Louis Kossuth and Young America

Spencer, Donald S., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Graeburn, Norman A., University of Virginia
Shade, William G., Department of History, University of Virginia

"Young America" was not in its beginnings a partisan term. Instead, it represented a widely held belief that the United States had passed a watershed during the 1840s. That decade of expansion, progress and increasing power had sym­bolized "the first flush of exulting manhood" of the United States. That this growth carried with it a moral obligation seemed clear: henceforth the American people should exert their influence on the side of liberal forces throughout the world. By exercising their new power, Young Americans believed, they could destroy the outworn, obsolete institutions of the Old World monarchs, and replace them with republican insti­tutions modeled after their own. This evangelical Americanism shaped the attitude of many Americans toward the European revolutions of 1848. Western Democrats, led by Lewis Cass, built a theory of foreign relations around its tenets; Zachary Taylor's Whig administration adopted it more than once. Abolitionists and Free Soilers joined prominant Southerners in endorsing its principles.

When the revolutions failed, Young Americans focused their attention on Louis Kossuth, an Hungarian rebel who had escaped to Turkey when his movement collapsed. Interest in-­ and sympathy for--Kossuth continued to increase during 1850 and 1851. In the latter year, Millard .Fillmore implemented a congressional resolution offering to bring Kossuth to the United States. His arrival in New York on December 4 sparked a national crusade to help him renew his struggle. Perhaps two hundred thousand New Yorkers gave Kossuth a hero's welcome; contributions of money poured into his headquarters from throughout the country; Congress voted to welcome him in open session--an honor previously tendered only to Lafayette. In the first days after December 4, there was little apparent opposition to the nation's support for Kossuth.

In the weeks which followed, however, opposition did develop. When Kossuth professed a neutral attitude toward slavery, Garrisonian abolitionists pronounced him a hypocrite, and withdrew their earlier endorsement of his cause. When he delivered a speech questioning the continued relevance of Washington's Farewell Address, administration Whigs and Southerners of both parties warned that he was seeking to lure the United States into a military crusade in Europe, and announced that they would oppose his demands for official aid. When Kossuth visited the capital, and realized that he could not win his objectives there, he launched a barnstorming tour through the West, South and New England. The purpose of that tour, he admitted was to mount irresistable pressure upon the federal government to force it to yield to his demands. This tactic failed. In the West, wildly sympathetic crowds welcomed him, but soon lost interest in Young America when he moved on. In the South, sullen and even hostile crowds rejected his appeals for support. In New England, support was strong but politically ineffective. When the major parties wrote their platforms in 1852, each rejected the evangelical Americanism which had typified the national mood six months earlier. Only the Free Soil party adopted Kossuth's principles.

Kossuth's tour marked the climax of agitation for an evangelical foreign policy. After 1852 those elements of American foreign policy which claimed to represent Young America lacked totally the urgency and sense of destiny which had typified the movement before Kossuth's arrival.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Kossuth, Lajos -- 1802-1894, United States -- Politics and government -- 1845-1861

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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