revolutions of 1848
Revolutions of 1848
REVOLUTIONS OF 1848origins and background
the outbreak and spread of revolution
possibilities and problems
confrontations and decisions
struggles and accomplishments
Of the major waves of revolution in modern European history—1789 to 1799, 1848 to 1851, 1917 to 1923, and 1989 to 1991—those of the mid-nineteenth century extended across the largest territory and among the greatest diversity of political and socioeconomic regimes. The 1848 revolutions occurred in lands from the Atlantic to Ukraine, and from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including France, Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, as well as the smaller and midsized German states; the Kingdoms of the Two Sicilies and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the Papal States, and the smaller Italian states; and, in the far southeastern corner of Europe, the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Walachia. The revolutionary movement had a strong effect on the Scandinavian lands and the Low Countries, with major mass movements in Norway, and important reforms in Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The states of the Iberian Peninsula and the two peripheral Great Powers, the Russian and British Empires, were the only parts of Europe not directly affected in their domestic politics.
The 1848 revolutions were directed against absolutist regimes, such as the Italian states, the Austrian Empire, and the Prussian kingdom, and against constitutional monarchies in France or in a number of the smaller German states. If one includes the Swiss civil war of 1847, seen by contemporaries as the beginning of the midcentury revolutions, then they affected one of the very few republican governments in Europe. There was a similar diversity in socioeconomic settings and issues in the 1848 revolutions. Abolition of serfdom was central to events in the Austrian Empire and in the Danubian principalities, while in northern France, western Germany, Saxony, and large cities across Europe, trade unions, cooperatives, and workers' associations were formed, whose members raised socialist demands.
This diversity contrasts with previous and subsequent revolutionary events. The revolutionary wave of 1789 to 1799 was largely a French affair, and the Revolution was brought to other parts of Europe primarily by invading French armies. The post-1917 revolutions occurred among the defeated powers of World War I, and those of 1989 to 1991 against communist regimes.
This description by Carl Schurz (1829–1906), of the democratic club in the German university town of Bonn during the revolution of 1848, demonstrates the growing radicalism of revolutionary activists and the powerful example of the French Revolution of 1789.
Our democratic club was composed in almost equal parts of students and citizens…. At first the establishment of a con stitutional monarchy with universal suffrage and well-secured civil rights would have been quite satisfactory to us. But the reaction, the threatened rise of which we were observing, gradually made many of us believe that there was no safety for popular liberty except in a republic. From this belief there was only one step to the further conclusion that in a republic, and only in a republic, could all evils of the social body be cured and the solution of all the political problems be possible…. the his tory of the French Revolution satisfied us that a republic could be created in Germany and could maintain its existence in the European system of states. In that history we found striking examples of the possibility of accomplishing the seemingly impossible, if only the whole energy existing in a great nation were awakened and directed with unflinching boldness. Most of us, indeed, recoiled from the wild excesses, which had stained with streams of innocent blood the national uprising in France during the Reign of Terror; but we hoped to stir up the national energies without such terrorism. At any rate, the history of the French Revolution furnished to us models in plenty that mightily excited our imagination.
Another difference from previous and successor waves of revolutions was that the 1848 revolutions did not lead to new regimes. Instead, the revolutionary governments established in the spring of 1848 were short-lived and gave way, generally within a year and a half, to counterrevolutionary successors, closely related to the regimes overthrown in 1848. Important nationalist projects of the 1848 revolutions—the national unification of Italy or Germany, the liberation of Poland, the reorganization or outright destruction of the multinational Habsburg Monarchy along national lines—were not accomplished. Many of the social and economic questions raised in the revolution were not resolved and organizational initiatives were suppressed. A full consideration of the 1848 revolutions must take into account these opposing features—the wide spread of the mid-nineteenth century revolutions and the remarkable political mobilizations accompanying them, but also their ultimate failure.
The crisis years from 1845 to 1847, leading up to the 1848 revolutions, showed, in extreme form, political, social, and economic tensions that had been mounting for decades. Population growth, increasing across Europe since the 1750s, placed pressure on existing resources. The size of average agricultural landholdings declined, and the number of totally landless rural families increased substantially. Ever more urban craftsmen and shopkeepers were competing for a customer base with, at best, constant purchasing power, as real wages fell. Even university graduates in the Italian and German states as well as the Austrian Empire—less so in France—had difficulty finding employment, because there were too many of them for the available positions.
The ultimate response to these difficulties, already apparent in Great Britain, and practiced in continental Europe on a wide scale after 1850, would be the growth of mechanized industry and the spread of a more productive and specialized agriculture, both of these developments made possible by the construction of a rail network. Although, particularly in the 1840s, the regionally scattered beginnings of industrialization in western and central Europe, as well as the first steps in rail construction had occurred, the chief measures taken before 1850 to increase output tended to sharpen social pressures. Increasing grain production, by introducing new systems of crop rotation and dividing common lands, worsened the prospects of villagers with little or no property, who depended on the commons to feed their animals or to gather wood. Expansion of nonfarm production occurred primarily via the spread of outworking, which subjected nominally independent master craftsmen to the control of merchant contractors.
If these measures to expand the market created social conflicts in the pre-1848 decades, so did institutions restricting the market, such as serfdom and seignorialism, still widely practiced in central and eastern Europe, whose burdens were increasingly resented by the peasantry, and the guild system, which made life difficult for journeymen artisans, excluded from the guilds, dominated by master craftsmen.
The difficulties of this economic situation were exacerbated by the way European states increased their claims on the population—raising taxes, imposing customs duties, drafting young men into the army, garrisoning or quartering soldiers, imposing rules on the use of forestlands—when the lower classes were having a hard time making ends meet. While demanding more from their subjects, most Continental states lacked a police force to establish their authority and, in crisis situations, had to depend on soldiers, the use of which to restore order was provocative and created more disorder.
