Keynote Address by István Hargitai
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honor for me to address this congregation today to commemorate Hungary’s struggle against tyranny in 1848 on behalf of those very principles which underlie the structure of our own Republic here in the United States. I have given a lot of thought about what message should I convey to Hungarian-Americans who either were born here in this country or have arrived here in their youth. The latter happens to be true in my case. As Hungarian Americans, we learned early in our school years about this America’s struggle for independence and its efforts to establish a free nation founded on some lofty principles based on the Declaration of Independence of July of 1776. To all Americans freedom and liberty is symbolized by its July 4th festivities and celebrations. John Adams wrote the following to his wife Abigail one day before Congressional approval of the Declaration of Independence: “July, 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty”.
America has a pantheon of individuals who are considered champions of liberty, individuals, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and many others. It is not surprising then, that in 1848 many Americans were sympathetic towards Hungary’s struggle against the Austrian empire in the Spring of 1848. It is also a fact that some Hungarian leaders of that era cited the American War of Independence as an inspiration.
In the early 1830s, a reformist group led by Ferenc Deák came to power in the Hungarian Parliament (Diet). Some of its members looked to the United States as a model, in particular, for its jury trial system and religious tolerance. At around the same time, a group of „Parliamentarian Youth” began to attend the sessions. One member was Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer appointed a delegate on an absent baron. In 1841, Kossuth began a new political journal, Pesti Hírlap, which exposed social injustice and called for reforms, sometimes based on the „capitalism and political liberalism” of Western Europe and the United States.
This attitude characterized the political thinking of the period before the Hungarian Revolution in 1848. In March of that year, caught up in the revolutionary furor that had seized France, Kossuth (as member of the Diet) urged the body to send the opposition’s demands to the Habsburg court. The opposition sought responsible and representative government and civil liberties in a de-feudalized Hungary, as well as „freedom of the press and full equality before the law.” In Vienna, students and workers demonstrated on March 13, forcing Chancellor Clemens von Metternich from power. On March 15, 1848 thousands of students marched in Pest, and disturbances spread around the country.
The revolution started in the Pilvax coffee palace at Pest, which was a favorite meeting point of the young extra-parliamentary radical liberal intellectuals in the 1840s. On the morning of March 15, revolutionaries marched around the city of Pest, reading Sándor Petőfi’s Nemzeti dal (National Song) and the 12 points (their twelve demands) to the crowd which swelled to thousands. Declaring an end to all forms of censorship, they visited the printing presses and printed Petőfi’s poem together with the demands. We are all too familiar what transpired next: Petőfi’s recital of his impassioned poem, Nemzeti Dal (National Song) electrified the multitude as a mass demonstration was held in front of the newly built National Museum, after which the group left for Buda to the Office of the Governor-General on the other bank of the Danube. So did a peaceful mass demonstration in Pest and Buda forced the Imperial governor to accept all twelve of their demands.
On March 18, Emperor Ferdinand agreed to the Diet’s demands: Hungary would remain part of the Empire through „personal union” with the emperor, and a constitutional government would be established. A new Hungarian cabinet was formed, led by Count Lajos Batthyány, with Deák as Justice Minister and Kossuth as the Minister of Finance. The Diet passed the April Laws, which provided for a hereditary constitutional monarchy, a legislature, equality before the law, and an end to restrictions on land use and transfer.
In August, after a new a parliament was elected, the Batthyány Government announced its refusal to support Vienna in the event of a war with Frankfurt, and at the end of the month, Vienna announced that the April Laws were not valid. The Croatian army at the behest of Vienna crossed into Hungary under the leadership of Josip Jelasic but the Hungarian army stopped them on September 29 near Pákozd. On October 3, Vienna issued decrees dissolving the Hungarian parliament and installed Jelasic as a royal commissar in charge of Hungary. In response, the Hungarian legislature created a National Defense Committee headed by Kossuth. Viennese leaders were forced to crush another uprising at home in early October, before turning their attention to Hungarian military efforts.
On January 1, 1849, the Hungarian revolutionary government was forced to evacuate from Pest-Buda, and moved to Debrecen, bringing with it the crown of St. Stephen. Fighting continued throughout the spring, and on April 14, Hungary proclaimed itself an independent republic. The Parliament then elected Kossuth as its President. After a series of lost battles to the Hungarian Army, the Habsburg ruler appealed to the Russian Tsar for military assistance in early May, which came in the form of 200,000 Russian troops entering Hungary and spelling out ultimate defeat and surrender at Világos in August 13, 1849.
As you can see now, Hungarians too have established their own symbol for liberty in their struggle against tyranny in their pursuit of independence and the establishment of a national constitutional government. That symbol is March 15th, 1848, the start of the Revolution and the War for Independence from Austria. In that great struggle men of vision and excellent statesmanship emerged, who are also considered champions of freedom. These names are all familiar to Hungarian Americans, and they are Petőfi, Kossuth, Széchenyi, Batthyány, Wesselényi, Deák and many others.
Today I would like to focus in on one such revolutionary statesman, an individual who is well known even in the United States to show how everyday Americans saw this extraordinary Hungarian effort and its leader, who is none other than Lajos Kossuth and who became known in the USA as the champion of freedom. I believe that the US Post Office in 1958 has issued a stamp in his honor giving him the title Champion of Liberty.
