What Do the Revolutions of 1848 Tell us About Modern Politics?

In 2010, as the popular uprisings that comprised the Arab Spring were flaring across the Middle East, more than one commentator must have looked back in time to make comparisons to other democratic revolutions. And as the Arab Spring became drenched in blood, heartache, and divisiveness, that same commentator might have noted with sadness the continuing similarities to the European Revolutions of 1848.

Europe in the 1840’s was a collection of monarchical states that saw the rights of citizens in a dim light. They viewed the American experiment with skepticism, and not a little distrust. The rights of man, said the monarchs – who were mostly Hapsburgs and Bourbons because inbreeding is the real sport of kings – are what we say they are. Despite a growing liberalism after the Napoleonic Wars, the majority of Europe still thought of the French Terror and beheaded kings as being indicative of democracy.

This did not sit well with the unwashed masses, or even the washed ones. Combined with a series of economic depressions throughout the decade, as well as growing cries for ethnic determinism (“Hungarians should be ruled by Hungarians”) and universal suffrage (except for women), the seeds of rebellion began to sprout in 1848. First blooming in Paris, where everyone was so used to revolutions that no one seemed to notice, the revolutionary fever spread to Vienna and Berlin. From there it spread to the little Italian states, where small rules declared themselves republics and free of Austrian rule. The fervor swept through Hungary and then into Russia, where serfs looked hopefully around to see if perhaps this time it was going to work. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

Paris revolts

In France, which had started it all, reforms took root. Things looked hopeful for the revolutionaries throughout 1848. But soon the revolutionary leaders began to quibble amongst themselves about just how democratic they were going to be, where borders would be, and which Italian king had the coolest hat. As the revolutionaries dithered (and in some cases shot at each other, as in the June Days in Paris), the conservative rulers began to mount a counter-offensive. Reforms were rolled back, revolutionaries were imprisoned or executed, and revolutionary armies were scattered before the professional soldiers of Germany, Austria, and Russia. This was made possible because the monarchists fomented fears of socialism and anarchy about the revolutionaries, which turned public opinion against them. By 1851, it was all over, minus the reprisals and hunting down of revolutionary leaders. By 1852, even France was back to a monarchy again.

For the Germans, the experiment ended in death behind the barricades (Image source Wikimedia Commons)

For the Germans, the experiment ended in death behind the barricades (Image source Wikimedia Commons)

But the revolutions weren’t a quick flash in the pan for the people of Europe; the reprisals were bloody and brutal. Leaders, often the best and brightest of the European academic field, fled their homes in large numbers. They were followed by a flood of factory workers, mechanics, farmers, artists, and even soldiers. No less than 704,481 Germans migrated to the United States between 1848 and 1854, not to mention the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, and French who all sought refuge from repressive governments within U.S. borders.¹ They brought with them the ideals that they had fought for, along with their traditional customs, religions (Catholic/Lutheran predominant), and languages.

Executions followed for even reading forbidden literature

Executions followed for even reading forbidden literature

And naturally, all Americans welcomed them with open arms.

Not.

Ever hear of the Know-Nothings? They were what the sound like. Largely made up of paranoid nativists, the Know-Nothings based their entire political platform on the idea that America was for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Their name originated from their idea to be a secret society. When people would ask them if they had been to a political gathering of their party, the devotee would respond, “I know nothing.”  The Know-Nothings gave rise to the imaginatively-named American Party in 1855, which loudly argued that the German and Irish Catholic immigrants were tearing apart the very fabric of American Protestant society. They claimed that their religion was incompatible with the American way of life since it was governed by the pope, who sat in Rome. The latent anti-Catholicism of Protestant America that had existed since the 17th century found an easy outlet in prejudice towards the newly arriving political refugees from Europe. The rumors about German refugees being anarchists and socialists were all too easy for paranoid Americans to believe.

