–by Joanna Hallac
As you must all know by now (and if you don’t, you do now!), we at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in collaboration with the German-American Heritage Museum recently unveiled our joint exhibit on German Americans in the first and 112th federal congresses. It was on display in the Cannon Rotunda from October 4th through the 7th and will make its way over to the Russell Rotunda for the week of October 24th before being displayed at the German-American Heritage Museum in December, and finally becoming a traveling exhibit after that. While we’ve posted a few times about this exhibit, offering previews and excerpts of the information contained in the panels, we thought it might be a nice change to look at some of the many German Americans who served in the Congress in the 19th and 20th centuries. I found a number from which to choose, with one in particular catching my attention—Gustav Schleicher.
Schleicher was born to a cabinetmaker in Darmstadt, Hesse in 1823. Schleicher went to school for and trained as a civil engineer assisting in German railroad construction. Schleicher and another man, Dr. Ferdinand L. Herff, were leaders of a group of intellectuals who immigrated to Texas and founded a commune, Bettina (after the German literary figure, Bettina von Amim), along the Llano River in 1847. The main thrust of the community was to prove the truth of communism and to offer a path of hope in the wake of spreading revolutions throughout Europe, culminating in the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions in the German confederation and elsewhere in Europe. The community experiment, not surprisingly, failed and left Schleicher disillusioned.
In 1850 Gustav Schleicher moved to San Antonio, where he and some others began the Guadalupe Bridge Company with the goal of building a toll bridge across the Guadalupe between San Antonio and New Braunfels, as well as building the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railway. In 1852, Schleicher became an American citizen, and in 1853-54 he was elected to serve in the House of Representatives of the Fifth Texas Legislature. Following his stretch in the Texas House, Schleicher would involve himself in numerous business ventures, acquiring vast swaths of land and cofounding the San Antonio Water Company in 1858 and Alamo College in 1860, as well as serving in the Senate of the Eighth Texas Legislature from 1859-1861.
Prior to the Civil War, Schleicher often allied himself with Democrats such as Sam Houston in supporting the Union, but after secession that would change as he became an advocate of the secessionist movement and a Captain in the Confederate Army. He also tried and failed several times to recruit an entire company of fellow Germans for Sibley’s Brigade (Sibley, a Confederate brigadier general, put together several regiments for a campaign turned debacle in New Mexico during the Civil War). After the war, Schleicher practiced law in San Antonio; in 1866, he was one of the incorporators of the Columbus, San Antonio, and Rio Grande Railroad, serving as the engineer for the construction of the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway, which ran from Indianola to Cuero (he founded the town of Cuero as a way station and moved there in 1872).
In 1874, the Democratic Party nominated Gustav Schleicher (he did not solicit the nomination) and subsequently elected him to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Texas’s Sixth District. According to the Texas State Historical Association, his first order of business was the installation of an elevator in the House; more importantly, however, he became very well known for his well-researched and well-considered opinions on such issues as the restoration of the gold and silver standards and his support for the protection of the Texas frontier with Mexico. In his first term he served on the committees of Indian Affairs and Railroads and Canals, while in his second term he added a seat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs to his résumé. As he was getting ready to run for reelection in 1878, he received a strong challenge from someone in his own party due to his somewhat unpopular position on a stable currency, nearly losing reelection after a long and bitter campaign (sound familiar to anyone who follows politics today?). Sadly, however, Schleicher never got the chance to take his seat for his third term, passing away suddenly in Washington, D.C. on January 10, 1879.
Despite starting out on the far left of the political spectrum in his experiment with the Bettina commune, he soon learned the downsides to such a collectivist doctrine outside of the theoretical world and spent the remainder of his life as a conservative, in fact maintaining most German immigrants were as well. Gustav Schleicher was a hugely popular figure in both Texas and Washington; he was laid to rest with much pomp and circumstance in the U.S. National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, and Schleicher County in West Texas is named in his honor.
The contributions made by German Americans to American society and specifically to the United States Congress cannot be overstated—Gustav Schleicher is merely another example. And while many German immigrants originally settled in places throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia in particular, it is interesting to see that later generations sought new opportunities in places like Texas too. Be sure to stay tuned as we continue to add to this series in our blog, examining more German American members of Congress from both the 19th and 20th centuries and the many positive things they have added to our American experience. If you’re interested in reading more about Schleicher or any other important Texas historical figure, visit the Texas State Historical Association website at: http://www.tsahonline.org.
Since we’ve weighed in about some of the prominent German Americans who have served in Congress, why don’t you tell us which German immigrant or German American (not necessarily an elected official) do you think has most positively impacted American society?