Peter talks with historian Timothy M. Roberts about Hungary’s call for American assistance during the European revolutions of 1848, the dashing representative they sent to solicit it, and how domestic conflicts over slavery served to frustrate his efforts.
This segment transcripts are drawn from an earlier broadcast of this episode – there may be some differences in language.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED: Hello, Brian.
BRIAN: And we’re coming to you at the end of a week that, for a awhile, looked like it could end in military action– a US strike on Syria.
ED: What triggered the current crisis, of course, was a chemical weapons attack on civilians in a rebel area of Syria, allegedly perpetrated by the government itself. And central to the American debate has been this question– can United States justify intervening in another nation’s civil war because of the way that war has been conducted?
PETER: As it so often does, the debate over future moves has in many cases revolved around past humanitarian crises– in places like Kosovo and Rwanda and Kurdish Iraq. Some have even invoked World War II. And so today on the show, we’re going to spend some time with that history, and we’re going to push the clock back a lot further. How have past generations of Americans contended with this tricky issue of what’s now known as humanitarian intervention? We’ll consider the case of the Biafran separatists, the Armenian massacres, and the mass removal of native peoples right here in the United States all the way back in 1830s.
ED: We’ll begin in the middle of the 19th century when Europe was swept up in a wave of revolt. From Denmark to Italy, nationalists rose up against empires. Liberal reformers called for democracy. But of all the insurrections, it was the struggle of Hungarians that most captured the imagination of Americans. And that was chiefly the doing of one charismatic revolutionary.
PETER: The Hungarian revolt against the Hapsburg-ruled Austrian Empire, like other revolutions, began in 1848. A gifted orator named Louis Kossuth emerged as the leader of the new Hungarian government and its military forces. But against the might of the empire and its allies, the Hungarian insurrection had fallen apart in about two years.
ED: As leader of the rebellion, Kossuth feared for his life, so he fled his home country first to the Ottoman Empire, and then to the United Kingdom. But even in exile, Kossuth dreamed of an independent Hungary, and so he turned his attention to the United States. There, Kossuth figured, he would surely find the support he needed to revamp his uprising.
PETER: Timothy Roberts is a historian who has written about Kossuth’s visit to the US. He told me that Americans were already well aware of the Hungarian’s exploits, having read about them in the pages of their newspapers. But when Kossuth actually arrived in New York in 1851, Roberts says people were enthralled by what they saw.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He was a very handsome man, apparently. There’s images of him. He was a charmer. Men were known to have broken out in tears upon hearing him speak. I’m sure the women swooned. He had a beard. Coincidental or not, a lot of Americans started growing the whiskerandos in reminiscent of Kossuth in the 1850s. Beards became much more fashionable.
PETER: Something like Che Guevara, this romantic revolutionary.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: I think that’s a great comparison. It was the Romantic Age, and Kossuth, I think, was a romantic kind of revolutionary. This was an era in which people believed that individual men could achieve great things. Thomas Carlyle, the British writer, talked about great men in history, and Kossuth fit that bill very nicely. He claimed to have learned English by reading the Bible and Shakespeare in prison. Very romantic stuff.
PETER: So Tim, what did Kossuth hope to do in the US? What was the point of this trip? He was seeking more than asylum. We wanted to rekindle the revolution, didn’t he?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He did. Americans weren’t sure what he wanted. It became clear when he arrived, as he was intent to raise financial support. But beyond that, Kossuth wanted America to intervene. He believed that he could make the case to America that was its mission, if you will, responsibility to help another beleaguered people achieve independence as the Americans had achieved their own independence in the 18th century.
PETER: Tell us a little bit about the tour. There must’ve been– oh, what would you estimate, more than a million people turned out to see him across the country? Or certainly, in the high hundreds of thousands?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yes. Apparently, one of every three inhabitants of New York City was apparently on the streets to welcome him and give them a ticker tape parade. Women and children cut parts of his beard off, and he had to be defended by the Lafayette Guards–
PETER: [LAUGHTER] I love it.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: –from being physically trampled. He makes his way to New England, and there goes to Concord Bridge, is feted there. Emerson gives a speech welcoming Kossuth. And then he goes to the rest of the country.
He makes his way west, meets his strongest appeal in the old Northwest– Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, the home of new immigrants from Europe. The Germans, the Swedes, Eastern Europeans all welcome him under the most bellicose and insistent that America act on behalf of the Hungarians. The Ohio legislature will officially offer him weapons from the Ohio state arsenal, with the caveat that they simply be returned in good order upon the achievement of Hungarian liberty.
