Subscribe to Christianity Today
Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Jeffersonian America)
Timothy Mason Roberts
University of Virginia Press, 2009
272 pp., $44.00
James D. Bratt
Not So Different
The European revolutions of 1848 were the occasion of Karl Marx's famous dictum that everything in history happens twice—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. To that, there emerged over the next century and a half an American codicil: first time, tragedy; second time, farce; third time, theme park.
Americans at the time were more serious than their Disneyite progeny. Yet, as Timothy Roberts' Distant Revolutions demonstrates, they were little less smug. Serious, because they had forged a democratic republic in a world foreign, even hostile, to the concept. Smug, because the travail and ultimate tragedy of 1848 reinforced their old presumption that they, Americans, were uniquely qualified—whether by character, geography, divine appointment, or some combination of the three—to be the land of liberty. Old Europe might wrestle and toil with the project but would ultimately fail, a judgment seemingly confirmed with the quashing of the revolution within two years of its rise. Yet, five years further out, in 1854, the United States was poised on its own precipice, threatened by forces similar to those that had exploded so violently in Europe and that would yield far greater destruction in the American Civil War.
Two epochal events so close together in time beg for some comparative analysis; yet this opportunity for historical meaning-making has often lain hidden in plain view because of narrative structures designed to explain realms an ocean apart. The growing vogue of world history has begun to lift historians' sights, however. Roberts' slender book, a revision of the dissertation he wrote at Oxford under the direction of Daniel Walker Howe, shows the value of approaching this suddenly broader scale from the traditional locale of a single nation, exploring how formative and revelatory events abroad could be for developments at home.
Roberts begins with a serviceable summary of the course of revolution in Europe, and proceeds through eyewitness ...