Opposing the existing regimes were scattered and informally organized groups of activists, "the party of movement" as contemporaries said. Supporters of this trend advocated the creation of constitutional governments, whose charters would guarantee basic civil liberties and the powers of an elected legislature. They favored the equality of all (male) citizens before the law, took aim at privileges of the nobility, and called for an end to religious discrimination—if sometimes reluctantly, when it came to the Jews. Particularly in western Europe, although to a certain extent elsewhere, this party of movement was divided into radicals, demanding a democratic republic, and moderates, who advocated a constitutional monarchy. Also primarily in western Europe, there existed a current of socialist or communist thought, popularized in vague phrases such as the French socialist Louis Blanc's "organization of labor," containing elements of democratic ideals, heterodox forms of Christianity, visions of women's emancipation, and artisans' desires for a revival of the guilds.
An ideology central to the party of movement was nationalism, the doctrine that nations should be the basis of individuals' political loyalty, and that national groups should be free to create their own nation-state. Conservatives of the 1840s, supporting
the linked principles of dynastic legitimacy and the political significance of revealed religion, strongly condemned nationalism. They perceived, correctly, the potential disruption and warfare that would come from trying to apply nationalist principles to the many German or Italian states, the multinational Austrian Empire, or the Poles, divided by the eighteenth-century partitions among Prussia and the Austrian and Russian Empires.
The party of movement was not a modern political party, since such organizations were generally illegal in pre-1848 Europe, and limitations on communication and transportation would have made them hard to create in any event. Rather, supporters of political change worked through the expanding network of organizations of civil society: the press (often heavily censored or otherwise restricted), public meetings, when allowed, and, above all, voluntary associations. Political ideas were propagated in social clubs, popular among the middle class; or in learned and literary societies, and gymnastics, sharpshooting, and choral societies, intellectual and popular reservoirs of nationalism, respectively. Where constitutional regimes existed—in France, the Low Countries, and most midsized German states—such efforts had ties to the law-making and oratorical efforts of parliamentarians. They also extended to the underground world of conspiratorial secret societies. The insurrections launched by these groups were all failures, but their sometimes-substantial membership (Giuseppe Mazzini's "Young Italy" movement may have had as many as fifty thousand members by 1834) helped spread oppositional political ideals.
The crisis years from 1845 to 1847 began with the potato blight of 1845 and the failed grain harvest of 1846, which led to a doubling of food prices and near-famine conditions. Although mass starvation was avoided (except in Ireland), real wages and standards of living plummeted, culminating a two-decade-long trend; demand collapsed; and 1847 saw a credit crisis, widespread bankruptcies, and a severe recession. There were hundreds, probably thousands, of bread riots and other subsistence disturbances in Europe, as well as more widespread disorders, such as the famous 1844 rising of the outworking Silesian weavers against the merchant contractors who employed them. Declining tax receipts put state budgets under stress, particularly that of the Austrian Empire, whose chancellor, Prince Metternich, had led the fight against revolution in Europe for three decades, but whose government now teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
At the same time, supporters of the party of movement launched a political offensive in many parts of Europe. Best known are the banquet campaigns of the French opposition, mass meetings, thinly disguised as public meals, where speakers demanded a more democratic franchise. The election of the reputedly liberal bishop of Imola as Pope Pius IX in 1846 raised hopes among Italian liberals for constitutional governments and a union of the states of the peninsula. The victory of the opposition in elections to the 1847 Hungarian Diet, the clash between the king of Prussia and the liberal majority in the United Diet of that year (which reminded contemporaries of the Estates-General in France in 1789), and the confrontations between liberals and their erstwhile hero Pius IX in the consultative assembly he summoned for the Papal States, were all evidence of growing political tensions. Finally, the Swiss civil war of 1847, pitting the more left-wing and Protestant cantons against the conservative and Catholic ones, and resulting in a very quick victory of the radicals, suggested that violent change was on the agenda. Financial difficulties prevented a unilateral Austrian intervention; Metternich's inability to create a coalition of Great Powers to rescue the Swiss conservatives was striking evidence that the post-1815 order was crumbling.
The first six months of 1848 saw a chain of revolutionary uprisings across the European continent. They began in mid-January in Palermo, chief city of Sicily, then spread at the end of the month to the Italian mainland with barricade fighting in Naples, capital of the southern Italian Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The insurgents were victorious and King Ferdinand II agreed to grant a constitution and appoint new, liberal government ministers. The following month, participants in the banquet campaign poured into the streets of Paris, clashed with police and the army, and began building barricades—a signature feature of urban street fighting in 1848. Three days of barricade fighting, 22–24 February 1848, with the National Guard either neutral or joining the insurgents, and the regular army distinctly reluctant to fight, ended with the flight of King Louis-Philippe to London, and the proclamation of a republic.
This dramatic news encouraged supporters of the party of movement in many countries to hold large public meetings, on the model of the Parisian banquet campaign. Participants demonstrated, clashed with soldiers, and built barricades: in Munich, 4 March; in Vienna, 13 March; Budapest, two days later; Venice and Kraków, two days after that; and, on the 18th, in Milan and Berlin. News of each uprising encouraged the next, and their outcomes were the same: withdrawal of increasingly unreliable troops; dismissal of the old, conservative government ministers and naming of liberal replacements; the creation of national committees or the proclamation of national unity; and either the granting of a constitution or the agreement to call a constituent assembly to write one.
In most of the midsized German and Italian states, as well as in the Netherlands and Denmark, large-scale demonstrations, or just the threat of them, sufficed for governments to make similar concessions without risking a trial of strength on the barricades. After repelling an invasion staged from northern France by Belgian radicals at the end of March, the Belgian government proceeded to expand the franchise and introduce other reforms. Young Romanians, studying in Paris, returned to their homes in the Principalities of Moldavia and Walachia, after participating in the barricade fighting of February 1848, and launched similar banquet campaigns and demonstrations in April and May 1848. Suppressed by the prince in Moldavia but leading in June to a revolutionary government in Walachia, they concluded, at the southeastern end of the Continent in Bucharest, the initial wave of revolution.
The major exceptions to this initial wave were the British and Russian Empires. A mass demonstration by the radical opposition in the United Kingdom, the Chartists, in London on 10 April, inspired by events on the Continent, was met with an overwhelming show of force as over 100,000 police, soldiers, and volunteer "special constables" ensured that the demonstration would not take a revolutionary turn. There were no visible manifestations of political opposition in the absolutist tsarist empire, just a small revolutionary secret society, the "Petrashevtsy," whose members were arrested and sent to Siberia. Both Great Powers lacked the preconditions for revolution present in the rest of Europe, albeit for different reasons. The United Kingdom (except for Ireland, whose inhabitants were too busy in 1848 starving to death or fleeing the island to think of revolution) had, by the 1840s, made the transition to a more productive economy, based on factory industry and efficient agriculture, with rising standards of living. In Russia, there was little in the way of a civil society—almost no voluntary associations, not much of a press, indeed very few people who were literate—in which opposition to the government could form.
The victories of the insurgents and the coming to power of new liberal regimes unleashed an enormous potential for democratic activity and political participation. This very potential also led to conflicts and increasingly violent clashes that would weaken and ultimately destroy the revolution.
There were two characteristic and largely spontaneous responses to the new regimes' coming to power. One was a wave of festivity, with parades, nocturnal illuminations, plantings of trees of liberty, and church services of thanksgiving, in euphoric celebration of the end of decades of oppression—later dubbed the "springtime of the peoples." Another was the violent actions of the lower classes to resolve their long-held social and economic grievances. In regions of serfdom and seignorialism, from southwestern Germany to the Banat in southern Hungary, peasants attacked castles of their lords and destroyed charters of feudal privileges. Peasants assaulted their creditors (in some places, this developed into attacks on the Jewish population, identified with moneylenders); they reappropriated divided common lands and seized wood from the forests. Artisans and outworkers attacked the merchant capitalists who had exploited them; there were several spectacular instances of machine breaking, involving the destruction of factories, railroads, or steamships. The lower classes, both rural and urban, destroyed tax-collection offices and customs stations, and assaulted the officials who staffed them. The perpetrators saw these actions as part of the celebrations of freedom, waving tricolor flags and chanting revolutionary slogans as they performed them.
From the late spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, these spontaneous actions gave way to more systematic and planned ones. The numbers and circulation of newspapers expanded five- to tenfold throughout revolutionary Europe, and readership reached parts of the rural, lower-class, and female populations. Equally impressive was the creation and growth of political clubs. First formed in large cities, and lacking specific political profiles, they spread from there to smaller towns and the countryside, and divided along lines of political orientation, while combining in provincial and national federations. Most common in the German states, where their membership may have been as much as 10 percent of the adult male population, the clubs were also prevalent in France, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, or supplemented by nationalist societies, in much of the Austrian Empire. Clubs held regular meetings and sponsored political debates, organized rallies with hundreds or thousands of participants, sent petitions and addresses to parliaments, and, in times of crisis, mobilized members for revolutionary or counterrevolutionary actions.
Workers' associations, consumer and producer cooperatives—national federations of these existed in France and Germany—and, to a lesser extent, trade unions were founded throughout western and central Europe. Elementary and secondary schoolteachers mobilized to improve their position, often with an anticlerical hostility to church control of public education. Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy and laymen organized in turn, to preserve or improve the position of their respective churches vis-à-vis the government, or to attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to change their churches' hierarchy and governance. In 1848–1849, women
emerged vigorously into public life. Most women's activity was devoted to assisting men, sewing flags for national guards, and forming associations—there were two in Prague alone—to promote the use of "national" languages and national costumes, or to support political prisoners and their families. There were also women's newspapers, and women formed their own clubs to debate political issues and, primarily in Paris (to some extent in other large cities, including Berlin and Vienna), to promote women's rights, including public employment for unemployed women, and woman suffrage.
This same explosion of public political participation created two kinds of potentially violent conflicts that would undermine the revolution. One involved the practice of democracy itself. Elections held in April and May 1848 to constituent assemblies or parliaments, under a broad franchise, with relatively little preparation or organization, were dominated by locally influential men, including the clergy (who were very active), the nobility, and other substantial property-owners; moderate and conservative outcomes were the result. A clash between such moderate parliaments and the radicalized masses of capital cities, with their newly formed political clubs, would duly occur.
The second and perhaps most important source of conflict came from the attempt to create unified nation-states. The 1848 revolution in Italy was dominated by warfare aimed at driving the foreign, Austrian rulers out of their two northern Italian provinces as a step toward a united Italy. The effort to create a German nation-state was in part peaceful, via the election of the Frankfurt National Assembly, charged with writing a constitution for a united Germany. Violent conflicts arose, however, over the question of the national status of territories previously under dynastic rule. Was the Prussian province of Posen (in Polish, Poznań) part of a Polish nation-state, as the revolutionary national committee formed there in March 1848 asserted, or would it be part of a German nation-state, as the province's German-speaking minority insisted, backed by the Prussian army? Were the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein—mostly German-speaking but with a Danish-speaking minority, and before 1848 provinces of the Danish crown—part of a German nation-state, as German nationalist insurgents asserted, with the support of the Prussian army, or was Schleswig part of a Danish nation-state, as the new liberal government in Copenhagen saw it?
The most complex and violent clashes between nationalists occurred in the multinational Austrian Empire. Should the empire—and, if so, which part of it—join a German nation-state? German nationalists thought the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia were part of Germany; Czech nationalists did not. The Polish National Committee in Kraków, like its counterpart in Posen, saw the Austrian province of Galicia as part of a Polish nation-state, while the Supreme Ruthenian Council in Lviv (in German, Lemberg) laid a contrasting national claim to the province. The nationalities conflict was strongest in the Hungarian provinces, which the newly constituted Hungarian National Assembly wanted to unite into a Hungarian nation-state, basically independent of the empire, while Croatian, Serb, Slovak, and Romanian nationalists wanted their own nation-states, or at least autonomous national areas, independent of Hungary.
