- Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism
1848 revolutions, Europe, international relations
Timothy Mason Roberts has written a thoughtful and well-researched analysis of American reactions to the European revolutions of 1848. While this topic has long garnered attention from American historians, it is only with Roberts's Distant Revolutions that we have such a comprehensive [End Page 347] yet concise interpretation of it. In particular, Roberts's work distinguishes itself within an already impressive literature by spanning the range of European revolutionary activity and, even more so, the variety of American perspectives. In so doing, his work serves as an excellent introduction to this subject and advances the drive to place U.S. history in global context. Instructors would do well to consider Distant Revolutions for graduate or advanced undergraduate courses on the Atlantic world, the nineteenth-century United States, and the international dimensions of U.S. history.
Roberts's overarching argument is that the revolutionary developments of 1848, and the wave of repression that followed, were distant from Americans in two key ways. First, most Americans understood Europe to be not only geographically separate but also distinctive from the United States. In terms of society, cultures, and politics, Americans were aware of, and often fixated on, European differences. Second, Roberts demonstrates that because Americans were chronologically distant from their own revolutionary past, they could falsely believe their country had achieved independence through a rational, orderly process conducive to peace and prosperity. This mythic history proved integral to American judgments of Europeans, especially as reports and rumors of violence and chaos in the revolutions of 1848 became widespread. As Roberts shows, the reactions of different groups of Americans largely revolved around these basic presumptions.
Roberts begins by looking at Americans in Europe in 1848, noting that most were initially optimistic, even exuberant, about the movements, but that many soon soured at the specter of revolutionary violence and radicalism. The bulk of the book then focuses on the responses of Americans in the United States, including northern and southern whites, political partisans, northern reformers, and several religious denominations. Roberts's second chapter, which explores popular culture, is particularly noteworthy for its fascinating and novel evidence, although all of his chapters are trenchant and rich with sources. Throughout, one gets a detailed understanding of the giddiness of many American onlookers, especially Democrats and reformers, as well as the greater anxiety and suspicion of more conservative Americans, including Whigs, southern slaveholders, orthodox Calvinists, and Catholics. Roberts also traces change over time, illuminating how many Americans quickly began to express doubts about the prospects for republican government in Europe. As they did so, these Americans began to speak less of the role of [End Page 348] the United States as an example for aspiring republicans and more of its alleged exceptionalism. Finally, Roberts also attends to the diversity of American opinions concerning the various European movements that together made 1848 and the following years such a dramatic period. Americans were often, for example, worried about French radicalism and disdainful of Italy's Catholics. Insightfully, Roberts points out that Americans seemed to invest their greatest hopes in precisely those European rebels, the Hungarians, about whom they knew the least. His eighth chapter then turns to the legacy of 1848, arguing that "Bleeding Kansas" convinced many antislavery Americans that their country was succumbing to European-style despotism. Such fears, he avers, prompted some northerners to reconsider whether their country remained exceptional. His brief epilogue carries his analysis into the Civil War years by looking at the influence of European revolutions and revolutionaries on John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.
None of this, of course, is meant to imply that Distant Revolutions is, or claims to be, the final word on the connections between Europe and the United States in the period surrounding 1848. In fact, despite Roberts's impressive historiographical legwork, he misses the opportunity to more clearly situate his study within the literature. Specifically, while Roberts is correct to suggest that earlier publications...