None of the revolutionary movements of 1848 excited so much sympathy in the United States as that of Hungary. Hungary’s attempt in 1848 to establish an independent republic and the picturesque leadership of Kossuth had an almost magical effect upon Americans. In Hungary’s fight for freedom, Americans saw a defense of their own principles. The people watched eagerly the course of the uprising. Abraham Lincoln, representative from Springfield, Illinois, in Congress, presented a resolution of sympathy with the cause of Hungarian freedom. On February 17, 1851, Senator Henry S. Foote introduced a joint resolution, which called upon President Millard Fillmore to invite Kossuth and to transport him to the United States in a national ship. Within the next two weeks both houses of Congress endorsed the resolution. On September 10, 1851, Captain John C. Long received on board of the warship Mississippi, Kossuth, his family and some fifty other refugees. Kossuth, accompanied by his wife arrived at New York on the night of December 4. As his ship came within sight of Governor’s Island, thirty-one cannon shots were fired for each of the States then composing the Union. At the Battery in lower Manhattan, 200,000 people awaited to greet him and gave him an ovation which only two men had ever received – George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.
When Lajos Kossuth landed in New York, Dec. 5, 1851, he was not an unknown personage. He and his native land had been made known to the people of the United States by the Revolution of 1848 and the contest of 1849 for the independence of Hungary. Until these events occurred, Hungary was only a marked spot on the map of Europe, and the name of Kossuth, as a leader in industrial and social progress, had not been written nor spoken on this side of the Atlantic.
At a lavish congressional banquet held in his honor on the evening of January 7, all the dignitaries present were completely entranced by his singularly captivating eloquence. “The ‘Hungarian Whirlwind’ certainly carried away everything,” recorded the Rev. C. M. Butler, chaplain of the Senate, “and mingled all parties into confused mass of admirers, prostrate at Mr. Kossuth’s feet.” Webster offered the toast: “Hungarian independence, Hungarian control of her own destinies; and Hungary as a distinct nationality among the nations of Europe.”
On January 31, 1852, Cleveland Mayor William Case headed a welcoming committee, which boarded Kossuth’s train in Newburgh for the short ride to Cleveland; his arrival was heralded by a round of cannon fire and an excited crowd. After a 1-day rest, Kossuth spoke to a large crowd on the 2nd of Februray in front of the American House Hotel on Superior Ave.; that afternoon, he addressed the thousands who had paid $4 for reserved seats and $3 for general admission at the Cleveland Melodeum. There, Mr. Starkweather publicly addressed him in a highly energetic speech which ended by saluting Kossuth as “rightful Governor of Hungary”.
Kossuth spent 3 days in Cleveland and then he traveled to Columbus in the company of Governor Woods of Ohio. In Columbus he addressed the Ohio legislature and gave the well known historic speech on February 16, 1852 that included some familiar sounding words that later inspired Abraham Lincoln:
“The Spirit of our age is democracy. All for the People
and all by the People; nothing about the people without the People.”
– That is Democracy!
The renowned Ralph Waldo Emerson said in greeting Kossuth on his arrival at Concord Massachusetts on May 11, 1852. “We have been hungry to see the man whose extraordinary eloquence is
seconded by the splendor and the solidity of his actions.” The General Assembly of the State of Ohio adopted a list of Resolutions addressed by the President of the Senate, Hon. William Medill, of which I shall mention only one:
“Whereas Louis Kossuth, Governor of Hungary, has endeared himself to the people of Ohio by his great military and greater civic services rendered to the cause of Liberty, be it resolved by the General Assembly of the state of Ohio that the war in which Hungary was lately seemingly overcome, was a struggle on behalf of the great principles which underlie the structure of our government…
Free and independent themselves, the people of Ohio cannot look with indifference on the great contest in which you are engaged. The history of that fearful struggle which resulted in the achievement of their own independence is still fresh in their recollection. Always on the side of the oppressed, no cold or calculating policy can suppress or control their sympathies.
The cause of Hungary, which you so eloquently plead, and which it is your high and sacred mission to maintain, is the cause of freedom in every quarter of the world.”
Soon it became evident, however, that Kossuth came to the Unites States with far higher aims than raising money for the continuation of the Hungarian War of Independence. He hoped to bring about a fundamental change in US foreign policy: to convince the country that time was ripe for taking an active role in international affairs, commensurate with its strength and to make Americans realize that freedom and democracy in Europe is also of vital interest to the young American Republic.
Today, Hungarian Americans have every reason to be proud that Kossuth then made such an impact on the United States, and we must do our utmost not let his name let alone his ideals be forgotten in this great country. The Kossuth statue erected by the Hungarian-Americans stands tall in Cleveland, commemorating the man “who linked the greatest American ideals, freedom and the determination to fight for freedom, with the idea of Hungary for all eternity.”
Éljen a magyar szabadság, éljen a haza!
Long Live the Hungarian Homeland and Liberty!
The Life of Louis Kossuth, by P.C. Headley, Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1852
Select Speeches of Kossuth, Francis W. Newman, New York, C. S Francis & Co., 1854