The midcentury revolutions were marked by two periods of conflict: in the second half of 1848, and in the spring and summer of 1849. The first conflicts would reveal the discords beneath the surface of the springtime of the peoples, the second would reflect the process of organization and mobilization occurring during the revolution itself; the struggles would shift from the capital cities to the provinces, from urban populations to those of small towns and the countryside.
The first period of conflict was marked by a wave of counterrevolution spreading across Europe, paralleling the preceding wave of revolution. This counterrevolution took three forms. One involved a monarch using his armed forces to reassert control over elected assemblies. The crushing of the parliament of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by troops of King Ferdinand II in May 1848 began the period of counterrevolution. A very similar action occurred toward its end in November, when the king of Prussia sent fifty thousand soldiers into Berlin to dissolve the Prussian Constituent Assembly. In both cases, the capital cities were quiet, but there were demonstrations and uprisings in the provinces against the royal coups. A variant on this form occurred in September in the Principality of Walachia, where Turkish and Russian armies of intervention restored the authority of the ruling prince.
The central event of the counterrevolution, like that of the revolution, occurred in Paris. There, a confused situation involved differences among a governmental executive composed of an uneasy alliance of moderate liberals and militant republicans; a constituent national assembly, most of whose members wanted a restoration of a monarchy; increasingly radical political clubs; and an active labor movement, with strikes, cooperatives, and the "national workshops," a giant public-works project providing jobs for 100,000 unemployed, promoted as a socialist experiment. This volatile situation led to repeated clashes between demonstrators and the authorities, culminating in the so-called June Days, four days of bitter barricade fighting on 23–26 June. After much fiercer combat than in the overthrow of the monarchy in February, the insurgents were defeated, leaving five thousand dead, the radical clubs closed and dissolved, the labor movement in tatters, and the government, if still officially republican, increasingly conservative. The landslide victory of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the great emperor Napoleon, in the December 1848 French presidential election made the future of the republic look much less republican.
The third feature of this wave of counterrevolution was its relationship to the clash of nationalist movements. In July, Austrian forces, commanded by General Joseph Radetzky, defeated the army of the Italian Kingdom of Sardinia at the battle of Custoza and quickly reconquered Austria's northern Italian provinces, except the island city of Venice. The following month, the Prussian government, under heavy pressure from the tsar, agreed to an armistice with Denmark, abandoning the German insurgents in Schleswig and Holstein. Protesting this betrayal of the nationalist cause, radical demonstrators stormed the Frankfurt National Assembly (which had endorsed the armistice) the following month. There was street fighting in Frankfurt, and the insurrection was suppressed by Prussian and Hessian troops.
The main aspect of this phase of counterrevolution was the exploitation of rivalries between different nationalist movements by Austrian soldiers and government officials to return the empire to authoritarian rule. In June, Habsburg troops crushed a Czech radical-nationalist insurrection in Prague, to the applause of German nationalists; at the end of October, they crushed a German nationalist-radical insurrection in Vienna, to the applause of Czech nationalists. There was violent and bloody street fighting in both cities.
The opposition of Serbian and Romanian nationalists to the authority of the Hungarian National Assembly intersected with struggles between lords and serfs, because the serfs of the Banat and Transylvania were mostly Serbian- and Romanian-speaking, whereas the local representatives of the Hungarian government that had, among its reforms, officially abolished serfdom, were Hungarian noble landlords, reluctant to give up their feudal privileges. In these struggles that left tens of thousands dead, and at times approached ethnic cleansing, Austrian officials and officers tacitly and openly supported the anti-Hungarian nationalists.
Most importantly, the Austrian government ministers and the imperial court encouraged the ban (provincial governor) of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, colonel in the border regiments, to oppose Hungarian authority and, in September 1848, to lead his troops, many of whose officers were sympathetic to Croatian nationalism, into war with the government of Hungary. The Hungarian National Assembly responded with a revolutionary war, turning over power to the nationalist leader Lajos Kossuth, but its forces were steadily forced back and by December had to evacuate Budapest.
At the end of 1848, the initial revolutionary movement had been largely suppressed. A second round of struggles in the spring of 1849 showed that the revolutionary movement had spread beyond its original centers of the previous year.
One locus of the new wave of revolution was in central Italy. At the end of 1848, radical insurgents, working from the network of democratic clubs that had been established, overthrew the governments of the Papal States and of the grand duke of Tuscany, replacing them with revolutionary regimes, dedicated to Italian national unity and a resumption of the war with Austria. Elections in the Kingdom of Sardinia produced a victory for the democrats and a swing of royal policy in the direction of resuming the nationalist war.
A second locus was in central Europe. In March 1849 the Frankfurt National Assembly completed a constitution for a German nation-state, creating a constitutional monarchy with democratic features, such as legislative elections under universal manhood suffrage. Because the Austrian government, by then under counterrevolutionary rule, rejected any connection with the subversive ideas of nationalism, the result was, as contemporaries said, a "little German" nation-state, without the Germans of Austria. The Frankfurt parliamentarians proposed to make the king of Prussia, head of Austria's central European military and diplomatic rival, the emperor of their German nation-state.
A third locus was in France, where radicals, democrats, and socialists, reeling from their defeats in the streets and at the ballot box in the second half of 1848, united around the defense of the republican form of government. Their candidates did surprisingly well in the legislative elections of May 1849, emerging as the single largest caucus, albeit outnumbered by the different monarchist groups.
Finally, the Hungarian forces rallied in the winter of 1848–1849, defeating Austrian troops on three different fronts, recapturing Budapest, and marching menacingly on Vienna. The Austrian government lacked the funds to continue the war; its efforts to conscript fresh soldiers were met with recruiting riots, organized by democratic activists.
This second round of revolutionary confrontation was resolved with military means. The Austrian General Radetzky once again defeated the Piedmontese forces of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, bringing the war in northern Italy to a quick end. The revolutionary regime in Tuscany collapsed and the grand duke returned; Austrian troops reconquered Venice. French intervention destroyed the Roman Republic and restored the rule of the pope.
The Prussian king rejected the constitution of the Frankfurt National Assembly, and democrats throughout Germany launched a movement to support it. Mass demonstrations, organized by the political clubs, culminated in the storming of arsenals, uprisings, and the creation of revolutionary governments in Saxony, Baden, and the Bavarian Palatinate. These governments were overthrown by Prussian soldiers, in a brief civil war occurring from May to June 1849.
While the Austrian government was unable to deal with the Hungarians on its own, it received assistance in the form of Russian military intervention. By August 1849 Russian and Habsburg troops had defeated the Hungarian forces and restored the authority of the imperial government over the entire territory of the monarchy.
In France, a June 1849 demonstration in Paris, organized by radical parliamentary deputies against the French intervention in Italy, was a fiasco, resulting in the arrest or flight of most of the radical leaders and an increasing rightward direction in French politics. Yet from mid-1849 through 1851, the remaining left-wing activists organized a network of some seven hundred secret societies, successors to the legal democratic political clubs, mostly in villages and towns of central and southeastern France. When, in December 1851, President Louis-Napoleon launched a coup to overthrow the republic and make himself emperor, Paris was quiet, but at least 100,000 insurgents, led by the secret societies, rose up against him, reiterating the political and social demands of the French left. Their defeat by the French army marked the end of the second wave of revolution and of the mid-nineteenth-century revolutions altogether.
Reasons for the failures of the 1848 revolutions were already being debated in 1850, and historians have done so ever since. Paradoxically, the revolutions' failures came from their successes. The massive increase in political participation following the insurrections of January–March 1848 allowed different political tendencies to emerge. Radicals and socialists clashed with moderates, especially in France, but also in Germany and Italy. The different nationalist movements in central and eastern Europe battled each other very bitterly. Unlike France after 1789, radicals in 1848 were never able to gain control of a Great Power and launch a revolutionary war. In contrast to 1917 or 1989, existing governmental structures had not completely collapsed in 1848, and their proponents could still be active after the initial wave of revolution. While different elements of the party of movement were fighting each other, conservatives were able to rally supporters, regroup the armed forces under their control, exploit differences of opinion among their opponents, and regain control—although only after fierce struggles, from June to December 1848 and from May to August 1849, with a final outburst in France, two and a half years later.
If unsuccessful at installing new regimes, the 1848 revolutions nonetheless had important long-term effects. The revolutionary abolition of serfdom and seignorialism in the Austrian Empire and the German states remained, even after the triumph of counterrevolution. Constitutional governments became the norm; by the 1860s, they would exist everywhere in Europe except for the tsar's empire. The national unification of Germany and Italy between 1859 and 1871 and the compromise of 1867 creating an autonomous Hungarian nation-state within the Austrian Empire, all stemmed from initiatives first taken in 1848. Europe's socialist and feminist activists of the third quarter of the nineteenth century began their political career in the 1848 revolutions, as did the leaders of the Catholic political movement developing at that time.
Most of all, the 1848 revolutions involved an explosion of political participation. Although there would certainly be examples of mass politics in subsequent decades, it was only in the 1890s—after a substantial expansion of communication and transportation networks—that as great a proportion of the population would take part in public life as had been the case in the years 1848 and 1849.
See alsoAustria-Hungary; Berlin; Blanqui, Auguste; Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia; Bonapartism; France; Francis Joseph; Frederick William IV; Garibaldi, Giuseppe; Germany; Italy; Kossuth, Lajos;Lamartine, Alphonse; Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste; Liberalism; Marx, Karl; Metternich, Clemens von; Napoleon III; Paris; Pius IX; Prague Slav Congress; Rome; Socialism; Vienna; William I.
Price, Roger, ed. Documents on the French Revolution of 1848. Rev. ed. New York, 1996. A very useful collection of documents.
Schurz, Carl. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. 3 vols. New York, 1907–1908. Contains a lively account of events in Germany by a radical political activist, who later went on to a distinguished career in American politics.
Agulhon, Maurice. The Republic in the Village: The People of the Var from the French Revolution to the Second Republic. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. A famous regional study that has set the terms for the modern history of the 1848 revolutions, in France and more broadly in Europe.
——. The Republican Experiment, 1848–1852. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, U.K., 1983. A classic history of the 1848 revolution in France.
Deák, István. The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848–1849. New York, 1979. Far and away, the best English-language book on the 1848 revolutions in the Austrian Empire, especially in the empire's Hungarian lands.
Dowe, Dieter, Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, Dieter Lange-wiesche, and Jonathan Sperber, eds. Europe in 1848: Revolution and Reform. Translated by David Higgins. New York, 2001. A massive collection of essays on all aspects of the 1848 revolutions, throughout Europe, including essays on events in the smaller countries, and on women and peasants, as well as a very extensive bibliography.
Evans, R. J. W., and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds. The Revolutions in Europe, 1848–1849: From Reform to Reaction. Oxford, U.K., 2000. Not as extensive as the Dowe et al. collection of essays, but a useful supplement to it, especially the articles on Russian and U.S. responses to the 1848 revolutions.
Ginsborg, Paul. Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848–49. Cambridge, U.K., 1979. The best English-language work on the 1848 revolutions in Italy.
Margadant, Ted W. French Peasants in Revolt: The Insurrection of 1851. Princeton, N.J., 1979.
Merriman, John M. The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848–1851. New Haven, Conn., 1978. An excellent monographic study, particularly illuminating on events outside of Paris and during the often-neglected years 1849–1851.
