The World of the 1840’s

Johnson, D. Griffing. Colton’s illustrated & embellished steel plate map of the world on Mercator’s projection: compiled from the latest & most authentic sources exhibiting the recent Arctic and Antarctic discoveries & explorations
. New York: J.H. Colton, 1854. Map.

The North Star came into being at a unique moment in history, one that showed the possibilities of democracy abroad but also highlighted the incompatibility between democracy and enslavement at home. In the United States, the US-Mexican War had nearly reached its conclusion.1 With it came fears of enslavers growing their political power by recognizing slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico. Even outside halls of power, people were vigilant for the creeping influence of slavery in California and other territories. In Europe, several revolutions against kings and emperors on the continent seemed to foreshadow the breaking apart of old European powers. French citizens rose up against their king, Hungarians rebelled against the Austrian monarchy, and Italians fought to create a unified Italian state.2 People in the United States paid special attention to these revolutions, supporting the will of people throughout Europe to form governments that reflected many of the governing principles extolled by the United States.3 Frederick Douglass and the newspaper supported these revolutions, and used them to critique some of the ways that the United States had failed to fully embrace the democratic ideals that its citizens were supporting abroad.

While fewer people would have traveled to Europe than is possible today, the United States and Europe were not entirely separated. Intellectuals and activists like Frederick Douglass traveled between Europe and North America. Even when people could not physically travel across the Atlantic, their words could. Speeches made to the British Parliament, articles from European newspapers and intellectuals, as well as retellings of events in Europe crossed the Atlantic and made it into the pages of The North Star.

Topics and First Articles

For the abolitionist movement, the 1840s was a decade filled with possibilities and pitfalls. Looking at topics generated from a computer-based text analysis, there is a clear focus on former Mexican Territories added to the United States as well as on the Revolutions in Europe. Each topic below is made up of a set of key words that are used similarly over the entire publication period of the paper. Some of these words have fairly obvious connections to the US-Mexican War. Other words, especially those those related to various European countries, may be harder to associate with any particular events.

Looking first at the text analysis topics related to Europe and the Revolutions of 1848, there are some clear trends related to when the topic was most prominent. Mouse over individual points on the line to learn more about what date an article was published or see what percentage of that topic made up an issue of the paper:

Repression of Revolutionswild russia hie oct nov turkey cherry california balsam hungarian sultan ditto turkish walter college refugees hunter russian iron deg 
India and Cottoncotton india england year price star america east united tho land company produce douglass paper american article cheers cultivation natives 
France and the Revolutionfrance french april press tto decree washington ibe tracts goddess republic assembly revolution national domingo colony volume ito king era 
France/John Quincy Adamsadams men france french john great republic paris prison national provisional march women reform lamartine meetings sarah revolution postage tax
Liberty and Equality in the US (in relation to the French Revolution)liberty free tbe states slave great american land france republic freedom soil number proud cent oppression foreign broad revolution blood
Key words associated with each topic. From computer-based text analysis.
From Lajos Kossuth to Lord Palmerston” in The North Star, November 9, 1849. p. 2.

Out of the five topics visible in the graph, only one takes up a significant portion of an edition of The North Star after 1848. That particular topic “Repression of Revolutions”, draws from words that emphasize Russia and the Ottoman Empire. One of the peaks in this topic coincides with The North Star’s publication of a letter sent from the Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth to Lord Palmerston in England. The letter talked about the defeat of the Hungarian Republic in battle through the combined forces of the Austrian Empire (which sought to reincorporate the Republic directly under the Austrian Crown) and the Russian Empire. Austria, unable to reincorporate Hungary with its own forces alone had asked for help from Russia. The second half of this paragraph especially highlights keywords related to Russia. It emphasized that Austria has “Fallen from her position of a first-rate power, she has now forfeited her self-consistency, and has sunk into the obedient instrument of Russian ambition and of Russian commands.”5 Further on in the same letter, Kossuth discussed taking refuge with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul (modern-day Turkey). This article highlighted the repression of most of the revolutions that occurred in 1848, and how that was presented in the pages of The North Star.

Outside of the Revolutions of 1848, the outcome of the US-Mexican War created an anxious environment for abolitionists. The expansion of slavery into new territories meant the continuation of a moral evil, and the continued dominance of Southern enslavers in American politics. These topics all dealt with the admission of new territories and the war itself:

Mexico and the Expansion of Slaverymexico texas california bill webster amendment senate senator compromise clay ward admission committee instructions decision june boundary seward july benton
War with Mexicowar mexico arc churches mexican peace press feb army mexicans oppose texas conquest dumas revival broken glory poetry lafayette annexation
President’s Message on Wars, Revolutions, and the Economywar government public hundred mexico coast country revenue aud system power peace trade wealth president executive thousand tha policy tariff
Key words associated with each topic. From computer-based text analysis.

From the keywords here, how would you differentiate between the various topics? Can you pick out any words in the examples throughout this page? Comparing the graphs of topics related to Europe and Mexico, what similarities do you see in terms of when topics are appearing?

Similar to the topics related to the Revolutions of 1848, the topics related to the US-Mexican War appear in peaks. Overall, there is some limited appearance of key words outside of particular articles but many topics appear in bursts that make up more than 3% of that edition of the paper. The largest peak in these topics occurred in December 15, 1848 and was specifically related to the Presidential State of the Union Address delivered by James K. Polk that was reprinted in full by The North Star. While the speech covered many topics, the key words highlighted a focus on the conclusion of the War with Mexico and the Westward expansion of the United States.6

“The North Defeated” in The North Star. April 26, 1850. p. 2.

One article that utilized many of the key words associated with the topic “Mexico and the Expansion of Slavery” appeared in an article of the April 26, 1850 edition. The article, titled “The North Defeated!”, highlighted the threats abolitionists saw in the admission of states that allowed slavery.7 It further emphasized how these affairs of war intersected with political beliefs that are presented in other parts of the paper. Like the example articles below, “The North Defeated!” expressed outrage at Southern expansion but also the belief that Northern Senators would fail to stick together as a group and resist the South’s political influence. The article specifically argued that “The North is defeated by the votes of its own representatives, as she always has been and always will be.” For abolitionists, the possibility of adding new states that came with the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War fell into a pattern of politicians creating compromises that only sustained slavery. To learn more about the treatment of politicians in the paper, visit the Washington D.C. in The North Star page.

Lists of words can be useful in thinking about these themes, and how people expressed themselves. However they do not offer a complete picture on their own. By looking at the first articles in each edition to The North Star that is available, we can further clarify some of the ways people understood what was happening in Europe and Mexico. These articles highlight themes that were clearly visible in the above excerpts, with a clear focus on comparisons between the United States and Europe. These comparisons often emphasized the ways that the United States failed to live up to its own principles. These feelings are clear in articles like “The North Defeated!”, which targeted Southern enslavers but also Northerners who were seen as either abandoning their principles or having none in the first place. On top of that, these articles critiqued individuals who cheered the revolutions abroad while failing to look at the racial discrimination and abuse that continued to exist decades after the American Revolution.

USA vs EuropeHighlights differences between the United States and Europe. This section almost exclusively portrays the United States in a negative light, or argues against some of the assumptions behind the superiority of the US. This argument often appears in relation to discussions of the Revolutions of 1848.
USA vs EnglandArticle makes an explicit comparison between the United States and the broader British Empire. This is often used in relation to the Empire’s abolition of slavery.
Growth of SlaveryArticle is concerned with the expansion of slavery and slaveholding states beyond their current boundaries. Focused on the spatial expansion of slavery, which is related but separate from enslavement as a source of government/political  power.
Definitions for each label

Within the first articles, the most interesting change is the growing focus on Europe. While some of the overall declines in 1849 could be explained by the collection having more issues from 1848 than 1849, the growth of the focus on Europe and comparisons between Europe and the United States likely highlights the ongoing revolutions and their importance. Below are two larger examples that highlight abolitionist perspectives related to the US-Mexican war and the Revolutions of 1848. Read through the examples to learn more, and see what these topics and perspectives would have meant in practice.

Example Articles

The Growth of Slavery

In the June 29, 1849 issue, The North Star published an article from the Hartford Republican that specifically dealt with the potential growth of slavery in California. It emphasized that friends of freedom needed to be vigilant, or enslavers would bring enslaved people with them as they traveled from the South and across Panama to cities like San Francisco. It also expressed distrust that those in the Senate would do anything meaningful to stop this action. The article concluded by noting:

“We know it is more common to assert that slavery can never get another inch of territory—the last slave State is admitted to the Union, and so on. We wish the indications were sure, that such would be the case. But we have never seen them to be.— Between the lukewarmness and hesitancy of the whig party, and the more decided aversion of the democratic party to a prohibiting act, there is great danger that slavery will clandestinely slip in, and get quietly established before Congress will prove itself the champion of freedom. We hope otherwise, and that is all. But the dangers are very great.”

“Slavery in California” From The Hartford Republican in The North Star, June 29,1849, p. 1.
“Slavery in California” From The Hartford Republican in The North Star, June 29,1849, p. 1.

Reading through sections of this article, what is the author emphasizing? What elements of slavery in California cause alarm, and does the author have faith that anything can stop enslaved people from being brought to the state? Where is the author drawing their information from?

Revolutions Abroad

In 1848, at a ceremony in Rochester celebrating the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, Henry W. Johnson gave a speech touching on many of the themes that defined how The North Star interpreted this moment in history. Johnson, a Black man who had lived his entire life up to that point in the Northeast, would go on to join the American Colonization Society and settle in Liberia.4 There are not many sources that discuss the life of H.W. Johnson, but what could be located is available here. Johnson emphasized the hypocrisy he saw in the support for these revolutions abroad while the number of enslaved people continued to grow at home. Johnson did not criticize liberty as foolish or unrealistic, rather he criticized the current citizens of the United States for failing to pursue these ideas to their ends:

“At the conclusion of my remarks, in reference to France, I spoke of the happy feelings that would animate the bosoms of her patriots, could they come back and behold the present position of their country upon the great question of human liberty…If the shades of your [American] great-hearted ancestry, could come back once more to their native land, they would not contaminate their sacred robes, by suffering them even to touch the soil now stained with the blood of the slave. They might consent for one moment, to hover over their country and drop a tear over her fallen liberties and then bidding her a long farewell, wing their way back to their eternal homes.”

“Address of H.W. Johnson” in The North Star, August 18,1849, p. 1.
Excerpt from “Address of H.W. Johnson” in The North Star, August 18, 1848, p. 1.
Liberty and Equality in the US (in relation to the French Revolution)liberty free tbe states slave great american land france republic freedom soil number proud cent oppression foreign broad revolution blood

Do you see any relationship between the topic “Liberty and Equality in the US” and what H.W. Johnson said? If a lot of the words seem to match up between that topic and the speech, that’s because that speech is the largest occurrence of that topic over the paper’s run! The large, light blue peak in August 1848 coincides exactly with this edition of the paper and this speech. Going beyond just comparing words to articles, what do these words and the excerpts above suggest about this time period and the concerns that people had? Finally, what does this say about the exchange of news between North America and Europe?


Between news coming from Europe and discussions of consequences of the US-Mexican War, The North Star was clearly very invested in the broader world. Even after the US-Mexican War ended and the Revolutions of 1848 failed to overturn the empires of Europe, these events continued to hold significance. They inspired conversations that directly touched upon the conflict between democratic principles and slavery that existed at the heart of the United States since its founding. These events also established connections between abolitionists in the US and revolutionaries in Europe. After the failed Hungarian Revolution, Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth even met with Frederick Douglass during his trip to the United States. All of this goes to show that the abolitionist movement in the United States was not toiling away in solitude. Rather, they intentionally connected with and celebrated movements that shared similar points of view and fought for similar ideals. This generated support for democratic-republican movements abroad, but also served as a call for the United States to live up to its stated values.

These struggles didn’t stop after the 1840s. Today, there are still people speaking out against white supremacy and racial inequality. Just as in the past, activists draw upon the wider world to seek support and learn from others. Have you seen people looking to the broader world for inspiration and guidance in recent weeks and months? How have news events abroad continued to shape the fight for racial justice at home, and how have events in the United States been perceived in the outside world?

People across the country continue to call upon those around them to truly uphold the democratic values that the United States has emphasized. They seek continued engagement in the principles of life and liberty for people of color, especially as the coronavirus pandemic and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have highlighted the continued presence of extreme inequality and white supremacy in US society. H.W. Johnson’s speech to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies decried those who cheered on revolutions abroad while failing to confront discrimination at home. He specifically pointed out white supremacist violence in relation to a Congressional debate that saw “Members of Congress…threatened with assassination-a mob was raised in the Capitol of our country to put down the freedom of the press”. Over 150 years after The North Star was published, similar events continue to occur today. How did you see the paper respond to those events in its own time, and what lessons can be taken from it as the struggle for racial equity continues?

  1. Library of Congress, “Our Documents – Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848),”
  2. Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville, UNITED STATES: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 4-8.
  3. Roberts, Distant Revolutions, 21.
  4. Preston E Pierce, “LIBERIAN DREAMS, WEST AFRICAN NIGHTMARE: THE LIFE OF HENRY W. JOHNSON PART ONE,” Rochester History 66, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 3-4.
  5. Kossuth, Lajos. “From Lajos Kossuth to Lord Palmerston” in The North Star. (Rochester, NY). November 9, 1849. p. 2.
  6. Polk, James K. “President’s Message” in The North Star. (Rochester, NY) December 15, 1848. p. 1 + 4.
  7. “The North Defeated” in The North Star. (Rochester, NY) April 26, 1850. p. 2.