Monday, August 19, 2013

The Statue in the Capital Building - 03/22/2013

One Hundred and Sixty Five Years Ago, Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth led a revolution that drew the admiration of the Western world. Under the slogans of liberty and equality, Kossuth sought a democratic republic for the Hungarian-administered sections of the Hapsburg Empire, run from Vienna, and the Hungarian struggle was the front-page topic of the international press, including, notably, the journal run by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
            Few countries were so taken with Kossuth and his revolution as the United States of America. The pro-Hungarian bias in America was profound, and almost completely unrelated to ethnicity. They were democrats like us, and they sought to create a republic, as had we. Of course, to the extent that America was an immigrant country and ethnic Hungarians made up some of its population, they were also “us” in fact, but the same could be said for virtually every ethnicity in Europe.
This identification of the USA with Kossuth and the Hungarian cause was strongly reinforced by America’s sense of vulnerability. Barely seventy years old in 1848, American democracy was among the very few republics in an international system still populated largely by Kingdoms and Empires, and knew itself to be so. Indeed, US President Zachary Taylor saw in Kossuth and Hungary the opportunity both to shore up his domestic support and to mark America’s grand entry onto the stage of international politics. The US President even sent an emissary to Europe to recognize Kossuth’s Hungary, which only a combination of natural caution, Austrian espionage, and the rapid collapse of the revolution managed to prevent.
Thus, with the help of official American intervention, Kossuth arrived in New York at the beginning of December 1851, riding high on a wave popularity that few foreign leaders have ever enjoyed, before or since. The Kossuth phenomenon was greatly aided by the coincidental launching of a new daily newspaper, the New York Times, which made of Kossuth’s visit the platform for its debut before the American public. The New York Times followed Kossuth’s every step and every word, describing or repeating all of them in over 600 articles, including detailed description of each plate on the menu of the many multi-course meals in the dizzying number of speaking engagements held for him throughout the country to raise money for the Hungarian cause.
            The extent of the commitment of Washington elites is illustrated by the case of Francis Bowen. The extraordinary Professor Bowen held the Chair of History at Harvard College and ran the most influential American literary journal at the time, the North American Review. Bowen wrote three powerful articles on an aspect of Kossuth’s revolution of which no one else dared speak, entitled The War between the Races in Hungary, The Politics of Europe and The Rebellion of the Slavonic, Wallachian and German Hungarians against the Magyars.  Along with the campaign to discredit Bowen as a “falsifier” of history and “slanderer of Hungary,” and to deny any Hungarian abuse of other ethnic groups, the political pressure from Washington was so great that Harvard was compelled to deprive Bowen of his chair, although he was enthusiastically rehired as Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity on the condition that he no longer write about the unspeakable. According to the head of the Massachusetts Senate at the time, “a man who is not sympathetic to the Hungarian cause was unfit to teach history.”
All of this was possible because, along with democratic and republican aims, America and its Hungarian visitor shared yet one more thing – a canker at the heart of their revolutionary projects. Kossuth sought liberty and equality only for the privileged Hungarian and German ethnic groups (a third group, the Szeklers becoming assimilated with the Hungarian), while the Romanians and Southern Slavs were denied both. Although America was fervently dedicated to liberty and equality it is impossible to ignore the fact that, through the mid-19th century, those boons were granted only to European Americans.
Native Americans – “Red Indians” – were viewed as dangerous barbarians to be eliminated while “Negroes” were viewed as beasts of burden and consigned to slavery (indeed, President Taylor, who served until July 1850, owned slaves himself). The extent to which American liberalism co-existed with extraordinary racial chauvinism, even amongst the most convinced of liberal democrats, is strikingly illustrated in the 1876 call by the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, which replaced the North American Review as the molder of US intellectual attitudes. America’s leading man of letters at the time, William Dean Howells, advocated the “extermination of the red savages of the plains,” and characterized the “red man” as “a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence.”
The sharing of both genuinely democratic and deeply chauvinist attitudes by 19th century US elites and Hungarian revolutionaries explains something of the failure of disenfranchised Romanian majorities to gain a hearing for their plight in the United States. Over the following decades the immigrant-based American republic would find itself compelled to excise this canker, if not all of its consequences. In the aftermath of its failed revolutionary experiment, Hungary would be led down a different path.
Consequently, the lot of Romanians in Transylvania changed very little after the 1848 revolution. In great contrast to the liberation of the serfs in the rest of Europe, Romanians remained under a neo-serfdom barely discernible from their pre-1848 status. British travel author John Paget noted in 1850 that while “the rest of the inhabitants” enjoyed “nearly equal rights” in Transylvania, the Romanians occupied the same place there as did “the native Indians and negroes in America.” Fifteen years later another British author, Charles Boner, who married into one of the ruling Hungarian families in Transylvania, claimed the Romanians to be “a wild horde, without a trace of civilization” that “pillaged, burned, and murdered” and “were little or no better than a tribe of Red Indians.” Hungarian officialdom was no less chauvinistic, shamelessly affirming that “you can yoke [Romanians] like oxen, from whom they only differ in that they can speak.” (Kossuth Hirjlapja, literally, Kossuth’s Newsletter, 24 October 1848)
            When Budapest finally gained greater freedom from Vienna through the transformation of the Hapsburg Empire into the Dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in the Ausgleich of 1867, their treatment became harsher still as Hungarian elites attempted to eradicate the Romanian/Wallach ethnicity and assimilate them through ever more forceful measures, justified in the official media with the argument that it was “natural that Hungarians should develop to the detriment of the other nationalities which they conquered and assimilated [and] not at all in the interest of the state that the nationalities’ social status should progress.” (Budapesti Hírlap, No. 345, 1891)  The situation did not improve for the next fifty years, on the contrary, which in large part explains the strength of the desire for unification with the Romanian Kingdom, not only among Romanians but among other non-Hungarian ethnic groups in the region (witness the stand of the
Saxon Pastors Stephan Ludwig Roth and Karl Obert).  

This blog appeared in Romanian translation at 

Friedrich Engels, “The Magyar Stuggle,” Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung, no. 194, 19 January 1849,  
John Paget, Hungary and Transylvania; With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political, and Economical, volume II, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1850

Charles Boner, Transylvania; Its Products and Its People, London, Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1865

T. Mills Kelly, “America's First Attempt at Intervention in East Central Europe,” East European Quarterly, no. 1, vol. 9 (Spring 1995),

Thomas Bender, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History, NY, Hill and Wang, 2006

Augustus Maverick, Henry J. Raymond and the New York Press, for Thirty Years: Progress of American Journalism from 1840 to 1870, Hartford, Conn, A. S. Hale And Company, and Chicago, Geo. W. Rogers, 1870,

Elmer Davis, History of the New York Times, 1851-1921, New York, The New York Times, 1921,

Francis Bowen, “The War of Races in Hungary,” The North American Review, vol. 70, no. 146 (January 1850),

“The Kossuth Dinner. Magnificent Banquet. Kossuth’s Great Speech,” The New York Times, 12 December 1851

Francis Bowen, “The Rebellion of the Slavonic, Wallachian and German Hungarians against the Magyars,” The North American Review, vol. 72, no. 150 (January 1851),

Robert Carter, The Hungarian Controversy: An Exposure of the Falsifications and Perversions of the Slanderers of Hungary, Boston, Redding & Company, 1852,

R. W. Seton-Watson, Racial Problems in Hungary, London, A. Constable & Co., Ltd, 1908,

1 comment:

  1. Typo:
    (indeed, President Taylor, who served until July 1950, owned slaves himself)

    ...the year should be 1850