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Book excerpt: The last time American anti-Enlightenment sentiment soured world opinion on the United States

This excerpt  from The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, by Jonathan Israel, is from the conclusion, about the United States in the 1850s.

The cover of The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848.
The cover of The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848.

This excerpt from The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, by Jonathan Israel, is from the conclusion, about the United States in the 1850s:

The United States ceased to represent a universal model. Worse, prejudice and bigotry rooted in anti-Enlightenment sentiment deploying nationalistic rhetoric, an appeal to conservative values, and the pretext of “exceptionalism” had by the 1850s largely ousted the spirit of ’76.

Nativist reaction against European radicalism and the rise of the Know-Nothing movement, following on from the Mexican War together with revulsion against socialism, effectively ended America’s role as the reputed pioneer of democratic republican modernity. The most influential newspaper editor in Kentucky in the 1850s, George D. Prentice (1802 – 70), was known not for Enlightenment or democratic idealism but rabble-rousing nationalistic chauvinism and support for the Know-Nothings.

If Know-Nothingism had its heartland in the rough interior, observers of the 1852 and 1854 elections were astounded by the strength of Know-Nothingism also in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, most of all Massachusetts where, as elsewhere, it was strongly spiced with anti-Irish sentiment. Among the worst of the displays of bigotry directed at recent immigrants that shocked the immigrant communities were the August 1855 riots in Louisville, resulting in rows of immigrant houses being burned down and around twenty recently arrived Germans and Irish being shot or beaten to death.

All considered, the United States of the 1850s was not an internationally inspiring spectacle. “Our progress in degeneracy,” concluded Abraham Lincoln, in a letter written in August 1855, “appears to me to be pretty rapid.” In 1776, the United States had begun by declaring that “all men are created equal.” Yet the United States Constitution of 1787 accommodated black slavery and nothing was subsequently done to correct that wrong.

“When the Know-Nothings get control,” declared Lincoln with exasperation, America’s national creed would read: “All men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and Catholics.” When it came to that, he added, “I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Excerpted from The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, by Jonathan Israel. Copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Photo credit: Princeton University Press

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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