SEARCH ARCHIVES - click here

Freie Blatter History

Exerpts from “Franz Schmidt and the Freie Blatter of St. Louis, 1851-1853”

By Steven Rowan

             What he was about in St. Louis, besides teaching school, was editing a newspaper under the aegis of Heinrich Bornstein (Henry Bornstein), a man who has had as many enemies as the lovable Schmidt had friends. Heinrich Bornstein’s life was both long and well recorded…

            Bornstein was called to St. Louis in early 1850 to assume the editorship of the Anzeiger des Westens, and although he proclaimed himself to be a public educator only interested in elevating the cultural level of the immigrant community, he soon earned a reputation as an anti-Catholic agitator. To boost  circulation of the Anzeiger and to promote an alliance between American nativists and German radicals, he undertook to write and publish a sensational anti-Jesuit novel entitled “The Mysteries of St. Louis, Or, The Jesuits on the Prairie des Noyers, A Western Tale.” It was dedicated to the former United States senator Thomas Hart Benton, who would be Bornstein’s candidate for the House of Representatives in 1852…

            While Bornstein was still publishing the first parts of “The Mysteries,” on March 18, 1851, Franz Schmidt launched his own weekly, Freie Blatter, published by Bornstein’s printing company. The Freie Blatter is our major source of information on what freethinker St. Louis was doing in the early 1850s, and for awhile it was considered one of the leading freethinker publications in German North America. It would continue publication until March 5, 1853, shortly before its editor’s death from tuberculosis in Matanzas, Cuba, where he had gone in a futile effort to regain his health.

            Schmidt prefaced the first issue of the weekly, subtitled Ein Organ fur religiose Erklarung, with a forthright statement of first principles, a “Creed” of eight points which affirmed belief in an eternal material nature operating without external agencies, a possible multiplicity of inhabited planets, the preeminent dignity of mankind as the apex of nature. Consequently, there could be no higher crime than to degrade human dignity. The creed said further that humanity had been called to order and harmony, not to perpetual conflict, but that history consisted of the progressive struggle of mankind against oppression, with the ultimate goal of order, harmony and freedom to be realized only in the future. Christianity, which at one time had been an advance over earlier belief systems, was outmoded, and the Bible, upon which Christianity rested, was a dubious and partisan document. Lastly, the nineteenth century was a time of mankind’s final liberation. This progressive vision of the process of nature was utopian rather than Marxist, and the shrinking away from serious politics which would characterize Schmidt’s St. Louis years is already visible. Still, this “Creed” kept him in trouble with pious St. Louis for the rest of his life there.

            Also at the beginning of the first issue of the journal, Schmidt declared that the presence of a constitution and binding laws approved by the people was not the essence of freedom but only its precondition. True liberation required genuine freedom of thought, which grew out of being freed from the domination of clergy and other dictators. Instead of freedom of religion, people needed a religion of freedom. The Freie Blatter, for its part, would avoid personalities and parties and instead “let principle struggle with principle, ideal with ideal, philosophy with philosophy.” Above all, there were to be no personal attacks. This philosophy seems to have struck a chord; the immediate success of the weekly is reflected in the fact that the press run was raised from one thousand to fifteen hundred copies, and that a condensed reprint of the first eight numbers was soon issued. There was every indication that the journal had a wide circulation, even if it would never be a financial success.

            The Freie Blatter subjected its St. Louis environment to a sharp critique, especially when it reflected the spirit of its companion organization, the Verein Freier Manner, always from the starting point of anticlericalism. The absence of formal censorship in America, for example, did not appear to Schmidt automatically to result in free expression, since overwhelming public pressure for conformity achieved the same results as a centralized censorship, sometimes with greater ruthlessness and efficiency. Self-censored minds thus made a police state superfluous. Religious institutions in America were seen as primary organs of social discipline and hence of self-censorship. Such an argument also shows that the articles in the Freie Blatter were aimed at a more literate audience than that which followed the daily press, so that readers were expected to work through the rather technical essays on electricity or exposes of arcane religious fraud through the ages. Although editorially distinct, the Freie Blatter was produced from the same building as the Anzeiger, and the close ties between the two journals were never a secret. The Anzeiger concentrated on garden-variety anticlericalism, but the Freie Blatter handled those items which were too hot even for the scandalmonger Bornstein to set in type, engaging in anti-Christian polemics and the lampooning of Christian scriptures. The paper even denounced the Thanksgiving Day proclamation of the governor of Missouri on one occasion.

            The result was that the paper engaged in head-to-head confrontations with clerical writers in the Catholic Sonntagsblatt or the Tages-Chronik, but the most violent wars were reserved for the Lutheran leader C.F.W. Walther, editor of Der Lutheraner, and his followers. In one such dispute, a seminarian from Concordia Seminary published an anonymous pamphlet denouncing the “Fleshy Religion of the Free Men.” When all other arguments failed, Schmidt denigrated the pamphlet’s author as a mere Stephanite, the dregs of the Germin emigration and a scandal to all decent moral men, adding that the Old Lutherans were a moral sump which stank even worse than the St. Louis levee on a hot day. Such censoriousness moved even the intellectual leader of the older Missouri immigration, Friederich Munch, to voice his misgivings about the stridently anti-Christian tone of much of the paper. Schmidt replied to this firmly, though with more courtesy than he could usually muster when dealing with a critic. He was, after all, addressing one who was already a noted member of the rationalist community.

            Beginning at the end of 1851, Schmidt began to give exposure to the writings of Karl Heinzen. An old enemy of the Marxists, and the German-American heir of the “true socialists” of ancient memory, he was for a long time the chief speaker and writer of the left in German-America, and his militant refusal to go along with the ordinary political process justified Carl Wittke’s title of the biography of Heinzen, “Against the Current.” Most pointedly, Schmidt launched this campaign with a critique by Heinsen of the writings of Friederich Munch (under his pen name of Far West), featuring Heinzen’s “Letters to a Reasonable Man” as responses to Munch’s “Letters to a Pious Man.” In the middle of the next year, however, Heinzen became a major contributor with protocols of speeches made in a major lecture tour with included stops in Hermann, Missouri, and St. Louis. Heinzen’s final series for Freie Blatter parallels Schmidt’s and the paper’s own development, reflecting both his earlier polemic with Munch and the more exclusively religious stress of Schmidt’s last days, “To a Pious Man.”…

            The “cultural” stress of the Freie Blatter caused it to serenely ignore current political events, so that Bornstein’s abortive demands in 1851 for a German political party in St. Louis which would demand parity for German office-holders were left unmentioned, as was the epoch-making struggle in 1851 and 1852 for Benton Democracy, which for the first time established Free-Soil principles as a winning formula in Missouri. (This in turn would lay the groundwork for the Missouri Republican party, the chief political instrument of the overthrow of the Missouri state government in 1861.) None of these matters would ever surface in the Freie Blatter.

            In the Freie Blatter of January 15, 1853, an article by Bornstein reprinted from the Anzeiger des Westins bade Franz Schmidt farewell on the morrow of his departure for Matanzas, Cuba, to spend the winter. Schmidt’s tuberculosis had been plaguing him for years, so much so that he had hesitated to accept an invitation to present the keynote address at the dedication of the hall of the Freie Gemeinde von Nord – St. Louis in July 1851, due to his chronic poor health. Now Bornstein formally took over editing the Freie Blatter during Schmidt’s absence…Thereafter, until its last number of March 5, 1853 (vol. 2, no. 51), the paper simply reprinted materials from other freethinker journals…