Gustav Koerner: German American politician, lawyer, judge & diplomat (1809 - 1896) | Biography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Gustav Koerner
German American politician, lawyer, judge & diplomat

Gustav Koerner

Gustav Koerner
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro German American politician, lawyer, judge & diplomat
A.K.A. Gustav Koerner, Gustave Koerner, Gustavus Koerner, Gustav Korner, Gust...
Was Politician Journalist Lawyer Judge Revolutionary Diplomat Author Writer
From United States of America United States of America
Field Activism Journalism Law Literature Military Politics
Gender male
Birth 20 November 1809, Frankfurt
Death 9 April 1896, Belleville (aged 86 years)
Star sign Scorpio
Gustav Koerner
The details (from wikipedia)


Gustav Philipp Koerner, also spelled Gustave or Gustavus Koerner (20 November 1809 – 9 April 1896) was a revolutionary, journalist, lawyer, politician, judge, and statesman in Illinois and Germany and a Colonel of the U.S. Army who was a confessed enemy of slavery. He married on 17 June 1836 in Belleville Sophia Dorothea Engelmann (16 November 1815 – 1 March 1888), they had 9 children. He belonged to the co-founders and was one of the first members of the Grand Old Party; and he was a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd and had an essential role in his nomination and election for president in 1860.


Early life & education

Gustav was the son of the Frankfurt publisher, bookseller and art dealer Bernhard Körner (1776–1829) and his wife Maria Magdalena Kämpfe (1776–1847), daughter of another Frankfurt bookseller. He graduated with Abitur from the Gymnasium Francofurtanum. Then he studied law at the universities in Jena, Munich and Heidelberg and graduated 1832 from the University of Heidelberg as Dr. iuris utriusque, doctor as well as German and Roman law.

Escape from Persecution in Germany

Because of his participation at the so-called Christmas riots in Munich on Christmas Eve 1830 he was taken into custody for four months. He was involved in a snowball fight and due to the Christian celebrations at this day a little drunken what led to a confrontation with the Gendarmerie of that city in royal Bavaria where an officer was knocked down and wounded. He has learnt more about the law in the time of his captivity in Munich than ever before during the two-year studies at the university of Jena, he remembered himself later. Owing to this event the university of Munich was temporarily closed and Koerner changed to the university in Heidelberg after his custody.

He was one of the participants at the Hambach Festival in spring of 1832 which was held to prepare a free, democratic, and unified state in Germany, an event of the Vormärz in German history. The German confederation's legations of the sovereigns, the Bundestag (officially called the Bundesversammlung, Federal Assembly), was located in the Palais Thurn und Taxis in the center of his native city. Following the Frankfurter Wachensturm in 1833, a failed attempt by students to start a revolution in all states of the German Confederation, he was injured and, avoiding the prosecution through the authorities and again to be held captive due to high treason threatened with capital punishment, he escaped in female dresses to France. A warrant was out for him. That's why he is counted as one of the Dreissiger.

The Central Federal Bureau for Investigations (German: Bundes-Central-Behörde für Untersuchungen) in Frankfurt was set up after the revolt against the reign of the President of the German Confederation, Francis I, Emperor of Austria, his chancellor Prince Metternich and the other vassals of him including King Frederick William III of Prussia. These authorities assigned him number 908 with the name Gustav Peter Körner in their infamous "black book" of the revolutionary machinations suspects. The Free City of Frankfurt was lasting occupied by federal troops from Austria and Prussia what meant de facto the total loss of its independence.

Rescued by "Angels"

He aboarded on 1 May 1833 on a ship in Le Havre to North America affiliated with a group of emigrants headed by the father of the Engelmann family, whose son Theodor was an old friend of him from college times. On the passage he became engaged with his subsequent wife Sophie, a daughter of the Engelmanns who was born in the Electorate of the Palatinate (German: Kurpfalz), an historic region of Germany. Her cousin George Engelmann had explored as a vanguard of his family the region in the Midwestern United States already a year before. He was also from Frankfurt, belonged to the same age group as Gustav and had attended the same school, received a degree as M.D. and became later a man of reputation as a famous expert of the botany of North America.

