Lajos Kossuth

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Lajos (Louis) Kossuth (September 19, 1802 - March 20, 1894), was a Hungarian lawyer, journalist, one of the most significant politicians, and for a time was regent.

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A statue of Lajos Kossuth
Contents

Early Years

Kossuth was born at Monok, a small town in the county of Zemplén, the eldest of four children. His father belonged to minor nobility, had a small estate, and was an advocate by profession. His mother raised the family as strict Lutherans. Kossuth completed his education at the Calvinist college of Sárospatak and the University of Pest-Buda (now Budapest). Aged nineteen, he entered his father's legal practice. He was popular locally, and, having been appointed steward to the countess Szapáry, a widow with large estates, he became her voting representative in the county assembly and settled in Pest. He was subsequently dismissed on the grounds of using estate funds to pay a gambling debt.

Entry into National Politics

Shortly after his dismissal by Countess Szapáry, Kossuth was appointed as deputy to Count Hunyady at the National Diet. The Diet met during 1825–1827 and 1832–1836 in Pressburg, then capital of Hungary. Only the upper aristocracy could vote, however, and Kossuth took little part in the debates. At the time, a struggle to reassert a Hungarian national identity was beginning to emerge under able leaders – most notably Wesselényi and the Széchenyis. In part, this was also a struggle for reform against the stagnant Austrian government. Kossuth's duties to Count Hunyady included reporting on Diet proceedings in writing, as the Austrian government, fearing popular dissent, had banned published reports. The high quality of Kossuth's letters led to their being circulated in manuscript among other Liberal magnates. Readership demands turned his output into the editing of an organized parliamentary gazette (Országgyűlési tudósítások); spreading his name and influence further. Orders from the Official Censor halted circulation by lithograph printing. Distribution in manuscript by post was forbidden by the government, although circulation by hand continued.

In 1836 the Diet was dissolved. Kossuth continued to report (in letter form), covering the debates of the county assemblies. This new-found publicity gave the assemblies national political prominence. Previously they had had little idea of each others' proceedings. His skilful embellishment of the speeches from the Liberals and Reformers further enhanced the impact of his newsletters. The government in vain attempted to suppress the letters, and other means having failed, he was in May 1837, with Wesselényi and several others, arrested on a charge of high treason. After spending a year in prison at Buda awaiting trial, he was condemned to four more years' imprisonment. His strict confinement damaged his health, but he was allowed to read. He greatly increased his political knowledge, and also acquired, from the study of the Bible and Shakespeare, a thorough knowledge of English.

The arrests had caused great indignation. The Diet, which reconvened in 1839, demanded the release of the prisoners, and refused to pass any government measures. Metternich long remained obdurate, but the danger of war in 1840 obliged him to give way. Wesselényi had been broken by his imprisonment, but Kossuth, partly supported by the frequent visits of Teresa Meszleny, emerged from prison unbroken. Immediately after his release Kossuth and Meszleny were married, and she remained a firm supporter of his politics. The Roman Catholic priests refused to bless the marriage as Kossuth would not convert to Meszleny's religion. Resultingly, Kossuth became a firm defender of mixed marriages.

Journalist and Political Leader

Kossuth had now become a national icon. He regained full health in January 1841 and was appointed editor of Pesti Hírlap, a new Liberal party newspaper. Notably, the government agreed to grant a licence. The paper achieved unprecedented success; soon reaching the then immense circulation of 7000 copies. A competing pro-government paper, Világ, started up but it only served to increase Kossuth's visibility and add to the general political fervour.

Széchenyi, the great reformer, publicly warned Kossuth that his appeals to the passions of the people would lead the nation to revolution. Kossuth, undaunted, did not stop at the publicly reasoned reforms demanded by all Liberals: the abolition of entail, the abolition of feudal burdens and taxation of the nobles. He went on to broach the possibility of separating from Austria. By combining this nationalism with an insistence on the superiority of the Magyars to the Slavonic inhabitants of Hungary, he sowed the seeds of both the collapse of Hungary in 1849 and his own political demise.

In 1844, Kossuth was dismissed from Pesti Hírlap after a dispute with the proprietor over salary. It is believed that the dispute was rooted in government intrigue. Kossuth was unable to obtain permission to start his own newspaper. In a personal interview Metternich offered to take him into the government service. Kossuth refused, and spent the next three years without a regular position. He continued to agitate on behalf of both political and commercial independence for Hungary. He adopted the economic principles of List, and was the founder of a "Védegylet" society – whose members consumed only Hungarian produce. He also argued for the creation of a Hungarian port at Fiume.

