Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

Elisha Douglass, in this penetrating essay, effectively shows the validity of Robert Palmer's thesis that America was "the screen on which Europe could project its own consciousness, turning ideas into images and arguments into drama." For the philosophes of Europe the geographical expression known as Germany stood out as, perhaps, the foremost anachronism of the age. The story of America is not so much a matter of salon conversation as in France; rather it became the track upon which the literature of the "Age of Reason" traveled through a cluster of German states ranging from dukedoms to kingdoms, and reached crescendo proportions in the struggle against a not so enlightened despotism. Thus the poet Stolberg would versify the story of an America being led by the goddess of liberty to triumph, passionately concluding that "my eyes lose themselves in the glowing wave of the future." Not surprisingly this excitement led to a long- standing myth that even the great Frederick himself was not unaffected, sending Washington a bejeweled sword inscribed "from the oldest general in the world to the greatest." Franklin, of course, was idolized as the real father of the world's newest and greatest republic of virtue. And Tom Paines Common Sense was read avidly in a German translation.

The news of Yorktown sent German intellectuals into a state of ecstacy, and the poets took the defeat of Cornwallis as the occasion to lecture the despotic regimes of Germany that the end was near for a Europe shackled by tyranny. As one versified:

. . .Europa, raise your head on high,
Soon shines the day when fetters break.
Your princes shake with terror,
The people see their lands in happier state.

Few princes shook with terror, and it would be generations before the Europeans in general, and Germany in particular, would see their lands in a happier state. In the meantime the American Revolution was looked upon by the liberal community as the greatest political event of the century. Surrounded by a feudalistic agricultural society, the embattled American farmers represented the new order of

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