Revolutions of 1848 (Magill’s Guide to Military History)
Article abstract: At issue: Democratic reform and nationalistic aspirations. Result: Failure to achieve most revolutionary objectives; repressive countermeasures; limited reforms and changes in government; growth of nationalism; disillusionment among liberals.
Never before or since has Europe experienced so many major uprisings in a single year. Acting independently in different countries, the most influential of the revolutionaries were liberals pushing for more representative government, greater civil liberties, and fewer economic constraints. The urban working classes, who often played a secondary role in the revolutions, wanted governments to promote employment and improve economic conditions for the masses. Although they cooperated in the early revolts of 1848, liberals and workers were soon engaged in bitter hostilities.
Outside of France, nationalism was one of the important common themes of the insurrections. In Germany and Italy, nationalism related to the attempt to unify the many dynastic entities into large national states. Within the multinational Austrian Empire, in contrast, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Romanians, and other national groups hoped to break away from the empire and to establish many small independent countries.
The difficult economic condition of the late 1840’s contributed to the outbreak of violence. The catastrophic grain and potato harvests of 1846 and...
(The entire section is 1028 words.)
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Revolutions of 1848 (American History Through Literature)
In 1848849 European nations rose in revolt against the system of hereditary, anti-nationalist monarchies most closely identified with the Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773859). Beginning in France in February 1848, nationalist-republican revolutions soon challenged regimes in Italy, Austria, and Germany. Although Britain suffered no revolution, it was hardly placid. Parliament had rejected the Chartists' petition in 1842, but the specter of the movement lingered. Chartists sought to eliminate some inequities left unaddressed by the Reform Act of 1832. They demanded universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, salaries for Members of Parliament, and other reforms. In 1848 this movement was rejuvenated by events on the Continent and enjoyed a brief, if equally unsuccessful, revival. In fact, every one of these movements failed.
Americans were deeply interested in these developments. Newspapers and magazines reported the latest news from overseas in brash, bold headlines. The rhetoric of nationalist exceptionalism notwithstanding, the United States possessed long-standing connections with the Old World, most closely to Great Britain but also to nations on the Continent. Thus, many Americans felt a personal investment in political and social upheaval overseas. In addition, Americans assumed that their own Revolution of 1776 inspired some of these events. The revolutionary upheavals also transfixed Americans because many of them expected them to fail. They wished for the best but, given the precedents of 1789 and 1830, anticipated that the forces of reaction would triumph. A significant minority of Americans expressed opposition or skepticism from the very beginning. Either because they doubted the ability of European peoples to sustain free governments or because they discerned the influence of socialism or communism, they were wary from the early stages. Responses to the Revolutions of 1848 reveal the existence of a powerful strain of conservatism in American cultural life.
Events of 1848 not only illuminated conservative tendencies in the United States but also deepened them. The reactionary resurgence strengthened mutually reinforcing perceptions of American exceptionalism and European corruption. Because many observers believed that conservative forces had triumphed not over republicans but over socialists or other radicals, these regimes and their methods acquired legitimacy in American eyes they had not heretofore possessed. These sentiments were not universal. In some circles, the events of 1848851 strengthened liberal and reformist elements in American society. Margaret Fuller (1810850), whose reports of the rise and demise of the 1849 Roman Revolution appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune, was radicalized by her experience. The so-called forty-eighterserman exiles who fled to the United Statesecame articulate advocates of American engagement in support of liberalism abroad. The impact of the Revolutions of 1848 on American culture was therefore complex. In the final analysis, the settlements boosted the credibility of conservative exceptionalists over liberal internationalists.
REVOLUTION AND REACTION: 1848
Since 1845 Europe had suffered an agricultural crisis that impoverished farmers and confronted urban workers with high food prices and unemployment. These conditions made French peasants and workers ripe for revolution, but economic distress did not bring down the July Monarchy. Rather, frustration with the glacial pace of parliamentary reform among liberals precipitated the crisis. Reformers took to holding banquets to protest stagnation and corruption. When François Guizot (1787874), the prime minister, abruptly banned a liberal banquet and march scheduled for 22 February in Paris, crowds began setting up barricades. Guizot and King Louis-Philippe (1773850) fled for England when units of the National Guard refused to fire on the rebels; on 24 February a provisional government assumed power.
