We are currently living through what could well be considered the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. With over sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the question arises how the history of political refugees can inform current policy-making today. Historical analogies often conceal as much as they reveal, but one lesson they impart is that decisions about asylum seekers have long-term consequences. The history of the United States offers countless examples for how refugees, if granted asylum, become part of and shape a country’s history. The participation of political refugees in the Civil War is one.
Starting in the spring of 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Although each revolution had its own local dynamic, they also shared a key characteristic: revolutionaries from the Italian states, France, the various German states, all across Central Europe, and Ireland fought for more political representation, social justice, and autonomy. The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the details of their goals—about the specific structure of a unified Germany, or about the extent of political and social reforms in France—but they often invoked the United States’ own revolution as a source of inspiration. Public opinion in the US welcomed the European revolutions; events across the Atlantic reminded Americans of their own history, both as a source of pride and also as standards that they should uphold.
As the revolutions were crashing across Europe, waves of political refugees fled persecution. Some stayed close to home (in England, Switzerland, France, or Belgium), others fled as far as the Ottoman Empire, or crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in search for safety and a new beginning, making political exile in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 a truly global phenomenon. Thousands of former revolutionaries, the forty-eighters as they came to be called, found asylum in the United States.