In 1848, when word spread to America that a revolution was breaking out in France, President James Polk wrote: “The great principles of popular sovereignty which were proclaimed in 1776 by the immortal author of our Declaration of Independence, seem now to be in the course of rapid development throughout the world.” James Knox Polk to Richard Rush, April 18, 1848, quoted in Michael Morrison, “American Reactions to European Revolutions, 1848-1852,” Civil War History 49 (June 2003): 117.
Revolutions were also taking place in Germany and Italy around this time, causing Americans to reflect about the American Revolution, which was over seven decades ago at this point. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 792. Some, like New York’s Bishop John Hughes condemned “the European uprisings, distinguishing them from the rational and responsible American Revolution of 1776.” Id. at 793 citing John Hughes, The Church and the World (New York, 1850).
The Democrats and the Whigs, the two major political parties, had their own reactions to the European revolutions. The Democrats welcomed the new republics of Europe, admiring “the sovereignty of the people,” however, some believe this position was nothing more than a political tactic to garner support with the immigrant community. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 793. The Whigs, on the other hand, supported reform, such as the spread of education in society, but were dismayed by the mob rule that characterized revolutions. See id.
John Calhoun and his faction, prizing their conservatism and their southern Democratic ideals, did not support the revolutions. See id. at 794. They saw the revolutions as attempts to rid the world of slavery, attacking their way of life, and he would do nothing to support them. See id. When a group of “German liberals” approached him seeking “his opinion on a draft constitution, the South Carolinian cautioned them to preserve state rights.” Id. citing Michael Morrison, “American Reactions to European Revolutions, 1848-1852,” Civil War History 49 (June 2003): 119.
With the Mexican-American War finished, it was a dynamic time for Americans. In addition to the revolutions in Europe, America had its own new challenges, as with the treaty “ending the war against Mexico, the United States acquired an empire on the Pacific.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 795.
The country was rapidly changing, and the small, modest republic that the first generation of Americans had come to know had rapidly expanded. The monarchies and tyrannies of Europe that the first generation of Americans knew were transforming into their own republics.
To some extent, the American Revolution was becoming an example of a wise revolution. While the first few decades after the Revolution required tweaking and adjustments to the government, following the War of 1812, and up to the end of the Mexican-American War, there was a sense of stability for America. Its geographic expanse was growing, and its economic and military strength made it the strongest power in the region.
For most Americans in 1848, the Revolution must have appeared to be a success. But the developments to come were putting the country on a path toward conflict because the issues that preceded the Mexican-American War, like sectionalism, were going to come back and be stronger than ever.