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Margaret Fuller's Rome and the problem of provincial American democracy

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Abstract:

Margaret Fuller's visit to Italy as a correspondent for the New York Tribune at the time of the 1848 revolutions gave her a unique perspective on them, not only as a feminist intellectual but also as a commentator on the American relationship with revolutionary Europe. In her Tribune writings she addressed issues at once more partisan and more global than those she had covered inside the United States, including the political condition of Italy as a subject state under Austrian imperial control, and as an object of ridicule by many American observers, and the condition of American slavery. Italian peoples and slaves, in her mind, were, like women, oppressed by a transatlantic patriarchy whose prejudices allowed only for white males to enjoy political independence. Fuller called for American support for the Roman republic, but her sympathies did not reflect the thrust of American opinion. Many Americans did not believe Italians were capable of maintaining republican self-government, which was different, they alleged, from their own version, part of the inheritance of the American Revolution. That heritage conferred a unique American revolutionary ‘exceptionalism'. For these Americans, the 1848 revolutions provided evidence that Europe was impulsive, reactionary and flawed; they saw in them confirmation of the superiority of American race relations and democratic society. After her death in 1850, the American Civil War would confirm Fuller's implicit sense that the United States and Europe were more alike than many Americans of her generation believed or realized. Her critique of American attitudes to the prospect for democracy in Italy provides perspective on the ambiguity of American global leadership today.
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