Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Distant Revolutions

Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism

Timothy Mason Roberts
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Distant Revolutions
    Book Description:

    Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalismis a study of American politics, culture, and foreign relations in the mid-nineteenth century, illuminated through the reactions of Americans to the European revolutions of 1848. Flush from the recent American military victory over Mexico, many Americans celebrated news of democratic revolutions breaking out across Europe as a further sign of divine providence. Others thought that the 1848 revolutions served only to highlight how America's own revolution had not done enough in the way of reform. Still other Americans renounced the 1848 revolutions and the thought of trans-atlantic unity because they interpreted European revolutionary radicalism and its portents of violence, socialism, and atheism as dangerous to the unique virtues of the United States.

    When the 1848 revolutions failed to create stable democratic governments in Europe, many Americans declared that their own revolutionary tradition was superior; American reform would be gradual and peaceful. Thus, when violence erupted over the question of territorial slavery in the 1850s, the effect was magnified among antislavery Americans, who reinterpreted the menace of slavery in light of the revolutions and counter-revolutions of Europe. For them a new revolution in America could indeed be necessary, to stop the onset of authoritarian conditions and to cure American exemplarism. The Civil War, then, when it came, was America's answer to the 1848 revolutions, a testimony to America's democratic shortcomings, and an American version of a violent, nation-building revolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2818-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 1990 the U.S. Congress paid tribute to the recent fall of communism in eastern Europe by dedicating the bronze bust of a man who died some ninety years before the Berlin Wall was knocked down—indeed, decades before the wall was built. Elected officials, foreign dignitaries, and even church ministers gathered to witness the unveiling of the bust of a Hungarian lawyer and troublemaker named Louis Kossuth—about whom we know hardly anything today, in spite of the fact that his likeness now stands in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.¹

    Who was Kossuth, and why does he deserve a permanent...

  5. 1. The Ambivalence of Americans Abroad
    (pp. 21-41)

    Philip Claiborne Gooch, in Paris in 1848, and Elizabeth Stiles, in Vienna that year, wrote accounts of their experiences that capture the idealism and anxiety of Americans witnessing revolution and counterrevolution firsthand. Gooch, a medical student, joined a mob that invaded the Tuileries Palace, taking a seat himself upon the throne of the deposed King Louis Philippe, and was in the streets for the “June Days” uprising, remarking at seeing Alphonse de Lamartine, attempting to mediate the conflict, wounded and having his horse shot from under him. Stiles, forced to evacuate the residence where she lived with her husband, William...

  6. 2. The Rise and Fall of the 1848 Revolutions in American Public Culture
    (pp. 42-62)

    When Philip Claiborne Gooch, the American medical student, returned to the United States from Europe in 1849, he commenced his practice in Virginia but kept up his interest in public affairs, which his experiences in revolutionary Paris had piqued. He became an organizer for a Democratic Party committed to extending American influence abroad. And to conduct his medical and political circuit-riding, he bought a horse, at fifty dollars “a very good bargain,” which he named Lamartine—as a reminder of the turbulence and excitement he had experienced. Naming his horse in honor of the fallen French revolutionary allowed him to...

  7. 3. The Presidential Campaign of 1848: Competing Rhetorics of Revolution
    (pp. 63-80)

    Soon after the upheaval of Paris in February 1848, a coterie of American journalists gathered in Old Fellows’ Hall in the national capital. The Washington press wished to issue an “appropriate” statement, to be transmitted to the new French government. Attending the meeting were William Seaton, the publisher of theDaily National Intelligencer,a Whig organ; James Robinson, a reporter for the WhigNew York Tribune,edited by Horace Greeley; the editor Thomas Ritchie of the DemocraticWashington Union;and Gamaliel Bailey of the antislavery journal theNational Era,which soon would endorse the new Free Soil Party. Arrangements for...

  8. 4. American Reform: Transatlantic Inspiration
    (pp. 81-104)

    In April 1848 the popular Massachusetts poet and essayist James Russell Lowell composed an antislavery essay entitled “Shall We Ever be Republican?” Lowell answered the question himself, declaring America would never be republican because tolerance of slavery violated moral norms established at the founding of the American republic. “We are afraid,” Lowell declared, “of our own principles.”¹

    Lowell’s answer to the question, “Shall We Ever be Republican?” thus actually would have better answered the question, “Shall We Ever Again be Republican?” For Lowell slavery was wrong because it was incompatible with the American revolutionary principle of equal opportunity shared by...

  9. 5. The Conservative Christian Alliance
    (pp. 105-124)

    In 1850 John Hughes, the archbishop of New York City, wrote about an exchange with “an esteemed Protestant Friend.” “We Protestants,” declared Hughes’s counterpart, “are going to take Pius IX from you, and then what will your Church do without a Pope?” Hughes replied, “If you take the Pope from us, what will your Church do without an Antichrist?” This exchange captures the issues on which American Protestant and Catholic spokesmen focused when they beheld turbulent Europe. What did revolutions against political and religious authority in Europe mean for Christians in the United States? This chapter describes how outspoken, ardently...

  10. 6. Secession or Revolution? The South and the Crisis of 1850
    (pp. 125-145)

    In 1850, perhaps gazing at Europe, William Henry Trescot, a South Carolina lawyer and future U.S. diplomat, asked, “What is the position of the South . . . as a slaveholding people?” At the time some promoters of slavery in America were considering separation from a country increasingly resistant to the institution’s aggrandizement. Of any American group, Southerners with ties to slavery were most likely to become uneasy over news of the European upheavals. Whether “revolution” meant greater liberty or greater license, the concept suggested a destruction or change to the existing order. This change did not bode well for...

  11. 7. Louis Kossuth and the Campaign of 1852
    (pp. 146-167)

    Americans erupted in a final frenzy over revolutionary Europe in early 1852, despite, or because of, the recent setback experienced by Louis Kossuth, the dashing Hungarian revolutionary. Kossuth had come to the United States late in 1851 to raise support for renewing the Hungarian independence struggle against Austria. He arrived via Turkey and Britain, each of which granted him temporary asylum from Hapsburg officials who wished to kill him. Reacting to accounts in American newspapers of the enthusiastic British reception of the Hungarian, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi arranged for an American warship to bring Kossuth across the Atlantic.¹


  12. 8. The Antislavery Movement as a Crisis of American Exceptionalism
    (pp. 168-186)

    Many Americans at the outset of the 1848 revolutions considered the prospect that, at least politically, the United States and Europe were growing closer together. But Americans viewed the revolutions’ lack of success as a debacle, and many inferred that the ingredients necessary for revolutionary success resided only on the western side of the Atlantic. Only in the United States were citizens capable of gaining constitutional rights through minimal violence and maintaining the prosperity that accompanied those rights. Thus, in the early 1850s many Americans saw themselves alone, with a fate to be determined by historically unique circumstances and internal...

  13. Epilogue: From 1848 to 1863
    (pp. 187-192)

    The relationship between the European upheavals of 1848 and the American reaction beginning in 1849, the disruption of the American political system in the 1850s, and the North’s prosecution of the Civil War may be recapitulated by a focus on two Northern antislavery men, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Brown was considered insane by some contemporaries and earlier historians, although scholars have more recently asserted his unflinching commitment to the antislavery cause and his apparently rational view of what his raid at Harpers Ferry, whether or not it sparked a slave uprising, would do to exacerbate sectional hostility.¹

    While historians...

  14. Chronology of Events, 1848–1854
    (pp. 193-196)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 197-218)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-248)
  17. Index
    (pp. 249-256)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-257)