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

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

If there was a so-called "mirage" in the west, this was especially so for the philosophes of the two great "geographical expressions" of the 18th century -- Germany and Italy. In Italy the reaction to the arrival of Franklin in Paris was of the first magnitude. The introductions to the Italian translations of America's foremost exponent of the enlightenment are illuminating in content, since collectively they represent a form of protest literature which passed right under the noses of the censors protecting the domains of the not-so-enlightened despots of Italy. From Milan to Naples the American Revolution appeared to progressive thinkers as the spearhead of a great crusade destined to produce a terrestrial paradise. Indeed America appeared as the mundo novus where this paradise was possible, for American principles were understood to be not only concerned with universal ideals, but practical every-day affairs resulting from civil war.

Thus there were found in all sectors of public and professional life those who viewed the efforts of the Americans as "the spirit which is capable of snatching the sceptor from the hands of tyrants," and, not surprisingly, a parallel would be drawn: both Italy and America had a common history. Both started out as a conglomeration of separate states dominated by foreign powers, and in common were seeking ancient liberties. As the author of the following essay, Antonio Pace, so clearly traces the reaction, this idea of a common history was reinforced by gazing at America through a mist of illuministic prejudices. Thus an America which produced its own Cincinnatus would appear to George Washington's Italian contemporaries as the sharing of a common historical experience stretching back to such ancients as Cato or Fabius. Indeed, what wonders could not the goddess Clio perform, wonders confirmed within a few years by Carlo Botta's history of the American Revolution which was nothing less than a completely Romanized palingenetic interpretation. "A multifaceted patriotic achievement," writes Pace, "developed with Livian drama and grandiloquence."

For the more pessimistic America became the world's last great hope, a hope encased in an apocalyptic vision of the "new" world visa-vis the "old." The idea of ab oriente leux was already popular in the

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