The year 1848 witnessed a string of upheavals throughout most of the major cities in Europe, including Paris, Naples, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna. In a matter of weeks, urban revolutionaries forced the French king Louis-Philippe and Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich to flee from power. Inspired in part by the example of the American Revolution, many citizens of Europe were poised for a bright new democratic future.
Americans rejoiced at this prospect, as illustrated by the frequent parades and proclamations on behalf of popular liberty in Europe. Foreign revolutionaries, particularly the Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth, emerged as national celebrities. Their names replaced the previous names for many towns throughout Indiana, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania, areas with large recent immigrant populations from the European continent. Small groups of Americans organized themselves for possible military action overseas on behalf of their revolutionary heroes. While most of this private militia activity came to very little, a small contingent of U.S. citizens joined the failed rebellion in Ireland. As in 1775, Americans believed that the long-term success of their Revolution was connected with events in Europe, and Ireland in particular.
At the highest levels of government, the United States supported the European uprisings with diplomatic means short of force. In May 1848, John C. Calhoun, the former secretary of state and prominent U.S. senator from South Carolina, used his connections with the Prussian minister-resident in America to encourage the formulation of "constitutional governments" upon the "true principles" embodied in the American federal system. The construction of new political institutions on this model, according to Calhoun, was necessary for "the successful consummation of what the recent revolutions aimed at in Germany" and "the rest of Europe." The White House also indulged in revolutionary enthusiasm. On 18 June 1849, President Zachary Taylor sent a special envoy, Dudley Mann, to support and advise Kossuth. When the ruling Habsburg government learned of the Mann mission, it protested to Washington. Secretary of State Daniel Webster publicly defended American action on behalf of the European revolutionaries. In response, Vienna severed its connections with the United States. Americans accepted this temporary break in their foreign relations for the purpose of articulating their sympathies with the brave men and women who hoped to overturn the old European political order.
These revolutionary hopes, however, failed to reach fruition. By the end of 1849 the established monarchies of Europe had reasserted their control over the continent. When necessary, they used military force to crush the reformers who had taken to the streets. Dismayed by this course of events, but conscious of its inability to affect a different outcome, the U.S. government reaffirmed its commercial relations with the conservative regimes. Americans condemned the brutality in Europe, but they took advantage of postrevolutionary stability to increase cotton and other exports across the Atlantic. This was another case of America's revolutionary realism: sympathy and support for political change overseas, but a recognition that compromise and patience were necessary. The United States took advantage of opportunities to push its ideals, and it also exploited existing markets to sell its products. This was an unavoidable balance.
After 1848 many Americans worried about the implications of their nation's failure to support the cause of revolution more concretely. A faction of dissatisfied Democrats came together at this time to form a group identified as Young America. In using this name they meant to differentiate their interventionist program from the caution of their party's so-called Old Fogies. Young America argued that the nation could only secure its ideals through more forceful "expansion and progress." Stephen A. Douglas, the U.S. senator from Illinois who would run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, became the leading political figure for citizens who wished to make America a more effective beacon of revolution overseas. Douglas, however, failed to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 1852. Another Democrat, Franklin Pierce, was elected to the White House that year after making numerous appeals to Young America sentiment. Pierce advocated U.S. expansion for the purpose of opening markets and spreading American principles. The Democratic Party platform explained that "in view of the condition of popular institutions in the Old World, a high and sacred duty is devolved with increased responsibility upon the Democracy in this country." Americans believed that the vitality of their ideals required more effective support for political and economic change overseas. The spread of liberty and enterprise across the globe became more important as the United States suffered a profound crisis of identity in the years before the Civil War.
For American advocates of what the historian Eric Foner has identified as the ideology of "free soil, free labor, and free men," the post-1848 repressions in Europe threatened to reinforce unenlightened policies at home. This appeared most evident in the case of southern slavery. Transforming monarchies into democracies and liberating human beings from bondage became part of a single project. At home and abroad, free labor promised increased productivity, higher wages for workers of all races, and more democratic politics. Support for monarchy overseas and slavery in the American South constrained markets, depressed wages, and empowered conservative families.
Agitation around Young America in the 1850s, and broader attempts to foster the spread of liberty and enterprise, contributed to the American Civil War. The bloodshed between 1861 and 1865 resulted, at least in part, from a Northern attempt to enforce radical socioeconomic change in the South. Slavery and the South's "peculiar" precapitalist structure, according to Eugene Genovese, hindered the development of industry and democracy. The period of Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy is, not surprisingly, called by many historians America's second revolution, when southern institutions—including slavery, voting restrictions, and property concentration in a landed aristocracy—were all radically dislocated by an interventionist Union government.
This second revolution went hand in hand with a more assertive U.S. foreign policy in Europe and Asia. Like Reconstruction at home, American activities abroad sought to eradicate "peculiar" obstacles to liberty and enterprise. "Free soil, free labor, and free men" was a global worldview that required U.S. supported revolutions in the most tradition-bound empires, especially in Asia.
Between 1840 and 1870, American envoys forced China and Japan to open official contacts with Washington. In 1844, Caleb Cushing, U.S. representative from Massachusetts and longtime advocate of U.S. expansion, negotiated the Treaty of Wanghia with the Chinese emperor. This agreement guaranteed American trade access to key ports in Asia. Equally important, the treaty protected the legal rights of missionaries proselytizing on the mainland. For Cushing and his contemporaries, relations with China promised both wealth and the spread of America's "Christian" ideas of liberty. Commodore Matthew Perry's mission to the then-closed kingdom of Japan in 1853 served similar purposes. In 1858, Perry's successor, Townsend Harris, negotiated a treaty to open Japan for U.S. trade and ideas.
The upheavals in China and Japan during the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced significantly by these inroads. In both societies, Americans sought to undermine traditional political and economic institutions. Missionaries argued for new restrictions on monarchical authority. Merchants emphasized personal profit and private property. Intellectuals extolled the virtues of a learned and participatory citizenry. In all of these ways, the expansionist ideology of Young America encouraged U.S. style liberty and enterprise to take root in some of the world's oldest civilizations. American ideas undermined conservative worldviews.