In autumn 1847, Kossuth was able to take his final key step. Due to the support of Lajos Batthyány during a keenly fought campaign, he was elected to the new Diet as member for Pest. He proclaimed: "Now that I am a deputy, I will cease to be an agitator." He immediately became chief leader of the Extreme Liberals. Ferenc Deák was absent. Batthyány, István Széchenyi, Szemere and József Eötvös, his political rivals, felt that his personal ambition and egoism led him to assume the chief place, and to use his parliamentary position to establish himself as leader of the nation; but before his eloquence and energy all apprehensions were useless. His eloquence was of that nature, in its impassioned appeals to the strongest emotions, that it required for its full effect the highest themes and the most dramatic situations. In a time of rest, though he could never have been obscure, he would never have attained the highest power. It was therefore a necessity of his nature, perhaps unconsciously, always to drive things to a crisis.

Regent of Hungary

The crisis came, and he used it to the full. On March 3, 1848, shortly after the news of the revolution in Paris had arrived, in a speech of surpassing power he demanded parliamentary government for Hungary and constitutional government for the rest of Austria. He appealed to the hope of the Habsburgs, "our beloved Archduke Franz Joseph" (then 17 years old), to perpetuate the ancient glory of the dynasty by meeting half-way the aspirations of a free people. He at once became the leader of the European revolution; his speech was read aloud in the streets of Vienna to the mob by which Metternich was overthrown (March 13), and when a deputation from the Diet visited Vienna to receive the assent of Emperor Ferdinand to their petition it was Kossuth who received the chief ovation. Batthyány, who formed the first responsible government, appointed Kossuth the Minister of Finance.

With amazing energy he began developing the internal resources of the country: re-establishing a separate Hungarian coinage, and using every means to increase national self-consciousness Characteristically, the new Hungarian bank notes had Kossuth's name as the most prominent inscription; making reference to "Kossuth Notes" a future byword. A new paper was started, to which was given the name of Kossuth Hirlapja, so that from the first it was Kossuth rather than the Palatine or the president of the ministry whose name was in the minds of the people associated with the new government. Much more was this the case when, in the summer, the dangers from the Croats, Serbs and the reaction at Vienna increased. In a great speech July 11 he asked that the nation should arm in self-defence, and demanded 200,000 men; amid a scene of wild enthusiasm this was granted by acclamation. When Jellachich was marching on Pest he went from town to town rousing the people to the defence of the country, and the popular force of the Honved was his creation. When Batthyány resigned he was appointed with Szemere to carry on the government provisionally, and at the end of September he was made President of the Committee of National Defence.

From this time he was a virtual dictator. The direction of the whole government was in his hands. Without military experience, he had to control and direct the movements of armies; he was unable to keep control over the generals or to establish that military co-operation so essential to success. Arthur Görgey in particular, whose great abilities Kossuth was the first to recognize, refused obedience; the two men were very different personalities. Twice Kossuth deposed him from the command; twice he had to restore him. It would have been well if Kossuth had had something more of Görgey's calculated ruthlessness, for, as has been truly said, the revolutionary power he had seized could only be held by revolutionary means; but he was by nature soft-hearted and always merciful; though often audacious, he lacked decision in dealing with men. It has been said that he showed a want of personal courage; this is not improbable, the excess of feeling which made him so great an orator could hardly be combined with the coolness in danger required of a soldier; but no one was able, as he was, to infuse courage into others.

During all the terrible winter which followed, his energy and spirit never failed him. It was he who overcame the reluctance of the army to march to the relief of Vienna; after the defeat of Schwechat, at which he was present, he sent Bern to carry on the war in Transylvania. At the end of the year, when the Austrians were approaching Pest, he asked for the mediation of Mr Stiles, the American envoy. Windischgratz, however, refused all terms, and the Diet and government fled to Debrecen, Kossuth taking with him the Crown of St Stephen, the sacred emblem of the Hungarian nation. In November 1848, Emperor Ferdinand abdicated in favour of Franz Joseph. The new Emperor revoked all the concessions granted in March and outlawed Kossuth and his colleagues. In April 1849, when the Hungarians had won many successes, after sounding the army, he issued the celebrated declaration of Hungarian independence, in which he declared that "the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, perjured in the sight of God and man, had forfeited the Hungarian throne." It was a step characteristic of his love for extreme and dramatic action, but it added to the dissensions between him and those who wished only for autonomy under the old dynasty, and his enemies did not scruple to accuse him of aiming for Kingship. For the time the future form of government was left undecided, but Kossuth was appointed Regent. The hopes of ultimate success were frustrated by the intervention of Russia; all appeals to the western powers were vain, and on August 11 Kossuth abdicated in favor of Görgey, on the ground that in the last extremity the general alone could save the nation. Görgey capitulated at Világos to the Russians, who handed over the army to the Austrians. Görgey was spared – at the insistence of the Russians. Reprisals were taken on the rest of the Hungarian army. Kossuth steadfastly maintained until his death that Görgey alone was responsible for the humiliation.

