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Classics Review: America and the Revolutions of 1848

By: Patrick J. Garrity
February 19, 2013

When the European revolutions of 1848 spead to Austria and the Habsburg lands, William H. Stiles, the American chargé d'affaires in Vienna, became both a participant and a chronicler of these watershed events. Stiles, an attorney from Savannah, Georgia, had been a one-term Democratic congressman before he was appointed to his diplomatic position in April 1845 by newly-elected President James K. Polk. Stiles held the post until October 1849, when he returned to the United States and resumed his law practice and activities in the Democratic Party. He would later serve as a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. For our purposes, his most notable achievement was the publication, in 1852, of a history of the revolutions of 1848, which remains an important and balanced source of information for contemporary scholars: Austria in 1848-49: Being a History of the Late Political Movements in Vienna, Milan, Venice, and Prague; with Details of the Campaigns of Lombardy and Novara: A Full Account of the Revolution in Hungary; and Historical Sketches of the Austrian Government and the Princes of the Empire. Stiles, in his own words,

embraced the means which his official residence in Vienna afforded to collect materials from all sources to illustrate the general history of the times. By constant reference to official documents, some of which were only to be found in the imperial archives, as well as to more public authorities, and by means of his own personal observation, he has endeavored to present a faithful picture of the eventful struggles in Vienna, in Milan, in Venice, and in Prague, as well as full details of the campaigns in Lombardy, in Piedmont, and in Hungary.

 

Stiles's Austria in 1848-49 constitutes an American classic because of the light it sheds on the principles and practice of the United States towards foreign revolutions, national self-determination, and the European balance of power, at a time when Americans were fighting a controversial war with Mexico and nearing a showdown over slavery. In this summary I do not intend to provide a full digest of the history or assess the accuracy of Stiles's account but to give the reader a sense of his perspective and line of argument.

Stiles divided the protagonists of 1848 into three distinct groups: the government party, or Monarchists; the Radicals, or reckless agitators; and the intelligent or moderate reformers. Stiles identified with the third group, although he insisted that he treated the views and actions of all three camps fairly. He was initially optimistic that the Austrian monarchy might be substantially liberalized as a result of the revolution. He believed, however, that a republican government was beyond the capabilities of the mass of the peoples of the empire and the leadership, typically radical, of those who promoted republicanism.


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The European revolutions of 1848 failed across the board in Stiles's opinion, because the movement for change, moderate and radical, was barren of great men.

Individuals of talent, of courage, and of enthusiasm it undoubtedly produced; but no great social convulsion has ever before failed to evoke one or more master spirits, who to talent, courage, and enthusiasm have added the keen perception of character and resolute purpose which are indispensable to the character of a great leader.

 

This included the man who was best positioned to make a difference, Louis (Lajos) Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian (Magyar) cause for autonomy and later independence from the Austrian Empire.

In Stiles's view, Kossuth's critical mistake, and that of his fellow revolutionaries in the Hungarian lands, was the failure to declare independence in the summer of 1848 and to come to the aid of the moderate reformers in Austria, who were caught between the reactionaries and the radicals. As Stiles reported, the conflict over the future of the Hapsburg Empire was many-sided: it included the Croatian, Serbian, and Romanian ethnic groups. These groups, particularly the Croatians, resisted what they regarded as threats to their cultural and linguistic identity by the Magyars. According to Stiles, the government in Vienna had revoked the concessions that it had granted to the Hungarians in April 1848 and "instead of assuming, as was her duty, the province of mediator between Hungary and Croatia, she publicly announced her determination to become a partisan, and to enter the lists against the former and in favor of the latter."


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That action, in Stiles's view, was amply sufficient to justify Hungary in throwing off her allegiance. The government of Austria had

"become destructive of those ends for which it had been instituted," viz., "their safety and happiness," and "it was the right of the people" of Hungary "to alter or to abolish it." Besides, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it was their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

 

Had the Hungarians declared their independence in the summer or fall of 1848, they would not, a few weeks later, when on the frontiers of Austria, have been deterred by any scruples of duty, or fears of the traitor's doom, from obeying the call of the Viennese, and marching upon the capital to their relief.

Had the Hungarian army of twenty-two thousand men, as soon as they appeared on the frontiers of Austria, instead of delaying there, marched immediately on Vienna, Prince Windischgrätz, with his immense army, not having yet appeared, there was no force to obstruct their passage. The hundred and forty thousand fighting men in Vienna, properly organized and officered by Hungarians, with the Magyar army as a nucleus, would have been invincible before any force which Windischgrätz and [Croatian leader] Jelačić combined could have brought against them, and the emperor would gladly have relieved his capital at so slight a cost as the acknowledgment of Hungarian independence.


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Even if the Hungarians had not marched on Vienna then, they later had a second chance when they defeated the Imperial Army in Hungary proper, and once again faced no organized resistance between themselves and the capital.

