Now the Enemy Is within Our Borders: The Impact of European Revolutions on American Perceptions of Violence before the Civil War

Article excerpt

Richard Hofstadter once wrote that "the United States ... has a history but not a tradition of domestic violence" (3). The reverse is true of revolution: the United States has a tradition of revolution but not its history. Only once, in the War for Independence, did forces outside the law resorting to violence overthrow the government, although, as a result of the conflict, the social order remained largely intact. And only once, in the Civil War, was there large-scale destruction of the social order--the ending of slavery--although in this case the government was preserved. On this basis, the history of actual revolution has been anomalous to American domestic experience. Yet the central heritage of revolution pulses strongly in American collective memory. Americans commemorate a tradition of revolution, though by-and-large without its underlying history. (1)

The development of the paradoxical relationship of violence and revolution in American society was well illustrated in the mid-nineteenth century. Then, Americans read about the "Important News From Europe" (Charleston Courier, 22 March 1848) and became "All Agog" (Weekly Ohio Statesman, 5 April 1848) as newspaper headlines broadcast the news that Europe was aflame in upheaval from Ireland to Russia. For American observers the most compelling aspect of these upheavals was their violence, the subject of this essay. The European revolutions of 1848 generated among Americans a "disquieting moral self-regard," consistent with how the modern international community reacts to "distant violence" (Warnock). In particular, European violence at first fostered the belief among Americans that the United States was in contrast a peaceful nation, with problems not requiring fundamental alteration of the government or society, much less violence to human life or property. Americans had already toppled their government in the eighteenth century. A recrudescence to such upheaval was not only unnecessary but also risky, as it might brook the kind of violence seen in Europe, which witnessed the carnage of revolution in 1848 and counter-revolution in 1849-1851.

But this was only temporary. In the mid-1850s, a series of violent events transpired concerning the American frontier: specifically, the battles in Kansas over whether that territory would welcome or prohibit slavery. These events effectively changed opinion concerning the European violence. Instead of regarding violence as something alien to American experience, northerners grew sympathetic to the recent but failed attempts by European revolutionaries. By 1856 northern radicals and policy-makers spoke approvingly of the need for "revolution," and contemplated resistance to law and order by force. Thus, in effect, the violent European revolutions of 1848 became a precursor to American revolutionary violence--that of the Civil War--on a much larger scale.

The 1848 revolutions were not the first occasion for observers of the United States to contrast European violence with American tranquility. In his Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York, the agriculturalist and American apologist J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur described political refugees fleeing a Europe convulsed by the first French Revolution. One refugee found refuge among Winnebago Indians, while another established himself as a freeholding farmer. For both the United States offered, as Crevecoeur put it, a "tranquil port in the shelter of storms" (qtd. in Slotkin 336). Similarly, in his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described how

   theories of a revolutionary nature ... are much less favorably
   viewed in the United States than in the great monarchical countries
   of Europe.... [T]he bulk of the [American] people reject them with
   instinctive abhorrence.... [I]n America men have the opinions and
   passions of democracy; in Europe we have still the passions and
   opinions of revolution. (256)

To be sure, notable differences on either side of the Atlantic suggested that Americans exceeded Europeans in achieving peace without resorting to violence. …