Exile and Death

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The statue of Kossuth on the Heroes' Square Millenial Memorial, Budapest

Kossuth's career was at an end. A solitary fugitive, he crossed the Turkish frontier. He was hospitably received by the Turkish authorities, who, supported by the British, refused, notwithstanding the threats of the allied emperors, to surrender him and other fugitives to Austria. In January 1849 he was removed from Vidin, where he had been kept under house arrest, to Shumla, and thence to Katahia in Asia Minor. Here he was joined by his children, who had been confined at Pozsony/Pressburg (Bratislava); his wife (a price had been set on her head) had joined him earlier, having escaped in disguise.

In September 1851 he was allowed to leave Turkey on an American man-of-war. He first landed at Marseilles, where he received an enthusiastic welcome from the people, but the Prince-President Louis Napoleon refused to allow him to cross France. On October 23 he landed at Southampton and spent three weeks in England, where he was generally feted. Addresses were presented to him at Southampton, Birmingham and other towns; he was officially entertained by the Lord Mayor of London; at each place he spoke eloquently in English for the Hungarian cause. The agitation had no immediate effect, but the indignation which he aroused against Russian policy had much to do with the strong anti-Russian feeling which made the Crimean War possible.

From England he went to the United States of America: there his reception was equally enthusiastic, if less dignified. Gradually, his autocratic style and uncompromising outlook destroyed any real influence among the expatriate community. Other Hungarian exiles protested against his appearing to claim to be the only national hero of the revolution. Count Casimir Batthyány attacked him in The Times, and Szemere, who had been prime minister under him, published a bitter criticism of his acts and character, accusing him of arrogance, cowardice and duplicity. He soon returned to England, where he lived for eight years in close connection with Mazzini, by whom, with some misgiving, he was persuaded to join the Revolutionary Committee. Quarrels of a kind only too common among exiles followed. Hungarians were especially offended by his continuing use of the title of Regent. He watched with anxiety every opportunity of once more freeing his country from Austria. An attempt to organize a Hungarian legion during the Crimean War was stopped; but in 1859 he entered into negotiations with Napoleon III, left England for Italy, and began the organization of a Hungarian legion, which was to make a descent on the coast of Dalmatia. The Peace of Villafranca made this impossible.

From then on, Kossuth remained in Italy. He refused to follow the other Hungarian patriots, who, under the lead of Deák, negotiated the 1867 Compromise (Ausgleich), and the ensuing amnesty. It is doubted whether Emperor Franz Joseph would have allowed the amnesty to extend to Kossuth. Publicly, Kossuth remained unreconciled to the house of Habsburg, and committed to a fully independent state. Though elected to the Diet of 1867, he never took his seat. He continued to remain a widely popular figure, but did not allow his name to be associated with dissent or any political cause. A law of 1879, which deprived of citizenship all Hungarians who had voluntarily been absent ten years, was a bitter blow to him. He displayed no interest in benefitting from a further amnesty in 1880.

He died in Turin on the 20th of March 1894; his body was taken to Budapest, where he was buried amid the mourning of the whole nation, Mór Jókai delivering the funeral oration. A bronze statue was erected, by public subscription, in the Kerepesi Cemetery. Many regard Kossuth as Hungary's purest patriot and greatest orator.

Many points in Kossuth's career and character will probably always remain the subject of controversy. His complete works were published in Hungarian at Budapest in 1880-1895. The fullest account of the Revolution is given in Helfert, Geschichte Oesterreichs (Leipzig, 1869, &c.), representing the Austrian view, which may be compared with that of C Gracza, History of the Hungarian War of Independence, 1848-1849 (in Hungarian) (Budapest, 1894). See also E. O. S., Hungary and its Revolutions, with a Memoir of Louis Kossuth (Bohn, 1854); Horvath, 25 Jahre aus der Geschichte Ungarns, 1823-1848 (Leipzig, 1867) H Maurice, Revolutions of 1848-1849. Stiles, Austria in 1848-1849 (New York, 1852); Szemere, Politische Charakterskizzen: III. Kossuth (Hamburg, 1853); Louis Kossuth, Memoirs of my Exile (London, 1880); Ferenc Pulszky, Meine Zeit, mein Leben (Pressburg, 1880); A Somogyi, Ludwig Kossuth (Berlin, 1894).

Today the square with the Hungarian Parliament Building is named after him.


Preceded by:
Ádám Récsey
Prime Minister of Hungary
1848—1849
Succeeded by:
Bertalan Szemere

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