Had she but declared her independence previously, the noble manner in which she subsequently achieved it with the sword was all that would have been requisite for the full accomplishment of her wishes. The moral force which such a course would inevitably have brought to her cause would have been more effectual than all the bayonets which could be enlisted in her behalf. In that event, the Austrians would never have ventured to seek or Russia to yield the assistance of her myrmidons against a nation which had so gallantly, both by word and deed, established her claims to freedom. There is not a civilized government that would not have cheerfully volunteered to recognize her independence, and even Ferdinand of Austria might have imitated the magnanimity of George the Third of England, and been, as the latter was in the case of the United States, the first to acknowledge an independence which he had found himself unable to prevent.

 

Why did Kossuth hesitate and thus

spare a dynasty whose cruelty and perjury, as he states, were of centuries' duration? Was it humanity, was it fear of consequences, or was it want of nerve that impeded the exercise of his power? In the spring of 1848 he might have thought the public mind unprepared for extreme measures; but if so, why did he lend his sanction to the use of Hungarian troops in Italy, and why, above all, did he, in the fall of that eventful year, permit Windischgrätz, unopposed, to subdue Vienna, and at a blow to place the house of Habsburg in a position of impregnable authority?

 

Stiles concluded either that Kossuth lacked "that resolute and unflinching purpose so indispensable to revolutionary leaders" or, perhaps better put, that he was a reluctant and tardy revolutionary, who too late recognized that parliamentary and constitutional opposition would prove to be insufficient.

He had used every effort to conciliate the cabinet of Vienna; he had forborne to use the power of injury he possessed; he had permitted the Hungarian arms to be employed for the subjugation of Italy; he had looked on while the watch-fires of Windischgrätz and Jelačić encircled Vienna with the girdle of destruction; he had reached the utmost limit of forbearance, and perhaps, indeed, hesitated too long, before he threw down the gauntlet and defied the imperial power.

 

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Stiles, inter alia, rejects another argument made against Kossuth by his conservative opponents—that he was a mere demagogue driven by unscrupulous ambition.

His voice, his pen, his indefatigable industry, his mastership of detail, his vivid imagination, his lofty aspirations, all were employed. A highly sensitive and poetic temperament, a peculiarly active and laborious mind, exhibited themselves in his efforts in rare and striking union; he aroused and armed the people, and, thus aroused and armed, his spirit led them into conflict. It is absurd to deny, as it is impossible to underrate, his efforts during this period; and those who criticize and decry him, would find it difficult to show higher instances of genius, enthusiasm, and devotion to the cause of liberty.

Once Hungary finally declared its independence in April 1849, Kossuth, in Stiles's view, justifiably assumed emergency powers and sought major social as well as political changes—despite the criticism that Kossuth was violating his own stated republican ideals, and that he was suppressing the culture of the non-Magyar ethnic minorities.

But after that decisive act [independence], all the others became a necessary consequence. It was the dictate of the clearest policy and of inevitable necessity to abolish the distinctions of rank and race, and to give to the movement a direction absolutely popular. It was natural that the supreme power should be vested in the hands of the most able and active of the revolutionary leaders; and, if he looked forward to the chief magistracy of the state by the universal suffrage of free and independent Hungary, it was the dream of an honorable and laudable ambition—and, alas! it was but a dream. These efforts were vain: the struggles of the leader and his brave followers were fruitless; and, after proving what heroism, constancy, and skill could effect, after defeating the power of Austria, they were destined to fall before the overwhelming legions of Russia.

 

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Stiles concludes that the failure of the Hungarian component of the European-wide revolutions of 1848 was a historical watershed.

[T]he die was cast, and the struggle—more pregnant in consequences to Europe than any that has taken place since the fall of the Roman empire—commenced. Had Hungary established her independence, Austria must inevitably have sunk into a third or fourth rate power. Had she been able to establish a free Constitution, and, absorbing Croatia, opened to herself the ports of the Mediterranean, the future consequences to the freedom of Europe can not be overrated. The struggle, when once commenced, was one worthy of the utmost effort; and this was not wanting. The labors of Kossuth were Herculean; and, assisted by the most gallant people of Europe, no contest more worthy of the poet and the historian has ever been waged between the opposing spirits of freedom and tyranny, of good and evil, that have immemorially divided the world.

 

Stiles, along with the other American diplomats in Europe, had to walk a fine line between his sympathies and official duties, as he records in the text and appendices of Austria in 1848-49. He was forced to counter the claims of a delegation that purported to bear official American promises of financial and military aid to the Viennese revolutionaries. In December 1848, when a friend of Kossuth approached Stiles and asked him to intervene diplomatically "for the settlement of the differences now existing between the imperial government and the Kingdom of Hungary," Stiles demurred. "I frankly stated, on that occasion, the difficulties which such a step suggested to my mind, arising from the fact that it was a domestic quarrel between the government of the Austrian empire and one of its dependencies, and with which no foreign power could properly have any concern."