Robertson, Priscilla. The Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. Princeton, N.J., 1952. A general history whose scholarship is outdated but still makes for charming reading. The bibliography contains a very helpful and extensive list of memoirs by participants in the 1848 revolutions.
Siemann, Wolfram. The German Revolution of 1848–49. Translated by Christiane Banerji. New York, 1998. The best English-language general history of the 1848 revolution in central Europe.
Sperber, Jonathan. Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848–1849. Princeton, N.J., 1991. A regional study emphasizing the relationship of the revolutionary movement to pre-1848 social, economic, political, and religious conflicts.
——. The European Revolutions, 1848–1851. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 2005. The most up-to-date general history of the 1848 revolutions.
Vick, Brian E. Defining Germany: The 1848 Frankfurt Parliamentarians and National Identity. Cambridge, Mass., 2002. A careful study of a crucial aspect of the German revolution of 1848 and also an unusually helpful account of the phenomenon of nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century.
Revolutions of 1848
REVOLUTIONS OF 1848
In 1848–1849 European nations rose in revolt against the system of hereditary, anti-nationalist monarchies most closely identified with the Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859). Beginning in France in February 1848, nationalist-republican revolutions soon challenged regimes in Italy, Austria, and Germany. Although Britain suffered no revolution, it was hardly placid. Parliament had rejected the Chartists' petition in 1842, but the specter of the movement lingered. Chartists sought to eliminate some inequities left unaddressed by the Reform Act of 1832. They demanded universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, salaries for Members of Parliament, and other reforms. In 1848 this movement was rejuvenated by events on the Continent and enjoyed a brief, if equally unsuccessful, revival. In fact, every one of these movements failed.
Americans were deeply interested in these developments. Newspapers and magazines reported the latest news from overseas in brash, bold headlines. The rhetoric of nationalist exceptionalism notwithstanding, the United States possessed long-standing connections with the Old World, most closely to Great Britain but also to nations on the Continent. Thus, many Americans felt a personal investment in political and social upheaval overseas. In addition, Americans assumed that their own Revolution of 1776 inspired some of these events. The revolutionary upheavals also transfixed Americans because many of them expected them to fail. They wished for the best but, given the precedents of 1789 and 1830, anticipated that the forces of reaction would triumph. A significant minority of Americans expressed opposition or skepticism from the very beginning. Either because they doubted the ability of European peoples to sustain free governments or because they discerned the influence of socialism or communism, they were wary from the early stages. Responses to the Revolutions of 1848 reveal the existence of a powerful strain of conservatism in American cultural life.
Events of 1848 not only illuminated conservative tendencies in the United States but also deepened them. The reactionary resurgence strengthened mutually reinforcing perceptions of American exceptionalism and European corruption. Because many observers believed that conservative forces had triumphed not over republicans but over socialists or other radicals, these regimes and their methods acquired legitimacy in American eyes they had not heretofore possessed. These sentiments were not universal. In some circles, the events of 1848–1851 strengthened liberal and reformist elements in American society. Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), whose reports of the rise and demise of the 1849 Roman Revolution appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune, was radicalized by her experience. The so-called forty-eighters—German exiles who fled to the United States—became articulate advocates of American engagement in support of liberalism abroad. The impact of the Revolutions of 1848 on American culture was therefore complex. In the final analysis, the settlements boosted the credibility of conservative exceptionalists over liberal internationalists.
REVOLUTION AND REACTION: 1848
Since 1845 Europe had suffered an agricultural crisis that impoverished farmers and confronted urban workers with high food prices and unemployment. These conditions made French peasants and workers ripe for revolution, but economic distress did not bring down the July Monarchy. Rather, frustration with the glacial pace of parliamentary reform among liberals precipitated the crisis. Reformers took to holding banquets to protest stagnation and corruption. When François Guizot (1787–1874), the prime minister, abruptly banned a liberal banquet and march scheduled for 22 February in Paris, crowds began setting up barricades. Guizot and King Louis-Philippe (1773–1850) fled for England when units of the National Guard refused to fire on the rebels; on 24 February a provisional government assumed power.
This edifice was creaky from the beginning. It was dominated by moderate republicans led by the poet-statesman Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869). To placate radicals, the government set up national workshops to provide out-of-work laborers with employment or, failing that, direct financial support. These workshops became centers of dissent. In June Parisian radicals took once again to the barricades, where troops under General Eugene Cavaignac dispersed them; thousands of soldiers and radicals were killed. This street battle is known as the June Days. Conservative forces, promising order before liberty, were soon ascendant. The Second Republic came to a quick end when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror's nephew, declared himself emperor in late 1852 after handily winning the presidency in 1848.
Inspired by news from Paris, revolutionists also challenged the Hapsburgs in Central Europe. Crowds gathered in Vienna's squares when word of Louis-Philippe's abdication reached the city at the end of February. Radical workers demanded a constitution, to which the emperor consented. He also abolished manorial obligations, including forced labor. Despite these moves, the Hapsburg monarchy seemed to be teetering in late March. Developments in the provinces added to this perception. Rebellions in Venice and Milan forced Austrian troops to withdraw from these cities in mid-March. Revolutionary sentiment spread to Rome, driving Pius IX out of the city. In Hungary, a Magyar revolt led by Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) sought independence from Vienna. Bohemian Czechs pressed for autonomy within the empire. When it became clear that Vienna would not accept even limited reforms, Czech nationalists took control of Prague.
TIMELINE: REVOLUTIONS OF 1848
- 1839, 1842:
- Charters rejected by Parliament.
- August 1846:
- Margaret Fuller arrives in England.
- March 1847:
- Fuller, in Italy, begins her "Things and Thoughts in Europe" series for the New-York Daily Tribune.
- October 1847:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson arrives in England.
- February 1848:
- Louis-Philippe abdicates after street demonstrations in Paris. Samuel Goodrich (Peter Parley) and other Americans congratulate the provisional government.
- March 1848:
- Riots in Vienna and Berlin. Metternich falls. Hungary declares separation within Austrian Empire.