This edifice was creaky from the beginning. It was dominated by moderate republicans led by the poet-statesman Alphonse de Lamartine (1790869). To placate radicals, the government set up national workshops to provide out-of-work laborers with employment or, failing that, direct financial support. These workshops became centers of dissent. In June Parisian radicals took once again to the barricades, where troops under General Eugene Cavaignac dispersed them; thousands of soldiers and radicals were killed. This street battle is known as the June Days. Conservative forces, promising order before liberty, were soon ascendant. The Second Republic came to a quick end when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror's nephew, declared himself emperor in late 1852 after handily winning the presidency in 1848.
Inspired by news from Paris, revolutionists also challenged the Hapsburgs in Central Europe. Crowds gathered in Vienna's squares when word of Louis-Philippe's abdication reached the city at the end of February. Radical workers demanded a constitution, to which the emperor consented. He also abolished manorial obligations, including forced labor. Despite these moves, the Hapsburg monarchy seemed to be teetering in late March. Developments in the provinces added to this perception. Rebellions in Venice and Milan forced Austrian troops to withdraw from these cities in mid-March. Revolutionary sentiment spread to Rome, driving Pius IX out of the city. In Hungary, a Magyar revolt led by Lajos Kossuth (1802894) sought independence from Vienna. Bohemian Czechs pressed for autonomy within the empire. When it became clear that Vienna would not accept even limited reforms, Czech nationalists took control of Prague.
Most of these uprisings were snuffed out nearly as soon as they had begun. A week before Paris's June Days, Field Marshal Alfred Windischgrätz shelled Prague into submission. Three thousand Viennese died when the army cleared the streets, after which Austrian leaders moved swiftly to curb the revolutions in Hungary and Italy. Roman Republicans fought heroically but proved no match for Napoleon's troops. Only Kossuth's Hungarians resisted the Austrian counterrevolution successfully. They declared their independence in April 1849 after forcing Windischgrätz to abandon Budapest. But soon after Tsar Nicholas (1796855), applying Metternich's principles, sent in Russian troops and put an end to Hungarian independence. The Hapsburgs were supreme again.
Germany also was warmed by revolutionary winds, albeit briefly and superficially. In mid-March troops violently dispersed a crowd of demonstrators in Berlin. Word of events in Vienna emboldened Prussian liberals. After violence threatened to break out more generally, Frederick William IV (1795861) promised a constitution and invited liberals to form a ministry. But it came to nothing. Frederick William was no constitutional monarch, and few Germans wanted a republic anyway. Their priorities were unification and moderate liberalization. The constituent assembly that soon gathered at Frankfurt offered Frederick William the crown of "smaller Germany" (an empire short of Austria). He refused, declining to limit himself to constitutional rules imposed from his subjects. The Frankfurt Assembly dis-integrated in impotence. Germany's springtime, like its counterparts across Europe, was over.
As in 1789 and 1830 Americans in 1848 responded warmly to news of the demise of the French monarchy. Street celebrations broke out in cities across the country. Newspapers outdid one another in expressing satisfaction with the events in Paris. Diplomats hastened to offer the congratulations of France's twin republic across the sea. Richard Rush (1780859), the American minister in Paris, granted diplomatic recognition to the new government. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution introduced by the Ohio Democrat William Allen (1803879) offering France the official congratulations of the United States; on 10 April the House overwhelmingly concurred. Intellectuals also lined up to praise the French for their apparently bloodless republican revolution. On a speaking tour of Britain early in 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), initially assumed his hosts' skepticism toward the events in France. But the earnestness of Parisian socialists forced him to reconsider. "I have been exaggerating the English merits all winter, & disparaging the French," he wrote in his journal. "Now I am correcting my judgment of both, & the French have risen very fast" (Journals 10:312).
