Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Freemen of All Nations, Bestir Yourselves": Felice Orsini's Transnational Afterlife and the Radicalization of America

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Freemen of All Nations, Bestir Yourselves": Felice Orsini's Transnational Afterlife and the Radicalization of America

Article excerpt

Political violence was in the air when Abraham Lincoln gave his celebrated Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860. The Dlinois lawyer, who saw a remote chance of running for president on the ticket of the young Republican Party, had put substantial time and effort in crafting the address. He spoke to win the hearts and minds of a crowd of skeptical New Yorkers, but even more so of a country reeling under the impact of "Bleeding Kansas" and the recent death of the abolitionist John Brown, who had been hanged for trying to free the slaves of Virginia. The aftershocks of Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution reverberated across the land and nourished fears of a civil war. A man of staunch antislavery beliefs, Lincoln rejected the revolutionary radicalism of Brown. Its portents of terror and anarchy undermined uniquely American virtues of gradual and peaceful reform, evoking instead the specter of a menacing Atlantic host: "An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini's attempt on Louis Napoleon," Lincoln asserted, "and John Brown's attempt at Harper's Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same."1

Unlike Brown, Felice Orsini has long escaped historians interested in explaining the radicalization of American politics in the 1850s. But Lincoln's reference to the Italian nationalist, who perished on the scaffold of French monarchy, suggests that Orsini had become a household name not just in Europe but in the United States as well. A descendant of an old princely family, Orsini joined Giuseppe Mazzini's Young Italy movement at an early age. Arrested for plotting to overthrow the papacy, Orsini fled prison in a spectacular fashion, using a rope made out of towels and bed sheets. In his British exile, he laid the foundation for his rise to celebrity. Convinced that Napoleon III was a symbol of Europe's anti-liberal establishment and a chief obstacle to Italian independence, Orsini contrived his assassination. Together with Giuseppe Pierri and two other accomplices, he snuck into Paris and hurled three bombs at the coach of the French emperor while he was on his way to the opera. The bombs thrown on January 14, 1858 killed ten and wounded 142 bystanders, but left Napoleon unscathed. Orsini, slightly injured by the attack, was sentenced to die and walked calmly to the guillotine. Two of the letters Orsini wrote in prison were publicized and added to his fame: One called on Napoleon to espouse the cause of a unified Italy; the other urged Italy's youth to fight on while condemning political assassination.2

Lincoln knew why he could braid together the contemporaneous lives and afterlives of John Brown and Felice Orsini. Both sought fundamental change in the existing social and political fabric; both conceived of themselves as liberators, one on behalf of four million black slaves, the other as the self-proclaimed champion of twenty-five million Italians. Both opted for violence because they felt that the societies they wanted to overhaul could not be transformed through established institutions. Both shed blood for their dreams of greater freedom but also gave their lives gladly after their plans had failed. Both were imprisoned, tried, convicted, and executed by a retaliatory state. And both used national and international attention to actively mold their images as heroic figures and political martyrs walling to sacrifice themselves for the sublime ideal of human emancipation.

Just as John Brown's body captured the public imagination in Europe, a wide range of American observers were sufficiently stirred to link Orsini's beheading to major arenas of hope, fear, and conflict in their own realm. In the spring and early summer of 1858, the streets of New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago teemed with people grappling to define the meaning of Orsini's actions for American society and a wider Atlantic world. …

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