The Know-Nothing Ideal: white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, and bigoted as hell (Image source Wikimedia Commons)

The Know-Nothing Ideal: white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, and bigoted as hell (Image source Wikimedia Commons)

The American Party grew with an alarming swiftness, capitalizing on the collapse of the Whig Party and playing on citizens’ fears. The explosion of popularity for the movement came as a surprise to the normal party establishments, who watched as Know-Nothing support swept aside many established politicians. Much of New England went for the Know-Nothings in the elections of 1854, as did a large part of Pennsylvania. By 1855, the mayor of Chicago was a Know-Nothing and banned immigrants from holding jobs. Massachusetts came to be so dominated by the party that the state legislature of 1855 passed some of the most extreme legislation of the era. On the positive side, much of it was anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights. On the negative side, it enforced the reading of the Protestant Bible at all public schools, disbanded Irish militias, barred Catholics from holding state positions, and – as part of a sweeping move aimed to restore America’s morality that would’ve made the Puritans proud – attempted to fine anyone found drinking beer.

That’s right, good old fashioned American beer. The Know-Nothings were terrible (the speaker of the Massachusetts House who sponsored this bill had himself knocked off a couple bottles of champagne the night before; hypocrisy, thy name is Prohibition).

What was it about the Germans that made the nativists so mad? Well, the German immigrants were active socially, propagating such evil things as universal suffrage, the eight-hour workday, incorporation of labor unions, nationalization of railroads, free public schools, emancipation of slaves, and abolition of capital punishment. Ironically, it was the slavery issue that brought down the American Party. Enough of its members were anti-slavery that it split the party after the 1855 election and it ceased to be a force in American politics. How its members could be anti-slavery and anti-immigration is puzzling, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1855:

“How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”²

Thankfully, the Know-Nothing movement died out in the 1860’s, at the same time that German immigrants were serving and dying in the Union army in large numbers. For German immigrants, military service for the cause of preserving the Union and destroying slavery spoke to their inherent beliefs. Although anti-German attitudes did not disappear after the war, German wartime service did a lot to quiet many of the nativists. And hatred of Germans would be supplanted by hatred of Italians as the next batch of European immigrants arrived towards the turn of the century, so that’s progress.

The flood of refugees from the violence in the Middle East continues. Many ask why so many able-bodied men are fleeing Syria when they could be fighting the Assad regime or ISIS or die in some manner more convenient to our Western sensibilities. Many ask if their religion is compatible with the American way of life. Many say that their values and culture are diametrically opposed to ours. Many say that the refugees are really just terrorists seeking a way into our country. Many claim we need to shut our borders to refugees and immigrants and that America is for Americans. Many of these people have occupied positions of political prominence, claiming to be outside the political establishment, and are experiencing a surge in the polls.

Surely we have learned at least a little in the past 150 years?

ZA'ATARI, JORDAN - FEBRUARY 01:  Children pose for a picture as Syrian refugees go about their daily business in the Za'atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Za'atari, Jordan. Record numbers of refugees are fleeing the violence and bombings in Syria to cross the borders to safety in northern Jordan and overwhelming the Za'atari camp. The Jordanian government are appealing for help with the influx of refugees as they struggle to cope with the sheer numbers arriving in the country.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 160600686

ZA’ATARI, JORDAN – FEBRUARY 01: Children pose for a picture as Syrian refugees go about their daily business in the Za’atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Za’atari, Jordan. Record numbers of refugees are fleeing the violence and bombings in Syria to cross the borders to safety in northern Jordan and overwhelming the Za’atari camp. The Jordanian government are appealing for help with the influx of refugees as they struggle to cope with the sheer numbers arriving in the country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 160600686

¹Levine, Bruce. The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War

² Browne, Francis Fisher (1914). The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography with Pen-pictures and Personal Recollections by Those who Knew HimBrowne & Howell. p. 153


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One thought on “What Do the Revolutions of 1848 Tell us About Modern Politics?

  1. I appreciate the research, but you should consider including Curley effect, using policy and immigration to shape an electorate to ensure political supremacy of a party in politics. After all, it is a very reasonable expectation proven by experience that waves of immigrants who refuse to assimilate simply re-create the place they left, with all the problems they were seeking to leave behind. The Irish for example, have permanently changed the politics of Boston, and hence we get “The Curley Effect.”

    Obviously not all demographics of immigrants are useful for this, but neither is unfettered immigration a completely benign event. Also, a very large part of the current “immigration crisis” isn’t from Syria, but from other countries by people seeking better economic prospects, which isn’t exactly the same as facing the pogroms of Europe and fleeing to America. http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/glaeser/files/curley_effect_1.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

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