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"Revolutions Have Become the Bloody Toy of the Multitude": European Revolutions, the South, and the Crisis of 1850

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 25, Number 2, Summer 2005
pp. 259-283 | 10.1353/jer.2005.0044


Southerners and northerners initially responded to the European revolutions of 1848 in France, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere with enthusiasm, but grew skeptical of the revolutions once they moved from toppling monarchy with seemingly more radical quests for social equality. Skepticism consolidated more quickly in the South than the North, but this was not a case of "southern exceptionalism"; essentially the South and North shared the same attitudes. Slavery did not distinguish southern attitudes toward revolutionary Europe, contrary to the arguments of David Brion Davis and others. Instead, both southerners and northerners sought to contrast the American revolutionary experience with the 1848 revolutions, in emphasizing the conservative elements and legacy of the American Revolution, which, they believed, had protected property and Christian values, was relatively nonviolent and successful, and led to national prosperity. European celebrities, in particular Lajos Kossuth, gained Americans' favor on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, but only when he seemed to emulate American revolutionary heroes. Southerners especially drew upon the alleged American revolutionary heritage to construct an understanding of secession as a peculiarly American, conservative, and constitutional doctrine. Radical southerners met in the Nashville Conventions to consider secession during the Crisis of 1850. Yet along with the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, the specter of bloody revolution and reaction in Europe helped to dissuade them, at the time, from pursuing disruption of the Union. Counterrevolution on both sides of the Atlantic at the mid-nineteenth century, in effect, largely maintained the status quo.