American Reaction to European Revolutions, 1848-1852: Sectionalism, Memory, and the Revolutionary Heritage

By Morrison, Michael A. | Civil War History, June 2003 | Go to article overview

American Reaction to European Revolutions, 1848-1852: Sectionalism, Memory, and the Revolutionary Heritage


Morrison, Michael A., Civil War History


   We honour--aye, we revere one
   In whom so brightly shine
   The virtues which made Washington
   appear almost divine.

   --Miss Malvina A. Wiley, Philadelphia Normal School

   Man postpones or remembers;
   he does not live in the present,
   but with reverted eye laments the past

   --Ralph Waldo Emerson

The anticipation hardly could have been higher. Louis Kossuth, the Magnificent Magyar, was headed to the United States. In New York City, his port of call, Kossuth fever ran white-hot. On December 5, 1851, the expected day of his arrival, the anxious citizens of Staten Island reportedly magnified every towboat that entered the Narrows into the Humbolt, the ship on which Kossuth traveled. Following rumors that Kossuth had landed at one in the morning, one poor soul, an American veteran, arose, "equipped himself in full uniform, and sallied forth ... to meet the Magyar chief." Arriving at the door of a member of the honor guard, this "bold son of Mars" learned of his mistake and "returned to bed rather chagrined at his unfortunate adventure." After waiting one day on Staten Island to allow the city to make last-minute preparations, Kossuth finally arrived in Manhattan the next day, December 6, aboard the steamer Vanderbilt. August Belmont observed that he "met with a reception the like of which for enthusiasm & warmth was probably never witnessed even from our excitable population." Editors exclaimed that his name was "the first pronounced by every man you met." Kossuth's reception the following Saturday was "such as would have greeted no other European, nor any living American." (1)

Yet two months later, after Kossuth visited Washington and Philadelphia and conducted a tour of the Western Reserve, a western editor implored God to deliver his country from Kossuth mania. He prayed that the Almighty save American men and women "from this dong-dong-bell, ingo-gingo, rattlebang noise and confusion--this hum-drum, tread-wheel din ... which would have worn out the patience of Job a thousand times.... Be he Angel or Devil, saint or sinner, the press of this country has manufactured him into a terrible bore." By spring, the actions of Ohio's legislature were typical. It asked Kossuth to come to Columbus. Then the Solons asked that he write out, not deliver, his speech. Finally, waving a tearful goodbye, they refused to pay Kossuth's bill for his stay in the capital. Although Kossuth unloaded more than six hundred high-voltage speeches and downed the brandy of a thousand toasts, he never pocketed the millions in aid for which he lobbied. Reiterating the principles of Washington's "Farewell Address," which embraced, enshrined, and embalmed the doctrine of nonintervention in the affairs of Europe, the nation bid a courteous but noncommittal adieu to Kossuth in the summer of 1852. (2)

Historians interested in the diplomacy of the late antebellum period have examined the way in which Americans have judged revolutionary movements and revolutionaries such as Kossuth by viewing them through the "prism" of their Revolution. (3) These scholars contend that, the rhetorical excesses of Young America notwithstanding, the United States was less preoccupied with European affairs than it had been in the early republic. Consequently, its reaction to the European revolutions of 1848 and to Kossuth's visit in particular was cautious, even reserved. Noting widespread opposition to a greater involvement in the affairs of Europe--and often presenting it rootless and in an ahistorical manner--they conclude that the presumed excesses of European revolutionaries forfeited American sympathies. (4)

In contrast, political historians looking at these events with an eye cast to the impending Civil War depict America's reaction to revolutions in Europe in sectional terms. To cite an instance, they note that abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison condemned Kossuth for shunning one topic "as though to name it would be a crime--and that is, SLAVERY! …

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