PETER: Right. What a dream. That’s great.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah. So there are these caches of weapons that go over. A lot of these didn’t really work. They’re kind of old relics from the War of 1812.
He makes his way to Cincinnati, and then launches perhaps into the hardest challenge of all, which is to the Deep South. He did not flinch. He makes his way through the cotton states. There, perhaps not surprisingly, because of all of his talk about liberal reform and democracy, white Southerners are very skeptical. The crowds dwindle. He really runs into anxiety for him to push on. And he’s probably most disappointed there.
PETER: So in some ways, Tim, this was the first great popular test in a democracy of the mass appeal of foreign intervention. And on the face of it, even if there was lack of enthusiasm in the South, Kossuth did an amazing job. He got a strong response. He was a charismatic figure. Why didn’t that translate into intervention?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah, Kossuth– I think, it’s the first time that Americans really seriously consider intervening in Europe. Washington had warned against entangling alliances, but Americans are feeling their muscles, just still kind of basking in the glow of the military victory over Mexico, the apparent fulfillment of manifest destiny. I think it’s important to think about Kossuth in ways that he reveals these two metaphors that Americans in their history have talked about.
One is America as an exceptional nation, a nation with what we like to think of as a kind of unusual ability to wield power gracefully. And we intervene, but it’s because other people would like us to, and we’re doing it on their behalf and not ours. The other metaphor that Americans stick to, emerging with John Winthrop and the Puritans, is this idea of America as an example.
A city on a hill, i.e., a place that other people look to emulate, but that does not come down off, if you will, the mountain, and does not meddle in other people’s affairs. And these two kind of images of America clash at some level. And I think this is what really got Kossuth– the idea that America should be an example to Europe, to the beleaguered Europeans trumped in the mid 19th century, the idea that America should use its exceptional ability to transform other places, especially using force.
PETER: Right. But as you suggested, Tim, there was a lot of local support on the local level, of state and municipal governments even. When Kossuth does get to Washington, and he gets to meet the president and the influential senator Henry Clay. What happens? So he must have expected that this would be the big payoff.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Well, he is. He is feted left and right. I mean, he’s fed well. He lives the high life. He is officially invited to address Congress.
He has an audience with, at this point, President Fillmore. But yeah, the key interview is with Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, really, almost on his deathbed. But if Clay endorses Kossuth– he still has great influence– it will really make a difference. Clay is a national figure of great importance at the time. But Kossuth speaks with Clay, and Clay kind of rasps, if America intervenes in Hungary, what does that do to the American example? How does it serve the rest of the world for the light of America to go out, i.e., it’s just too much of a risk for us to come to bat for the Hungarians at this point.
PETER: But Clay had enthusiastically supported the Greeks, and then–
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: That’s true.
PETER: –had certainly in Latin American Revolutions, he was, you might say, a famous interventionist hawk, or at least that was his attitude. But when he’s dying, he has, well, cold feet?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He turns. He really reverses course. And I think it’s a marker not only of his own decline, but also the real tension in American politics and society by this time over the kind of elephant in the room, which is slavery. United States is becoming so coiled, so tightly coiled that all other issues are being pushed to the margins. Clay anticipates a course that there will not be a consensus for Kossuth, and as Northerners grow more enthusiastic, it will push Southerners further away.
Clay, himself as a slave owner, is nervous that Kossuth might come out and denounce the peculiar institution of the United States. And this is something slavery, at this point, is becoming to dominate, not only American domestic issues, but also its foreign relations.
PETER: And sure enough, these sectional concerns did prevent Congress from taking any substantial action. When Senate leaders finally took up the issue about what to do about Hungary, they simply couldn’t get past their own internal divisions. The takeaway for me, Tim– I wonder what you would say– is that you cannot extricate foreign policy from domestic policy.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah, I think that’s true, especially when you are talking about some kind of intervention. Americans will, Congress will make resolutions on behalf of beleaguered peoples. And I think we will kind of make these rhetorical salutes without partisan bickering and too much pause over what kind of domestic problems that might trigger. But when you start talking, as you say, about substantive support abroad, taking a hard position, standing up to a power somewhere else in the world, obviously it’s linked to what’s going on in the American economy.
It’s what’s going on in pivotal US states. You think about how the politics of Florida would often drive US policies towards Cuba. So yeah, in a democracy, presidents, I think, would like to separate foreign policy from domestic policy. It never really works out that way. The two really go lockstep.
PETER: Tim Roberts is a historian at the University of Western Illinois. He’s the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism.
BRIAN: We need to take a short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, what humanitarian intervention looked like in an era of Indian removal all the way back in the 1830s.