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Stiles (as he reported to secretary of State James Buchanan) told the Hungarian intermediary

that it was a subject which the United States had ever regarded with peculiar jealousy, and that I could not, therefore, reconcile it to myself to be in any manner instrumental in committing her; that, besides, so extensive, as I understood, had been the preparations made by the imperial government for the subjugation of Hungary, that it was scarcely to be expected that it would, at this eleventh hour, listen to any proposals of settlement short of the unconditional submission to imperial authority.

 

Stiles' interlocutor responded that Kossuth and the Hungarian government had been unable to communicate its desire for a settlement and reconciliation to the imperial authorities in Vienna. He pleaded for the United States to serve as a conduit of such a communication to avoid the immense bloodshed that would result if the conflict escalated.

I then inquired whether the object for which the interposition was sought was the separation of Hungary from Austria; or, if not, whether it was to gain time in order to make a more successful resistance; that if either of these objects were in contemplation, I could not listen for one moment to the application. On being solemnly assured to the contrary, and that no other end was in view but an amicable adjustment of the impending difficulties, I stated that the only ground upon which I could consent to interfere was that of humanity, and to save the useless effusion of blood; that such an appeal I should not consider myself justified in resisting; but that even in that event, my interference, if approved by the imperial government, would simply go to the extent of opening the door of reconciliation between the opposing parties, and by which the unhappy differences which distract the two countries might be, between themselves and through the instrumentality of their respective authorities, peaceably and satisfactorily arranged.

 

Stiles immediately contacted Prince Schwartzenberg, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressing that "I had no disposition to interfere between the Austrian government and one of its provinces, and that I would only take such action or pursue such a course in the matter as might be agreeable to the imperial government." Schwartzenberg responded that "matters had progressed too far—that they could enter into no negotiation with rebels, and that nothing short of unconditional surrender could now be submitted to by the government."


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A week later, Stiles received an official written plea from Kossuth himself, asking the United States to initiate a negotiation with the imperial government for a military armistice during the winter. Stiles decided again to approach the Austrian authorities, including Field Marshal Windischgrätz, while warning Kossuth:

in the mean time, as the matter is attended with great difficulties arising from the facts, first, that the controversy is a domestic one, and Austria may, consequently, be unwilling to permit of any foreign interference; and, second, that as the preparations for the attack of Hungary on the part of the imperial government are said to be very extensive, and any delay in their operations they may conceive detrimental to their interests, I can hold out to you but little hopes of success in obtaining the desired armistice. For the cause of humanity, however, and to prevent the useless effusion of blood, the only ground upon which I can consent to take any step toward opening the door of reconciliation between Austria and Hungary, and by which the difficulties which now unhappily distract the two countries may be adjusted between themselves, you may rest assured that no exertion on my part shall be spared which may be calculated to effect so desirable an object.

 

Windischgrätz, as Stiles predicted, would have none of it:

"I can do nothing in the matter." "I must obey the orders of the emperor." "Hungary must submit." "I will occupy Pesth with my troops, and then the emperor will decide what is to be done." "I have received orders to occupy Hungary, and I hope to accomplish this end—I cannot, therefore, enter into any negotiations." "I can not consent to treat with those who are in a state of rebellion."

 

Stiles was naturally concerned that his diplomatic activism, however limited, might meet with the disapproval of his superiors in the Polk Administration. "Before closing this communication, I have only to add, sir, that as in this (to me) entirely novel situation, I have endeavored to act with all the circumspection which the delicate nature of the subject so imperiously required; as I have studiously avoided the least step which I thought could in any manner compromise my country," he wrote to the secretary of state, "and as, if any error has been committed, it has been done for the sake and in the cause of humanity, I trust that the course which, without time for special instruction, I have thought proper to pursue in this matter, will not meet the disapprobation of my government."


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As Stiles documents in Austria in 1848-49, Secretary of State Buchanan approved Stiles's actions but offered no encouragement for taking any more ambitious steps in the future.

I am gratified [wrote Buchanan] that your prudence and ability were equal to the occasion. In our foreign policy, we must ever be governed by the wise maxim not to interfere with the domestic concerns of foreign nations; and from this you have not departed. You have done no more, in your own language, than to attempt to open the door of reconciliation between the opposing parties, leaving them to adjust their differences without your intervention. Considering there was reason to believe that the previous offers of the Hungarian government for a reconciliation had never reached the imperial government, and that no other practicable mode of communicating these offers existed, except through your agency, you acted wisely in becoming an intermediary for this purpose alone. Had you refused thus to act upon the request of Mr. Kossuth, you might have been charged with a want of humanity, and been held, in some degree, responsible for the blood which has since been so profusely shed in the war. The president entirely approves your conduct.

 

Meanwhile, a relatively obscure Whig politician from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, and some of his party colleagues put on record their view of how the United States ought to view this and other foreign revolutions.