It was the same story with the revolutions that followed. Demonstrators lined the streets and squares of American cities, offering speeches and toasts in support of the insurgents in Italy, Austria, and Germany. The press, which had traditionally devoted far more newsprint to foreign than to domestic affairs, became even more engrossed with events across the Atlantic. Profiles of Giuseppe Mazzini (1805872), Kossuth, and other revolutionary leaders appeared on front pages. Diplomats rushed to recognize republican governments, sometimes with more enthusiasm than discretion. A minor diplomatic row ensued when word leaked out that an American diplomat had been sent to Hungary in hopes of recognizing a new republic. Writers and intellectuals stood in awe of the revolutionary wave that had swept through Europe. They were delighted to witness the downfall of monarchies and the realization of national aspirations by hitherto oppressed minorities and rejoiced in the enhanced status of the United States, whose own revolution they assumed had inspired the events of 1848.
From the beginning, however, critical voices marred this apparent consensus. France was the most common target of these skeptics. History justified circumspection, critics explained; the precedents of 1789 and 1830 did not auger well for the prospects of French republicanism, or even for peaceful, orderly change of any kind. Some critics of democracyerman Melville (1819891) and his Knickerbocker friends were prominent among thesedealized the culture of monarchial France and were loath to see it toppled by the mob. Overall, conservatives had little faith in the prospects for change inaugurated by revolutionary violence, particularly when history seemed to indicate that events would inevitably spin out of the control of moderates. Whig organs, such as the North American Review and National Intelligencer, made this argument most forcefully. Congratulating France was premature, they maintained, until the revolution had run its course.
Some antislavery activists made much of the provisional French government's abolition of slavery in its colonies and pointed up the hypocrisy of the slave-holding United States congratulating Europeans for achieving freedom. A few southerners stressed the dangers for the South in praising revolutionary change against constituted authority. But sectionalism was not a strong determinant of support for or opposition to the European Revolutions of 1848. When Kossuth toured the United States in 1851852, he alienated both apologists for slavery and antislavery activists. The former objected to his association with dubious "isms," and the latter recoiled from his refusal to endorse abolition. Southern voices, including that of Jefferson Davis (1808889), the future president of the Confederate States of America, were prominent in support of the Allen resolution in early 1848. Many northerners, from George Ticknor (1789871) to Daniel Webster (1782852), expressed caution or skepticism toward the prospects for liberalization in Europe. Such views were far more strongly rooted in ideology than sectional identity.
Prejudices against French national character fed American skepticism toward its mid-century revolution. The French were widely believed to be dissipated, undisciplined, perfidious, and volatile, all qualities that were inconsistent with republican institutions. Ticknor, John C. Calhoun (1782850), and George Kendall (1809867), the European correspondent of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, were just a few of the prominent voices who doubted whether the people of France were capable of governing themselves. By mid-century, these convictions were informed by emerging concepts of scientific racism. Group features that had been attributed to environment and history began to be seen as hereditary, innate, and unchangeable. These concepts influenced American perceptions of revolutions in Austria and on the Italian peninsula. Nathaniel Niles (1741828), the American minister at Turin, felt that prospects for republicanism in Italy were doomed because the "Italian character is so thoroughly imbued with intolerance and sentiments of hatred personal and political . . . as to forbid the establishment of any form of government founded on mutual concession and a partial surrender of rights and interests for the common good" (quoted in Noether, p. 383).