Finally they reached the Port of New York City on 17 June and went next to St. Louis in Missouri, a slave state that Koerner deeply abhorred. Shortly after he left there, he and the Engelmanns settled down in the Shiloh Valley near Belleville and Koerner began between 1834 and 1835 to study American law. While he studied at Transylvania University, he got to know Mary Todd who married a few years later Abraham Lincoln. Then he established himself as a lawyer and practised in the office of Adam W. Snyder in Belleville and from 1837 he cooperated in the office of James Shields. In 1838 he received the American citizenship.


He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1842, served on the Illinois Supreme Court from 1845 to 1848, and exercised in the office as 12th Lieutenant Governor of Illinois from 1853 to 1857. Originally a Democrat, he became a member of the Republican Party when it formed, and helped to formulate its anti-slavery platform. As a friend, he took over some of Abraham Lincoln's cases when Lincoln was elected president.

Koerner was the first of German extraction ever elected to legislature in Illinois or Missouri. In a tussle between him and the editor of the Anzeiger des Westens Henry Boernstein in 1851 he called the Forty-Eighters Greens in his newspaper, the Belleviller Zeitung, and Boernstein published a reply with the insulting designation for him as the Gray Gustav.

Service for the Country

He was instrumental in raising the 43rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861, but, before its organization was completed, he was appointed colonel of volunteers and assigned as aide to Gen. John C. Frémont, upon whose removal he was assigned to Gen. Henry W. Halleck's staff as Brigadier General, but resigned in April 1862 owing to impaired health. Shortly thereafter, he succeeded Carl Schurz as United States Ambassador to Spain.

He should prevent that Spain entered the American Civil War on the side of the Southern slave states. Although the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America (so his exact titles as ambassador) managed this, Koerner was discontented in Spain. He requested the president several times for displacement. An important reason: The payment of this ambassadorial vacancy did not nearly come up to the huge representative obligations at the Spanish court. Koerner had to increase money from his private casket. In the sequel of 1864 he left the diplomatic service and returned to the United States.


After the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln a special honour was granted him, he belonged to the pallbearers who carried the corpse of the president in the state funeral. The other men, all of them were Lincoln's friends from his time in Springfield, Illinois, who conducted the coffin:

Replica of the coffin of Abraham Lincoln, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006.
  • Jesse K. Dubois
  • Stephen T. Logan
  • James L. Lamb
  • Samuel Hubbel Treat, Jr.
  • John Williams
  • Erastus White
  • J. M. Brown
  • Jacob Bunn
  • Charles Matheny
  • Elisha Iles
  • John T. Stuart

Last years

Koerner in his last years.

In 1867 he was appointed president of the board of trustees that organized the Illinois Soldiers' Orphans' Home at Bloomington, and in 1870 he became president of the first board of railroad commissioners of Illinois. After he succeeded in aid for Ulysses S. Grant in his presidential election in 1868, he supported the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. In this year he belonged once again to the Electoral College which Horace Greeley nominated as US presidential candidate, however he was not elected in this office.

In the same year Koerner also ran for election (→ Illinois gubernatorial election, 1872) for the office of the Governor of Illinois, still the Republican Richard James Oglesby (1824–1899) got the election. He then backs the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden for the U.S. presidency in a contentious election of 1876 (Tilden won the absolute majority and was not elected due to a political deal between the two dominant parties) and remained with this party afterwards.

