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Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Jeffersonian America)
Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Jeffersonian America)
Timothy Mason Roberts
University of Virginia Press, 2009
272 pp., 44.0

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James D. Bratt

Not So Different

America and the revolutions of 1848.

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 accounts of Americans who happened to be on site here or there across the Continent, before settling into the meat of his subject, the ways that American opinion processed these events from this side of the Atlantic. As necessary background he identifies the three key issues at stake in the revolution itself: the political question of civil rights, written constitutions, representative assemblies, and a (more or less) popular franchise; the social question of labor-capital relations and property rights in the context of population explosion, agricultural crisis, and the raw stages of industrialization; and the "nationality" or ethnic question that was especially pressing for the polyglot empires of Central and Eastern Europe and their would-be successor states. At bottom these questions converged into one—identifying citizenship in the new order. Just who were the "people" who would now have rights, representation, and power? Who really "belonged," and where, in the new regime?

These questions were answered (more accurately, bloodily controverted) across five stages of revolutionary development. In the spring of 1848, accumulated grievances exploded spontaneously from Palermo to Paris to Prague and beyond, driving out the conservative regimes and inaugurating "the springtime of the peoples." By summer this early solidarity was splintering between bourgeois liberals and working-class radicals in Paris and between ethnic groups in the empires, as manifest first of all among the German and Austrian liberals of the Frankfurt parliament, who dismissed Czech pleas for self-determination out of hand. The conservatives took advantage of these feuds to institute an autumn of reaction, which pushed the revolutionary momentum toward the Left in search of firmer resistance. That alienated the property- and order-minded liberals in the cities—not to mention the rural peasantry who had gotten theirs early on—and so doomed the cause to full and ruthless suppression by the end of 1849.

Americans did not respond to these developments in any detached way, Roberts demonstrates, but assimilated them into local agendas and questions about their own character. The first response was parties and merchandizing, the ghost of Disney-future. The polka and mazurka became dance crazes for American Bandstand 1848, Slavic soul music yearning for deliverance from the Russian or German overlord. The Hungarian freedom-fighter Lajos ("Louis") Kossuth, fleeing to America after those lords had crushed the Magyar rising, undertook a fundraising tour that galvanized a parade in every town, where enterprising shopowners hawked "Kossuth caps" (the traditional liberty cap, re-branded) as the sign of proper sentiments. There followed banquets with long speeches declaiming Americans' undying sympathy for the cause of liberty everywhere, and finally a passing of the hat—which typically managed to bring in just enough to cover Kossuth's expenses, not to buy the arms that were his first objective. This was Victorian Entertainment Tonight: a celebrity tour that morphed the drama du jour into a theater of self-congratulation as Americans pondered how like, or unlike, Hungarians were to themselves and, accordingly, how great or small were their chances of sustaining liberty.

These parties soon gave over to the other, political sort. Here things got more complex, and eventually very unsettling. In the presidential election of 1848, Roberts shows, the European scene became something of a Rorschach blot of partisan projections. Whigs celebrated American difference in underscoring their commitment to ordered and stable (as opposed to "fanatical" and fleeting) liberty. Democrats, by contrast, underscored the revolutions' (some-time) devotion to local, or lower-down, control against alien power as a fair copy of their own program. The Free Soil Party, new that year, was the most positive, aligning the Europeans' cause with their own in one great global tide of freedom.

Roberts further proceeds to study religious denominations, reform organizations, regional variations, and journals high and low. From this survey a fourfold typology emerges. Early on, and with respect to the political question, Americans sounded the glad tidings that "they are just like us." That is, Europe was moving toward the model of a democratic republic and was doing so after the United States' example. But with the summer's class strife in Paris Americans began to sadly, then proudly, conclude that "they are not like us"—not possessed of that native disposition and Protestant religion which accounted for liberty's blissful cohabitation with property on the American shore. Notably, this discussion insisted a bit too compulsively that the American Revolution had been low on violence and high on comity. It also skirted the ethnic question; in fact, Harvard professor Francis Bowen lost his chair for predicting, accurately, that the Hungarian revolution would devolve into ethnic cleansing, with or without the Magyars intending it.

The third school of American opinion came in two variations, each inverting one of the previous two options but both sharing the European conservatives' insistence on resolute authority. American Catholic leaders like Archbishop John Hughes and recent convert Orestes Brownson took "they're just like us" to be an oracle of doom. The United States was liable to the same ruin as Europe, they said, precisely because it was so Protestant a country—that is, premised on false notions of freedom. Only the Church provided a sufficient bulwark against the tides of anarchy and self-interest; thus Catholicism was not the bane but the bedrock of liberty. The leading voices of the Southern élite nominated slavery for that role. By relegating a well-defined social class beneath any hope of freedom, they argued, slavery preserved liberty from Europe's predictable cycle of degeneration. Slavery also, by the way, solved the social (i.e., labor) question and created ethnic solidarity among a white master class. In short, Europeans indeed were "not like us": they suffered from a surfeit, not a shortfall, of liberty.