- April 1848:
- Constituent Assembly elected in France. Caroline Matilda Kirkland, author of Holidays Abroad; or, Europe from the West (1849) sets sail for England.
- May 1848:
- Frankfurt Assembly convenes. Emerson, Kirkland arrive in Paris.
- June 1848:
- Pan-Slavic Assembly meets in Prague; dispersed by Austrian troops commanded by Windischgrätz. Emerson returns to England. Kirkland in Genoa.
- 24–26 June 1848:
- June Days: army puts down workers in Paris. Donald Mitchell (Ik Marvel) arrives in Paris to report for James Watson Webb's New York Courier and Enquirer; Charles A. Dana arrives to report for Horace Greeley's New-York Daily Tribune.
- October 1848:
- Vienna falls to Windischgrätz.
- November 1848:
- Pius IX flees Rome following the assassination of his prime minister, Pellegrino Rossi.
- December 1848:
- Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte elected president of the Second Republic.
- April 1849:
- Frankfurt Assembly offers crown of united Germany to Frederick William IV. He refuses. The Assembly dissolves.
- June 1849:
- French troops storm Rome; republican forces defeated.
- August 1849:
- Hungarians defeated; Lajos Kossuth flees.
- October 1849:
- Herman Melville sails to Europe via England.
- April 1850:
- Pius IX returns to Rome, now under French-Austrian occupation.
- July 1850:
- The Elizabeth sinks off Fire Island; Margaret Fuller, her child, and husband drown; her manuscript on the history of the Roman Republic is lost.
- December 1851:
- Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte dissolves Assembly and reinstates universal manhood suffrage. Elected president for ten-year term.
- December 1852:
- Louis-Napoleon dissolves Second Republic; proclaims himself Napoleon III.
Most of these uprisings were snuffed out nearly as soon as they had begun. A week before Paris's June Days, Field Marshal Alfred Windischgrätz shelled Prague into submission. Three thousand Viennese died when the army cleared the streets, after which Austrian leaders moved swiftly to curb the revolutions in Hungary and Italy. Roman Republicans fought heroically but proved no match for Napoleon's troops. Only Kossuth's Hungarians resisted the Austrian counterrevolution successfully. They declared their independence in April 1849 after forcing Windischgrätz to abandon Budapest. But soon after Tsar Nicholas (1796–1855), applying Metternich's principles, sent in Russian troops and put an end to Hungarian independence. The Hapsburgs were supreme again.
Germany also was warmed by revolutionary winds, albeit briefly and superficially. In mid-March troops violently dispersed a crowd of demonstrators in Berlin. Word of events in Vienna emboldened Prussian liberals. After violence threatened to break out more generally, Frederick William IV (1795–1861) promised a constitution and invited liberals to form a ministry. But it came to nothing. Frederick William was no constitutional monarch, and few Germans wanted a republic anyway. Their priorities were unification and moderate liberalization. The constituent assembly that soon gathered at Frankfurt offered Frederick William the crown of "smaller Germany" (an empire short of Austria). He refused, declining to limit himself to constitutional rules imposed from his subjects. The Frankfurt Assembly dis-integrated in impotence. Germany's springtime, like its counterparts across Europe, was over.
As in 1789 and 1830 Americans in 1848 responded warmly to news of the demise of the French monarchy. Street celebrations broke out in cities across the country. Newspapers outdid one another in expressing satisfaction with the events in Paris. Diplomats hastened to offer the congratulations of France's twin republic across the sea. Richard Rush (1780–1859), the American minister in Paris, granted diplomatic recognition to the new government. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution introduced by the Ohio Democrat William Allen (1803–1879) offering France the official congratulations of the United States; on 10 April the House overwhelmingly concurred. Intellectuals also lined up to praise the French for their apparently bloodless republican revolution. On a speaking tour of Britain early in 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), initially assumed his hosts' skepticism toward the events in France. But the earnestness of Parisian socialists forced him to reconsider. "I have been exaggerating the English merits all winter, & disparaging the French," he wrote in his journal. "Now I am correcting my judgment of both, & the French have risen very fast" (Journals 10:312).
It was the same story with the revolutions that followed. Demonstrators lined the streets and squares of American cities, offering speeches and toasts in support of the insurgents in Italy, Austria, and Germany. The press, which had traditionally devoted far more newsprint to foreign than to domestic affairs, became even more engrossed with events across the Atlantic. Profiles of Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), Kossuth, and other revolutionary leaders appeared on front pages. Diplomats rushed to recognize republican governments, sometimes with more enthusiasm than discretion. A minor diplomatic row ensued when word leaked out that an American diplomat had been sent to Hungary in hopes of recognizing a new republic. Writers and intellectuals stood in awe of the revolutionary wave that had swept through Europe. They were delighted to witness the downfall of monarchies and the realization of national aspirations by hitherto oppressed minorities and rejoiced in the enhanced status of the United States, whose own revolution they assumed had inspired the events of 1848.
From the beginning, however, critical voices marred this apparent consensus. France was the most common target of these skeptics. History justified circumspection, critics explained; the precedents of 1789 and 1830 did not auger well for the prospects of French republicanism, or even for peaceful, orderly change of any kind. Some critics of democracy—Herman Melville (1819–1891) and his Knickerbocker friends were prominent among these—idealized the culture of monarchial France and were loath to see it toppled by the mob. Overall, conservatives had little faith in the prospects for change inaugurated by revolutionary violence, particularly when history seemed to indicate that events would inevitably spin out of the control of moderates. Whig organs, such as the North American Review and National Intelligencer, made this argument most forcefully. Congratulating France was premature, they maintained, until the revolution had run its course.
