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United States and the 1848 Revolutions

Americans entered the year 1848 flushed from military success in Mexico. The U.S. Senate ratified the Mexican peace treaty only a few days before transatlantic steamers brought the first news of the 1848 upheavals in Europe. The events together seemed to symbolize rising American power. American soldiers in Mexico, for instance, rejoiced that the "refulgence of their glorious stars" had penetrated the "noxious fogs of European despotism." It was easy to envision an American republican mission unfolding in the European upheavals.

Some northern journalists and Democratic politicians, enunciating this national mission under the moniker of "young America," saw the time ripe for an aggressive American policy in Europe. They supported military assistance to revolutionary governments in Germany and Hungary, and suspension of diplomatic relations with Prussia and Austria, whose rulers refused to submit to or cooperate with popular authority. Besides hastily recognizing the French Second Republic, the United States also accorded recognition to short-lived regimes in Sicily and Frankfurt.

Outside official channels, moreover, support for radical Europe showed in various ways. Americans paraded, wore revolutionary cockades, and staged banquets to evince sympathy with European rebels. Protestant ministers preached, especially with the ousting of Pius IX from the Vatican, that the downfall of Catholicism, and perhaps the beginning of the millennium, was near. Mexican war veterans and recent Irish and German immigrants organized volunteers and gathered arms and money to return to Europe to assist in its liberation.

Yet support for vigorous pro-revolutionary American action in Europe was far from universal. In politics, Whigs and many southern Democrats opposed all but the most symbolic of American shows of support. American businessmen took interest in European turbulence, but mainly in hopes that shaken European financiers would buy American securities, and American exports of cotton and tobacco would gain in more open European makets. Apologists for American slavery frowned on support for European liberation movements, especially with the abolition of feudal labor in central Europe and slavery in the French West Indian colonies.

But while the 1848 Revolutions did not foster majority American interest in intervention in Europe, the revolutions did have an impact in the United States. Advocates of various reform movements -- urban labor organization, women's rights, and most prominently, antislavery -- perceived that transatlantic reform was indeed gaining momentum, and used upheavals in Europe to argue that analogous change should occur in the United States. Revolutionary Europe, these groups declared, was an indicator of American defects, and a warning of what awaited the United States if inequities went unattended. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, requiring the national government to help recapture runaway slaves, the antislavery press described episodes of slaves' flight and apprehension in terms of Hungarian freedom- fighters succumbing to Austrian oppression. Land reform in the western United States in part stemmed from pressure brought by immigrant and native laborers who used revolutionary Europe as a foil.

Many European revolutionary refugees came to America, some to settle permanently, others to raise funds to rejoin the struggle in Europe. Of the latter type, the most celebrated was the Hungarian lawyer Lajos Kossuth, whose 1852 speaking and fund- raising tour was sensational if quixotic. Kossuth pleaded for both private financial support for the Hungarian struggle, which he received, and military intervention in Europe, which he was refused. Kossuth spent most of the money he raised before he left the United States; perhaps the most lasting impact of his tour was in the realm of personal attire, as "Kossuth" hats, cloaks, and, for men, beards, became popular.

With the collapses of the 1848 Revolutions many Americans took comfort in the idea that the United States was different from Europe in its stability achieved via a republican revolution. But a decade later this would prove hubris. Then America would undergo a conflict whose upheavals and attendant suffering dwarfed the preceding conflicts in Europe. In their failed quests for greater liberty the 1848 Revolutions did not so much follow the American example of a republican revolution as they themselves provided a glimpse of coming, more comprehensive conflicts of democracy and nation-building on both sides of the Atlantic.
Timothy M. Roberts


Curti, Merle. "Impact of the Revolutions of 1848 on American Thought." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 93 (June 1949), 209-15.

Gazley, John. American Opinion of German Unification, 1848-1871.New York, 1926.

Marraro, Howard. American Opinion on the Unification of Italy, 1846-1861 New York, 1932.

Reynolds, Larry. European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance New Haven, 1988.

Spencer, Donald Louis Kossuth and Young America Columbia, MO, 1977.

Vance, William. American's Rome II, Catholic and Contemporary Rome New Haven, 1989.

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