The fourth option lay with the myriad reformers who constituted the Left of the day. They took 1848 to mean that "we are not enough like them." The European rising had taken over the flag of liberty from the United States, exposing the degree to which Americans had betrayed the promise of their own revolution. It was no coincidence, Roberts concludes, that the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls took place in 1848 and that it put suffrage at the top of its list; that priority was neither self-evident nor uncontested going into the meeting, but became a compelling conclusion under the power of European example. For abolitionists, in turn, 1848 marked the end of the Mexican War and the dawn of grim new possibilities for the expansion of slavery. Their first response, also mirroring the European model, was a resurgence of the political school of antislavery over against moral-suasion strategies that renounced such worldliness. The upshot was to put race and slavery at the center of mainstream American politics, where they would remain for the next thirty years, despite attempts to defuse matters once for all with the Compromise of 1850.

In comparative light, the Congress which deliberated long and artfully at that bundle of legislation constituted the United States' own Frankfurt Assembly, more successful than its German counterpart in the short run but embedding in the moral and legal foundations of the republic the dynamite of the Fugitive Slave Law. That bill implicated every man and woman across the North in the enforcement of slavery, soon making the question of liberty as immediate for them as it had been for the European revolutionaries. It corroded representative democracy by subjecting free-state majorities to slave-state recalcitrance. As in the empires, it subordinated local (antislavery) law to the demands of an alien power; embarrassingly unlike the empires, it reinforced American slavery just as Prussia and Austria were abolishing serfdom. It planted the notion on both sides that North and South were "sides," two separate peoples, and the United States a split republic on the order of the dual monarchy that eventually came out of Austria's trouble with Hungary. And it raised in the North, not least among its heretofore pacifist-inclined reformers, the notion that violence might be the right arm of freedom. The South had long held violence necessary to preserve liberty; northerners, now, to recover it.

In short order all the questions of 1848 American-style converged on Kansas. Local control was called "popular sovereignty"; imperial power, "federal intervention" in the form of U.S. Army troops delegated to police domestic territory. Slavery involved the most important instance of labor relations and property rights that the nation had to settle, and yet the nation was devolving from common allegiances to functionally separate tribes. With the demise of the Whig party, as unstable a compound of liberty, property, and order as Europe's liberals had proved to be, the democratic republic that deemed itself a light to the European gentiles in 1848 came to a terminal division between Democratic and Republican parties.

Fittingly, the Civil War had its pre-Broadway run in Kansas, at the western frontier of Euroamerican civilization, just as the bloodletting set loose by 1848 proper had reached its crest at the eastern frontier in 1849, when Magyars, Serbs, and Croats savaged each other at the edge of the Austrian empire. Missouri border-raiders, taking up the role of revolutionary "people's militias" for the South, desolated Yankee loyalists bearing weapons supplied by their tribal sponsors back east. Leading the most infamous retaliatory raid was John Brown, whom Roberts discovers to have studied the strategy of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. In fact, Brown visited Europe in 1849, where he took battlefield tours and conversed with men who had fought under Kossuth and his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Brown's attempt to provoke an insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, a few years later thus resembled that January 1848 rising in Palermo; it triggered a momentum that no one could stop. In 1850 delegates from southern states had gathered at Nashville to deliberate seceding from the Union. They had demurred out of fears over what had attended the recent venture by Hungary to a similar end and over the possible consequences of arming the masses. Ten years later, enthusiasm would overcome reluctance, just as northerners shifted their view of federal troops from being the fist of a slaveholding aristocracy into an army of national unification. In comparative perspective Abraham Lincoln appears as an American Franz Joseph searching impatiently for some General Radetzky or Windischgrätz to reduce an Italian- or Hungarian-like secession—in the name of the revolutionaries' liberty and progress.

Clearly, Lincoln was not exactly like the Austrian Franz Joseph, nor like the Prussian Otto von Bismarck, the Italian Camillo Cavour, or the engineers of the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Yet (except for Franz Joseph's) theirs were all modernizing national unification projects undertaken by military means in the late 1860s, right after Lincoln's. After the 2009 bicentennial of his birth, in which the poor man was subjected to a new biography every week, perhaps it is best to call a moratorium on studies of Lincoln in isolation. What now most needs to be understood about him—and more broadly, about the United States—might best come to light in comparative context. Timothy Roberts' Distant Revolutions shows how it can be done.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College.

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