Throughout 1848 these notions were clearly in the minority. As republicanism in France gave way to socialism and dictatorship the tide of public opinion began to turn decisively. The reactionary resurgence of 1849852 lent credibility to early critics of the revolution. The June Days in Paris fed American disillusionment. In Mardi (1849) Melville articulated his conviction that France's mob violence and conservative reaction were attributable to a misplaced faith in popular government. An anonymous scroll admonishes the people of Vivenza (the United States), "Better be secure under one king, than exposed to violence from twenty millions of monarchs, though oneself be of the number" (p. 529). Donald Mitchell's reports for the New York Courier and Enquirer stressed the cruelty and socialist ideology of the rioters. His portrayal proved to be more influential than reports such as those submitted by Charles A. Dana (1819897), whose sympathies for the rioters clashed with deep cultural prejudices against French violence and socialism. Others who had given the revolution their support reconsidered. Mob violence horrified Emerson, who was more sympathetic to the idea of mankind than he was to flesh-and-blood men (particularly in groups). He soon took to denouncing "Red Revolution" in his public lectures.
Americans also reevaluated their support for republicanism outside France when the conservative resurgence waxed. When the Frankfurt Assembly failed to unite Germany under a constitutional monarchy, Americans blamed the German people for their unfitness for American-style democracy. Even the Hungarian Revolution, by far the most popular of the 1848 uprisings in American public opinion, lost its luster in time. Large, supportive crowds greeted Kossuth in the initial months of his American tour. However, not only did he fail to garner any kind of concrete support for the Hungarian cause, but the excitement turned to apathy. On 12 July 1852 the penniless freedom fighter and his wife crept aboard a Cunard liner under assumed names and sailed for England (Morrison, p. 131).
By that time, the lessons of the failed Revolutions of 1848 seemed clear. Although they continued to celebrate their own war of independence Americans began to doubt the propriety of revolutionary change. Abolitionism, fire-eating proslavery expansionism, women's rights, and other "reforms" all seemed to threaten the stability of the union and social order itself. Revolutions seemed more likely to end in reaction than progress, more prone to produce violent disruption than liberalization. Americans put the Revolutions of 1848 into the broader context of domestic "revolutions" that placed the republican experiment itself at risk. No wonder they found them wanting.
Although over the long term the Revolutions of 1848 strengthened the credibility of conservatives in the United States, there were countervailing trends. Some observers kept faith in the righteousness of the revolutions and in the future of republicanism in the Old World. Margaret Fuller's experience reporting on the revolution in Rome and its subsequent defeat at the hands of the French not only produced the most passionate writing of her career but also deepened her commitment to radical causes. Tragically, she drowned with her husband and infant child when their boat sank within sight of Fire Island, New York, in 1850. Theodore Dwight (1796866), a New York editor, carried on Fuller's advocacy of Italian republicanism in The Roman Republic of 1849 (1851), which challenged American cynicism toward Italian liberalism. Italians were both devoted liberals and genuine Protestants, Dwight maintained. Jesuitical intrigues and cultural prejudices conspired to keep Americans ignorant of these facts. Although Dwight's portrayal was condescending in its own waye rehabilitated Italians by turning them into Americansis faith in the ultimate redemption of the peninsula was a refreshing counterpoint to the quasi-racist disparagement assumed by most observers after the French and Austrians emerged victorious.
Some German republicans and radicals escaping failed revolutions in Central Europe did reach American shores. They exercised a liberalizing influence on American politics and culture for much of the nineteenth century. Though only a small fraction of German migrants during the late 1840s and 1850s were truly forty-eightershose who left to escape prison for their revolutionary activitiesnough radicals did enter the United States to provide leadership in German communities. They were a heterogeneous group, containing a few genuine Marxists and many more moderate republicans. Many, for obvious reasons, declined to engage in activism in their new home. Others were particularly active in journalism and politics, where they used their influence to urge their adopted country to use its moral authority to advance liberal causes abroad. These activists gravitated to the new Republican Party in the late 1850s. Carl Schurz, Friedrich Hecker, Franz Sigel, and others attained influential positions. Some earned high rank in the Union Army. Although their influence was deep and lasting, it was not powerful enough to counteract the general impact of the European Revolutions of 1848, which enhanced the credibility of advocates for American exceptionalism, deepened mistrust of Europe, and undermined the forces of radical reform and engagement with the world beyond America's borders.
See also Immigration; Reform
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