the action of the Government in my case, I have a very just cause of complaint. I certainly have not deserved by any act of mine such a slight, and I shall certainly at the proper time demand the reasons for this attempt to disgrace me at home and abroad."15

"Koerner returned from Spain in the summer of 1864, he brought his family back to stay because social life was too expensive in Madrid," wrote historian Mark E. Neely, Jr.16 He asked twice permission to return home, writing President Lincoln that he wanted to get out of Madrid before the stifling heat of the summer descended and his family ran out of money: "The reasons which compel me to ask for this favor are so strong, that should I fail to have it granted I would have to tender my resignation...."17

Neely wrote: "Democrats charged that Koerner abandoned official business in Spain because Lincoln ordered him home 'to regulate the Dutch' for the fall presidential election. Koerner was so sensitive to the charge that he deliberately hung back from the political stump."18 He nevertheless tried to help with German-American voters behind the scenes. Koerner wrote the President from his home in Belleville in September 1864: "I find every thing here in Illinois very favorable. Our soldiers will almost to a man vote for you, when at home, and though they cannot exercise that privilege in the field yet they bring great influence to bear on their friends & relatives in the State."19 Koerner resigned from his diplomatic post at the end of 1864.

 

Footnotes

  1. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 284.
  2. Thomas J. McCormack, editor, The Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896: Life-sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children, Volume I, p. 443-444.
  3. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.(Letter from Gustavus Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, July 17, 1858).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 376 (Letter to Gustave Koerner, April 11, 1859).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1859).
  6. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from David Davis to Abraham Lincoln, April 23, 1860).
  7. Telegram from Gustave P. Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, May 18, 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  8. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 64 (from Thomas J. McCormack, editor, Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896, Volume II, p. 114).
  9. Letter From Gustave P. Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, April 5, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  10. Letter from Gustave P. Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, October 8, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 112 (Letter to George B. McClellan, November 29. 1861).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 100 (Letter to Henry W. Halleck, January 15, 1862).
  13. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 175.
  14. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 175.
  15. Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, March 28, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  16. Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  17. Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, May 24, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  18. Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, April 9, 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  19. Letter from Gustave Koerner to Abraham Lincoln, September 22, 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.