While revolutions erupted throughout the major cities of Europe in 1848, the United States was engineering a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the presidential election year. After only four years out of the White House, Zachary Taylor brought the Whig Party back to power in 1848. In 1850, he signed a treaty with Britain, guaranteeing the neutrality of any future canal across Central America. However, 1850 is more famous for the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state, abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, organized Utah and New Mexico as territories without reference to slavery, and enforced a stricter fugitive slave law. Once again, the issue of slavery was postponed for future debate.
In 1858, a little-known former congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln (See the Abraham Lincoln SparkNote), ran for the United States Senate as a Republican. Facing off against northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the two politicians offered the essential arguments occupying the northern United States. Lincoln called for the abolition of slavery on moral and nationalistic grounds; Douglas called for government non-intervention on federalism grounds, claiming that though he abhorred slavery, he could not tell another citizens, living in another part of the country, what to do. Douglas won the Senate seat, but two years later, Lincoln won the White House, igniting the American Civil War.
In 1863, under moral and political pressure, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, setting all slaves in the rebel southern states free, though not freeing those slaves in the key border states (that was done only at the end of the war). By 1865, the Union had used its superior personal, industrial, and military resources to vanquish the southern rebels and reunite the country by means of force.
Reconstruction, the period of reunification and repair after the Civil War, began under Lincoln's forgiving hand. After he was assassinated, the radical Republicans, intent on punishing the South and ensuring African-American equality, took control of Reconstruction. Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the Compromise of 1877 and the removal of Union troops from the South.
The details of American history at this time is not absolutely essential to our discussion of Europe in transition. However, it is useful for comparison. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck forcibly united Prussia and the Germanic provinces into the German Empire. Didn't Abraham Lincoln forcibly unite the North and South into an American Union quite similarly? Granted, the circumstances are different in that there was no civil war in Prussia and the provinces; however, in both cases, force was used due to a realistic assessment of politics at the time. The nineteenth century, therefore, was successful at national unification and national healing because of the use of realpolitik, rather than an idealistic approach. However, the United States chose union under constitutional republicanism, while Germany chose union under autocratic monarchy.
We can also compare the United States and Russia in terms of the emancipation of serfs and slaves. The Russian edict in 1861 affected over fifty-two million peasants, while the American proclamation freed less than four million American slaves. In addition, even though the freedom laws were in the context of an autocratic state and a democratic state, both failed. In Russia, peasants were still tied to the land and were required to pay the state for their land and freedom for the next forty-nine years. In the United States, Southern whites took the opportunity of the end of Reconstruction to pass laws that restricted black movements and actions, known as Jim Crow laws. Not until the 1960s did African Americans begin to see the rights they were promised in the 1860s. Why did both emancipations fail? Most probably because one cannot legislate morality or change deep-seated cultural mores in an instant. However, the freedoms acts did eliminate the last vestiges of ancient culture--modernity, even in Russia, was on its way.
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