What are the most important years in world history over the last 200 years? For those of us in the U.S., no doubt 1941 and 1945, the beginning and ending of World War II, would be at the top of the list—and also the war years of 1917 and 1918 as well as 1861 and 1865 for USAmericans. But 1848 was also a year of great significance.
The U.S. in 1848
** In January, gold found in California led to the Gold Rush. Approximately 300,000 prospectors and others trekked to California—and in 1850 California became a state. But, sorrowfully, in those two years perhaps as many as 100,000 Native people were killed.
** On February 2, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War and ceding to the United States virtually all of what became the southwestern US. (Click here to see what a huge section of the country that was.)
(That war had been opposed by Abraham Lincoln, as seen, for example, in his January 1848 speech, linked to here.)
** In July, the Seneca Falls Convention was held in New York. It was the first ever woman’s rights convention held in the U.S. That significant gathering was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (My 11/10/15 blog article about Stanton mentions the 1848 convention.)
Europe in 1848
** The year 1848 is well-treated in Mike Rapport’s 2009 book 1848: Year of Revolution. The abstract (here) for the University of Glasgow professor’s book begins, “In 1848, Europe was engulfed in a firestorm of revolution.”
According to Rapport, three of the intertwining issues in the European revolutions of 1848 were nationalism; “bitter, often violent, political polarisation”; and the “social question,” that is, the “abject misery of both urban and rural people” (p. x).
In his conclusion, Rapport writes, “The revolutions were seen subsequently as failures, but one should not be too pessimistic. . . . Perhaps the most important achievement was the abolition of serfdom” (p. 400).
** As a precursor to some of the 1848 revolutions and instigator of later revolutions in the world, Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels was published in February 1848. It was a 23-page pamphlet written in German. (The first English translation was published in 1850, and a more recent English translation is available here ).
Marx and Engels were only 30 and 28 years old at the time, and their thinking and activities leading up to the writing of the Manifesto are interestingly portrayed in the 2017 movie “The Young Karl Marx.”
As has been broadly cited, the preamble of the Manifesto begins, “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” And then the first paragraph of the first chapter, “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” is brief and to the point: “The history of all hitherto existing society [that is, all written history] is the history of class struggles.”
Ongoing Issues since 1848
The class struggles Marx and Engels alluded to were seen in the 1848 revolutions—and have been evident, at least to many people, in countries around the world up to the present.
Rapport states that the 1848 revolutions “witnessed the fatal consequences of the perennial tension between . . . the [classical] liberal emphasis on political freedom and civil liberty and . . . the socialist stress on social justice” (p. 407).
While the expressions of the polar tension are not as extreme today, 170 years later, aren’t we still witnessing the same tension in the rhetoric and actions of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats?