They Almost Migrated To America: Four Super Celebrities and the Allure of the New World
By Manfred Weidhorn
North America was in the 17th century a refuge from religious persecution and, for more secular souls, the possible site of El Dorado. By the time of the 19th century, it became for some people the place where, instead of gold to be found, fortunes could be made. Inspiring as it is for the "only in America" meme, the list of American financial success stories represents only a small portion of the larger tale of the impact of the new republic on the imagination and wanderlust of Europeans. Expanding the timeline back to the 18th century and forward to the 21st – and including people in the arts and sciences – one has a picture of multi-faceted achievement truly unique in the annals of civilisation.
What is left out of the discussion and what stimulates interesting speculation is a listing of some of the writers and leaders who were seriously tempted to go there but for one reason or another never took the leap. As one celebrates the many intrepid souls who made the hazardous journey to a mysterious new world and helped build a brash civilisation, one should not forget the famous persons who almost made it there. Among notable British men of letters or of action who contemplated, mainly in their youth, the big venture were Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, Michael Drayton, Abraham Cowley, John Hampden, Oliver Cromwell, David Hume, James Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brimsley Sheridan, Robert Burns, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Hazlitt, Thomas Love Peacock, S.T. Coleridge, John Keats. Some French cultural icons similarly tempted were Pierre de Ronsard, Madame de Stael, Stendahl, Benjamin Constant, C.A. Sainte-Beuve, Hector Berlioz. Nor should one ignore Chopin and Liszt.
Perhaps the biggest fish that got away – if one may speak so from an American vantage point – was Goethe, the Shakespeare of German literature. But where most of the other dreamers were young men seeking new roots or vocations, the German was a famous man contented with his country and with his long and splendid career. In his old age, he wrote a short lyric which begins, "Amerika! Du hast es besser [America! You have it better!]," and he elsewhere declared, "If [I] were just 20 years younger, [I] might yet be tempted to go to America."
This roster of famous persons daydreaming of the greener grass on the other side of the pond is dwarfed in interest by the spectacle of four historical giants – a German thinker, a German composer, a British poet and a French conqueror – who did not just daydream but came very close to obtaining their transatlantic tickets. Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, Lord Byron and the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte were among the most famous Europeans of the 19th century.
Two Revolutionary Germans
Karl Marx initially led a nomadic life, not out of choice but out of necessity. His increasingly radical politics made him persona non grata in various locales. After spending his first 29 years in his native Germany – in Trier, Bonn, Berlin, Jena, Kreuznach – he responded to the oppressive atmosphere by going to Paris in October 1843. In the following six years, he was expelled from Paris, Brussels, Cologne; returning to Paris, he was immediately banished to Brittany.
That last action prompted his finally leaving the continent, and so in August of 1849 he arrived in London. In that relatively tolerant city, he had at last, without knowing it, found a terminus: He spent there the last half of his life (34 years). Initially, it did not seem to be the end of his travails and travels. Early in his London stay, the idea of moving to America crossed his mind. Actually it had done so a few years before but only as part of a ploy. Expelled from Paris at the urging of the Prussian government, Marx in Brussels (October 1845) gave assurances to the Belgian authorities that he would not participate in political activities. But when the Prussians demanded his extradition, he renounced his Prussian citizenship and declared his intention to emigrate to the United States. He did not leave because this was merely a feint to mollify the authorities.
America seemed briefly on his agenda again in September 1872. The Workingman's International Association, which Marx had been leading for some years, held a congress in The Hague. The movement was beset by factionalism, specifically between the followers of Marx and those of Proudhon, whom Marx wanted to drum out of the organisation. In a surprise manoeuvre, Marx proposed moving all the documents of the General Council, and presumably himself as curator, to New York for safekeeping. The vote was 26 for, 23 against and 9 abstentions. Such a move might have killed the International in Europe. Was this a bluff, an attempt to undo the organisation if he could not run it without a rival? Or did he want to retire and spitefully not allow others take the reins? In any case, nothing came of the proposal, and Marx never saw the New World.
On one occasion, however, going to America became a serious proposition, with, so to speak, suitcases nearly packed for the trip. In the fall of 1850, Marx and Engels, short of money in expensive London, were at the low ebb in their fortunes. One appealing way out was the idea of moving to New York, which was, after Berlin and Vienna, the third largest German city. Among its German immigrants were quite a few radicals and labour activists.
But, despite their determination, they did not make the transatlantic voyage. They simply could not raise the necessary funds from their dubious families. Engels now decided on a different tack: Ending his years of rebelliousness and travel, he joined his father's business in Manchester and soon was able to begin sending money to Marx in London. Hence, America was no longer on the horizon.
One biographer considers this a major turning point in Marx's life because German radicals who moved to New York never again played a role in European affairs. Of course that judgment assumes that a driven man like Marx was no different from all the other, now obscure radicals; would he not perhaps have made an impact in the New World?
Far more compelling was the choice facing another German celebrity, Richard Wagner. Marx and Wagner were almost exact contemporaries, dying a month apart in early 1883. Though equally famous and infamous, they were apparently oblivious of each other. They thrived, of course, in entirely different disciplines, but they had several things in common. One was an interest in revolutionary activity, especially in 1848–9. Marx became thereafter ever more politically radical, while Wagner shed politics and put his revolutionary spirit to work in composing a new kind of opera. Another shared experience was exile from Germany, Wagner living abroad for a dozen years before returning to his homeland, Marx for six before settling in London. The third commonality was an interest in emigrating to the United States. The temptation occurred only once to Marx, periodically to Wagner.
Growing irritated by what he considered the boorish German people, as well as trying to remain one step ahead of his creditors, Wagner often, starting in 1840, looked to America as a possible solution to his problems. In June 1877, that option seemed to be entertained seriously. Facing deficits and lawsuits involving his Bayreuth theatre, he urged the establishment of a subscription list. If that plan were to fail, he declared, he would sell his Bayreuth home – Wahnfried – and go to America with his whole family. Wagner's wife, Cosima, noted in her diary that Wagner had written to someone that in that case "he would not return here again!" She added that King Ludwig II of Bavaria (his patron), hearing about this remark, was "beside himself over the news that R. [Richard] intends to emigrate to America," being aghast at the "horrifying" idea of Germany's losing its greatest genius.
In early 1880, again contemplating the problems associated with the Bayreuth theatre finances, Wagner presented his American dentist in Dresden, Dr N.S. Jenkins, a clear plan: He would build a theatre, a school and a home in Minnesota – of all places! – but only after first raising there a million dollars in a subscription drive. Cosima noted that he had not been so determined in years. "Again and again he keeps coming back to America, says it is the only place on the whole map which he can gaze upon with any pleasure." A month later, in a moment of realism, he felt that he had become too old to do so, but within weeks he changed his mind, as he again had "thoughts of… emigrating to America, and settling down there with our family." Later that year, taking note of the "mass emigration" from Germany, he wanted "to leave the Reich and take out American citizenship." He daydreamed of making a fortune in America. A week later: "I have made up my mind to go to America and thus achieve what I want… to become completely independent." Added Cosima, "He intends to take all the children."
Even in old age, encouraged by some German-Americans, Wagner's dream of a new and, especially, highly remunerative life in America still resonated. America seemed to be all that Germany was not. It was the only place in the world pleasant to think about, and the Americans were the modern Hellenes: "Yes, they will outstrip us! We [Germans] are hotchpotch destined for ruin." When someone spoke of the "admirable qualities of the Germans in America," Wagner replied, "Yes, the emigrants – those are the good ones… The ones who stayed at home were the Philistines." He thus insulted himself, for, in the end, he just could not gather the will to cut his roots and join the shining future in the new world.
A British Romantic Poet
Like Wagner, Byron led a spectacular life. Both men also briefly flirted with political radicalism before exchanging politics for cultural matters. But where Wagner was beset by money problems, Byron faced rather moral outrage over his personal behaviour. He became notorious because of his scandalous love life; there were even whispers of incest. After being snubbed at a socialite party, he was unwilling to tolerate any longer the gossip, the calumny and the spite; lacking the sort of ties that kept Wagner in Germany, Byron left England in 1816 in a huff, never, as it turned out, to return.
He went first to Italy, but where would he settle? One of the possibilities was the United States. For years he had taken a keen interest in that country and its people. Unlike Marx, Wagner and Napoleon, Byron was familiar with a nation whose citizens had only a generation or two earlier been fellow Britons and who still spoke the same language. Reading all the American books he could obtain, he was interested in the educational system and the literature of the new nation. He was knowledgeable about American naval matters. He understood American politics "and gave his sympathy to the Democratic party." He particularly admired Washington, Franklin and Penn.
The Americans, he declared, were the only people "to whom I never refused to show myself. The Yankees individually are great friends of mine. I wish to be well thought of on the other side of the Atlantic." His idea of fame was "to be read on the banks of the Ohio!" His admiration went beyond individual Americans to the idea of America, to what it augured for the future. The American government was good because it was "the government of the whole people, and adapted to their views." They possessed a liberty achieved by the people's "own efforts".
The advantages of America could, however, be ambiguous. Indeed, he had thought at one point of going to America but was deterred by the existence of slavery there. "There is no freedom, even for Masters, in the midst of slaves; it makes my blood boil." Still, he normally remained upbeat about the future: "The use of the same language will do more to unite the two nations than if they both had only one king."
All this curiosity about America was bound to lead to thoughts of travel there. As early as 1817, Byron and his friend Hobhouse planned to visit the United States because, according to an American visitor, Byron wanted to see "our Indians and our forests" and wanted to stand "in the spray of Niagara." In the later 1810s, he talked more frequently of visiting America. Taking leave of an American, Byron said he "should see me in America in a couple of years." He toyed with the idea of actually becoming a citizen of the New World – sometimes of Venezuela (when Bolivar was fighting for independence there) but most often of the United States. When outraged by British behaviour, he threatened "to go to the United States and be naturalised there." Its pull was strong: "Once landed in that country, perhaps I should not have soon left it – I might have settled there."
Byron's Italian mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, was similarly enthusiastic. Indeed, she was indirectly responsible for his earnestly considering such a trip on one occasion. Through Teresa's family, the Gambas, he had become involved in local liberal politics. In early 1821, a small revolt against the ruling Austrian government was crushed. The Gambas were implicated in the plot and expelled from Tuscany and from the Papal territories. Shelley reports from Italy to his wife in July 1822 that "Lord Byron is at this moment on the point of leaving Tuscany. The Gambas have been exiled, and he declares his intention of following their fortunes. His first idea was to sail to America… He seemed at a loss where to go, and was, I thought, on the point of embarking for America." Applying to the American consul in Leghorn for a visa, Byron seemed at long last ready to cross the Atlantic. Indeed he received two separate offers from American captains for a "passage in the handsomest manner," one even proposing to send a frigate to pick him up in Genoa. With "serious thoughts of visiting America," he said that he was ready to go to the "only country which is a sanctuary for liberty." But after contemplating the offers, he declined them, "not wishing to relinquish my Grecian project."
Grecian? The trouble was that he had grown tired of the "monotonous life" in Italy, tired of pleasure, of poetry writing (and, some suggest, of Teresa). He felt a need to prove himself as a warrior as well as a poet, a need for a new direction in his life, for doing some good. An America already liberated did not now have the fascination of either Spain or Greece, where there were movements against oppression which he could join. When the Spanish liberal cause sputtered, Greece became the alternative option. Yet he still remained torn, this time between the East and the transatlantic West: "I think of going to Greece, perhaps to America." Finally, in early 1823, he opted for Greece rather than America.
Being finally in Greece did not, however, end his reveries about the United States. His new plan was, once Greek freedom was won, to perform for the Greeks "one service more, and an eminent service it will be": to become for them "ambassador or agent" to the "free and enlightened" United States and obtain from America recognition of Greece as an "independent state". In April 1824, a "seriously and alarmingly ill" Byron, his mind wandering as he faced death, returned to his plan for building a schooner so that "we will put the last hand to this work [of Greek independence], by a visit to America. To reflect on this has been a pleasure to me, and has turned my mind from ungrateful thoughts."
He seemed to really mean it this time, but within a few hours he was dead.
A French Conqueror
Byron was a younger contemporary of Napoleon, and the two became the biggest celebrities of their era, having reached "the height of glory" at an early age. Augusta Leigh, Byron's half-sister, reports that in 1816 Byron declared that "he considered himself 'the greatest man existing, except Bonaparte,' and then added, 'God, I don't know that I do except even him.'" The conqueror of almost all of Europe, the modern version of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and one of Hegel's World Historical Individuals, Napoleon was arguably the most prominent of all the persons to consider emigration to America. For him, unlike for many others, the idea came at the end rather than the beginning of his career, and it came to someone who had known the ultimate in the quick acquisition of all that the world could offer in wealth, power and fame.
Upon his defeat at Waterloo on June 21, 1815, Napoleon abandoned his army and fled to Paris, his future highly uncertain. He went to his country house outside Paris, Malmaison. Finding himself in effect imprisoned there, he conferred with his advisers about his options. He rejected their advice that he contact either the Emperor Alexander of Russia or the Emperor Francis of Austria. His offer to serve only as a general in the French Army and then leave for America was turned down by the French officials. So the last option was going to America at once. For the first time, going to America as a destination rather than as a pawn in a global chess game or a space on a military map entered Napoleon's consciousness.
On June 25, a British official informed the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon "desired to retire without delay to the United States of America." If Marx, Wagner and Byron toyed with the idea of emigrating to America but never reached the point of – to use modern parlance – making travel reservations, Napoleon did in fact reach that point. As a result, the French Executive committee in Paris asked, on his behalf, the British officials for "a passport and a safe-conduct for Bonaparte… to proceed to America." Wellington, asserting that he had no authority other than to receive Napoleon as a prisoner of war, refused the French request. The British obviously had no intention of letting him go free. The First Lord of the Admiralty ordered that, Napoleon seeking to escape to America, all departing French ships should be seized.
Two French frigates were available at the nearby port of Rochefort. When Napoleon went from Malmaison to Rochefort to undertake the sea trip, he found the British warship HMS Bellerophon outside the harbour. More warships were on the way. He boarded one of the French ships but would not leave Rochefort until he was sure that the captain had permission to sail to America. Calculating the odds of slipping past the British warship before additional vessels appeared, he procrastinated. Waiting for the passports to give him clearance while also being unable to make up his mind whether to act peremptorily without the documents, he lapsed into apathy. There was also an offer by the American consul in Bordeaux of passage on a fast American ship heading to America. Napoleon refused that too. His reasons for doing so remain unclear. He insisted on waiting for the passports he had requested.
As Napoleon vacillated, the Royal Navy tightened its blockade of the French coast, and the two French frigates would no longer be able to get past the Bellerophon. He sent aides to negotiate with Admiral Maitland on the Bellerophon, hoping the latter would not block his going to America. Maitland, waiting for orders, stalled. On July 13, Napoleon's brother Joseph who, using a false name, had chartered an American ship, arrived at Rochefort. He proposed to Napoleon that he, Joseph, pass himself off as the emperor and allow himself to be captured while Napoleon got away. Napoleon hesitated, trying to reassure himself that surely history would not reproach him for preserving his liberty by going to America. No one, he believed, would think that he would return to Europe. He was wrong on the latter point because Maitland had asked how, if the British grant him passage, could he be trusted not to return and start war again? Coming to believe Joseph's plan to be unworthy of his own greatness, Napoleon turned it down.
Finally, at midnight of that day, he decided to seek asylum in England. He had not realised the depths of hard feelings towards him in that country. When informed of that obstacle, he on the next day indicated that if given passports, he "would be happy to repair to America." He seemed still to believe that the British, though reluctant to let him land in England, would at least "let me go to the United States." When the British officially denied the request for passports, Napoleon was jolted out of his vacillation. On July 15, he boarded the HMS Bellerophon and surrendered to Maitland as a prisoner of war. If he still expected, or hoped, to be taken to England, he had not counted on the craftiness of the British officials in keeping him mystified until they revealed that his destination was St Helena.
Once he was in exile on St Helena, the inevitable second thoughts came into play. Three years later, in October 1818, he was quoted as saying, "It was a serious error to come among the English and be sent to St Helena, for if I were in America all would be well… It was a great mistake." One fact that made the American option alluring was that quite a few French officers were, in the wake of defeat, gravitating to the United States. Indeed a goodly number of Napoleon's relatives and followers wanted to settle there, with him as their leader.
The American option was nevertheless not completely closed. An English captain offered in 1816 to liberate Napoleon and take him to America for "a million dollars, to be paid on landing." Napoleon rejected the plan, saying that it is a "seductive picture but it would be madness." There were rumours in July of an American preparing a ship for the purpose of transporting Napoleon to America. But nothing came of these plans.
So it is likely that in this brief interval after Waterloo he acted with uncharacteristic sloth because the option of going to America did not seem to be the best choice to be had. He might well have regarded a stay in America as only an interlude abroad before a new opportunity in the roiling cauldron that was post-imperial French politics presented itself. He was, after all, relatively young. Besides, hope, which is unquenchable, is often just another word for illusion.
These four cases show that it was not just the poor, the oppressed and the exploited for whom America held great promise. For some giants of European culture and history, as much as for any hungry peasant, there came moments when defeat or frustration, hope or illusion, evoked the glittering image of a fresh start, a beckoning new world. These four men, among the greatest modern-style celebrities of the 19th century, were attracted to America for different, albeit sometimes overlapping, reasons. Marx sought a place where he could write and agitate without being hounded. Wagner, like many humble people of his time, was in good part fixated on the money-making aspect of the New World. If Wagner was too deeply rooted in Germany to make the move to America, Byron suffered from too much rootlessness to settle there. Napoleon differed from the other three in that the American option was something that dropped out of the blue and was for him a last attempt to save his life or at least his career, if not a cunning step back before taking two steps forward. America did not intrigue him the way it intrigued the other three, as something special. A remote place, it was just a desperate choice when all other choices failed – not a way of embracing a brave new world.
How different might American civilisation have been if Marx, Wagner, Byron and Napoleon had succeeded in getting there? Would they have, like those who did in fact take the fateful journey – e.g. Hamilton, Carnegie, Einstein – have left their stamp on the United States? To wit, would Marx have fostered an American version of socialist doctrine and parties; would Byron have brought Don Juan to additional adventures in the New World; would Wagner have written an opera about Columbus; would Napoleon have plotted a takeover of the Capitol building and then embarked on conquests of Canada and Mexico?
We are, of course, only daydreaming. These men might well not have become famous doers and thinkers if they had been placed in different circumstances. Instead of their changing America, it might have changed them. Succumbing to American enterprise and affluence, they might have turned into bourgeois Philistines and played a diminished role in history, might have missed their rendezvous with destiny.
Considering how their transatlantic crossing might have changed their greatness or brought more troubles than blessings to America, it is just as well that they only dreamed of going there. In her biography of Cromwell, Antonia Frazer paraphrases a comment by Cotton Mather on Cromwell's not coming to America: "America was either spared much trouble or some unrealised greatness." She proceeds to express a view of the subject of her book that applies to these four celebrities: "The dramatic possibilities of Cromwell's career in the New World rather than the Old makes an interesting subject of speculation." It certainly does, but common sense reminds us that counterfactual history is like love – irresistible, yet often in the end monumentally foolish. The facts, for better or worse, always have the last word.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019