Some antislavery activists made much of the provisional French government's abolition of slavery in its colonies and pointed up the hypocrisy of the slave-holding United States congratulating Europeans for achieving freedom. A few southerners stressed the dangers for the South in praising revolutionary change against constituted authority. But sectionalism was not a strong determinant of support for or opposition to the European Revolutions of 1848. When Kossuth toured the United States in 1851–1852, he alienated both apologists for slavery and antislavery activists. The former objected to his association with dubious "isms," and the latter recoiled from his refusal to endorse abolition. Southern voices, including that of Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), the future president of the Confederate States of America, were prominent in support of the Allen resolution in early 1848. Many northerners, from George Ticknor (1789–1871) to Daniel Webster (1782–1852), expressed caution or skepticism toward the prospects for liberalization in Europe. Such views were far more strongly rooted in ideology than sectional identity.
Prejudices against French national character fed American skepticism toward its mid-century revolution. The French were widely believed to be dissipated, undisciplined, perfidious, and volatile, all qualities that were inconsistent with republican institutions. Ticknor, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), and George Kendall (1809–1867), the European correspondent of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, were just a few of the prominent voices who doubted whether the people of France were capable of governing themselves. By mid-century, these convictions were informed by emerging concepts of scientific racism. Group features that had been attributed to environment and history began to be seen as hereditary, innate, and unchangeable. These concepts influenced American perceptions of revolutions in Austria and on the Italian peninsula. Nathaniel Niles (1741–1828), the American minister at Turin, felt that prospects for republicanism in Italy were doomed because the "Italian character is so thoroughly imbued with intolerance and sentiments of hatred personal and political . . . as to forbid the establishment of any form of government founded on mutual concession and a partial surrender of rights and interests for the common good" (quoted in Noether, p. 383).
Throughout 1848 these notions were clearly in the minority. As republicanism in France gave way to socialism and dictatorship the tide of public opinion began to turn decisively. The reactionary resurgence of 1849–1852 lent credibility to early critics of the revolution. The June Days in Paris fed American disillusionment. In Mardi (1849) Melville articulated his conviction that France's mob violence and conservative reaction were attributable to a misplaced faith in popular government. An anonymous scroll admonishes the people of Vivenza (the United States), "Better be secure under one king, than exposed to violence from twenty millions of monarchs, though oneself be of the number" (p. 529). Donald Mitchell's reports for the New York Courier and Enquirer stressed the cruelty and socialist ideology of the rioters. His portrayal proved to be more influential than reports such as those submitted by Charles A. Dana (1819–1897), whose sympathies for the rioters clashed with deep cultural prejudices against French violence and socialism. Others who had given the revolution their support reconsidered. Mob violence horrified Emerson, who was more sympathetic to the idea of mankind than he was to flesh-and-blood men (particularly in groups). He soon took to denouncing "Red Revolution" in his public lectures.
Americans also reevaluated their support for republicanism outside France when the conservative resurgence waxed. When the Frankfurt Assembly failed to unite Germany under a constitutional monarchy, Americans blamed the German people for their unfitness for American-style democracy. Even the Hungarian Revolution, by far the most popular of the 1848 uprisings in American public opinion, lost its luster in time. Large, supportive crowds greeted Kossuth in the initial months of his American tour. However, not only did he fail to garner any kind of concrete support for the Hungarian cause, but the excitement turned to apathy. On 12 July 1852 the penniless freedom fighter and his wife crept aboard a Cunard liner under assumed names and sailed for England (Morrison, p. 131).
By that time, the lessons of the failed Revolutions of 1848 seemed clear. Although they continued to celebrate their own war of independence Americans began to doubt the propriety of revolutionary change. Abolitionism, fire-eating proslavery expansionism, women's rights, and other "reforms" all seemed to threaten the stability of the union and social order itself. Revolutions seemed more likely to end in reaction than progress, more prone to produce violent disruption than liberalization. Americans put the Revolutions of 1848 into the broader context of domestic "revolutions" that placed the republican experiment itself at risk. No wonder they found them wanting.
Although over the long term the Revolutions of 1848 strengthened the credibility of conservatives in the United States, there were countervailing trends. Some observers kept faith in the righteousness of the revolutions and in the future of republicanism in the Old World. Margaret Fuller's experience reporting on the revolution in Rome and its subsequent defeat at the hands of the French not only produced the most passionate writing of her career but also deepened her commitment to radical causes. Tragically, she drowned with her husband and infant child when their boat sank within sight of Fire Island, New York, in 1850. Theodore Dwight (1796–1866), a New York editor, carried on Fuller's advocacy of Italian republicanism in The Roman Republic of 1849 (1851), which challenged American cynicism toward Italian liberalism. Italians were both devoted liberals and genuine Protestants, Dwight maintained. Jesuitical intrigues and cultural prejudices conspired to keep Americans ignorant of these facts. Although Dwight's portrayal was condescending in its own way—he rehabilitated Italians by turning them into Americans—his faith in the ultimate redemption of the peninsula was a refreshing counterpoint to the quasi-racist disparagement assumed by most observers after the French and Austrians emerged victorious.
Some German republicans and radicals escaping failed revolutions in Central Europe did reach American shores. They exercised a liberalizing influence on American politics and culture for much of the nineteenth century. Though only a small fraction of German migrants during the late 1840s and 1850s were truly forty-eighters—those who left to escape prison for their revolutionary activities—enough radicals did enter the United States to provide leadership in German communities. They were a heterogeneous group, containing a few genuine Marxists and many more moderate republicans. Many, for obvious reasons, declined to engage in activism in their new home. Others were particularly active in journalism and politics, where they used their influence to urge their adopted country to use its moral authority to advance liberal causes abroad. These activists gravitated to the new Republican Party in the late 1850s. Carl Schurz, Friedrich Hecker, Franz Sigel, and others attained influential positions. Some earned high rank in the Union Army. Although their influence was deep and lasting, it was not powerful enough to counteract the general impact of the European Revolutions of 1848, which enhanced the credibility of advocates for American exceptionalism, deepened mistrust of Europe, and undermined the forces of radical reform and engagement with the world beyond America's borders.
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