His wife Sophia founded together with Henry Raab (1837–1901), who was a German immigrant (1854) from Wetzlar and became 1863 a librarian in Belleville and later a considerable educator, and some other people in 1874 one of the first kindergartens. She became the first president of the Belleville Kindergarten Association which had with $2,100 contribution from 70 shareholders and supported by 150 farther women who could provide one year later 201 pupils served by three educators. This institute followed the Julius Fröbel system of primary education for training children effortlessly. The building was finished in April 1875 for $5,000 but it was sold in 1892 to the Belleville Philharmonic Society.


Warrant of Apprehension of the year 1833 for Gustav Peter Philipp Körner, exhibited by the Scrupulous Interrogation Office (German: Peinliches Verhör-Amt).

At suggestion of the farmer Dr. Anton Schott, graduated in theology and philosophy, Koerner founded together with other Latin farmers in 1836 the public library in Belleville, probable the first in Illinois. Although he has never pursued agriculture as a profession, he is counted among the group of the Latin farmers, a rather mocking designation of people like him, because many of these German immigrants in the United States had received an academic education.

Koerner was active furthermore as a lawyer, he wrote also articles for several newspapers, among other for the "Belleviller Zeitung" or the "Anzeiger des Westens" (published in St. Louis), American newspapers in German language. He had great influence on the growing German community living in North America in the second half of the 19th century. On recommendation of his friend and biographer Heinrich Rattermann (1832–1923) he began in the end of 1886 in Belleville with the record of his memoirs.

But Koerner did not think on a publication – he wrote down the detailed retrospect of his life as a recollection for his numerous descendants. His memoirs were published in 1909, 13 years after his death and in the year of his 100th birthday, in two volumes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as a book. Today Koerners former dwelling house is registered in the National Register of Historic Places. It was acquired in 2001 by the City of Belleville and was restored by the historical society of the Saint Clair County, Illinois (St. Clair County Historical Society).

Do right and fear no one

Storming the Guards of Frankfurt at night on 3 April 1833, contemporary history copper engraving.

The historical society of the St. Clair County, Illinois, in which Belleville is located, has put their big project to reshape the former dwelling house of Gustav Koerner to a museum under his headword "Do right and fear no one". It was in 2009 also the motto of the celebrations for the 200th birthday of Gustav Koerner. "Act properly and fear nobody" was however not his quite personal motto of life. He described with these words in his memoirs rather the "religion" of most Burschenschafter (student fraternities) of his student years at Jena – he might have still marked with it also his own basic position as active Burschenschafter.

Our society was open to both Jew and Gentile, and I really should not have been able to tell the religion of most of my friends. "Do right and fear no one," seems to have been the only religion adopted amongst us.

— Gustave Koerner, Memoirs of Gustave Koerner

One of his personal leitmotivs was pointed out by the "Belleviller Zeitung" (the local newspaper in German language) on 11 January 1899, nearly three years after his death, in a biography in the jubilee edition at the 50th anniversary of their first appearance:

The whole work of his long life full of fame may be added up as a continual statement of his favorite motto, namely: No rights without duties, no duties without rights.


  • Koerner, Gustave (1909). McCormack, Thomas J., ed. Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896, Life-Sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children (book). Digitization Projects Philologic Results. Vol. 1 (Permission: Northern Illinois University, Illinois State Library ed.). Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 
  • Koerner, Gustave (1909). McCormack, Thomas J., ed. Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896, Life-Sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children (book, JavaScript). The Institute of Museum and Library Services through an Indiana State Library LSTA Grant. Vol. 2 (Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection ed.). Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 
  • Collections of the Important General Laws of Illinois, with Comments (St. Louis, 1838) (German)
  • Körner, Gustav (1867). Aus Spanien [Out of Spain] (in German). Frankfurt a.M.: J.D. Sauerländer. OCLC 014164399. 
  • Körner, Gustav Philipp (1880). Das deutsche Element in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, 1818-1848 [The German Element in the United States of America, 1818-1848]. Library of American civilization, LAC 15737 (in German and English). Cincinnati: A.E. Wilde. OCLC 011355941. 

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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