Lajos Kossuth, [aka Louis] the Hungarian political reformer and leader of the 1848-1849 revolution for Hungarian independence, was one of the greatest statesmen and orators of the mid 19th century. He was a prominent figure, well known in the United States and Europe for his leadership of the democratic forces who sought Hungarian independence from Austrian domination. During his exile, [See the rest of his bio below speech] he toured the United States in 1851-1852, American journalist Horace Greeley said of Kossuth: “Among the orators, patriots, statesmen, exiles, he has, living or dead, no superior.”
Speech at a Washington Banquet, Jan. 6th, 1852, The Banquet given by a large number of the Members of the two Houses of Congress to Kossuth took place at the National Hotel, in Washington City. The number present was about two hundred and fifty. The Hon. Wm. R. King, of Alabama, president of the Senate, presided. On his right sat Louis Kossuth, and on his left the Hon. Daniel Webster, Secretary of State. On the right of Kossuth1 at the same table, sat the Hon. Linn Boyd, speaker” of the House of Representatives. Besides other distinguished guests who responded to toasts, are named Hon. Thomas Corwin, Secretary of the Treasury, and Hon. Alex. H. H. Stuart, Secretary of the Interior. Also in attendance were Judge Wayne, of the Supreme Court of the United States; Mr. Stanton, of Tennessee; General Shields, Senator for Illinois, Chairman of the Committee of Military Affairs in the Senate; and many other dignitaries of the United States.
NOVELTIES IN AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM
Sir, though I have a noble pride in my principles, and the inspiration of a just cause, still I have also the consciousness of my personal insignificance. Never will I forget what is due from me to the Sovereign Source [referring to the Hungarian people] of my public capacity. This I owe to my nation’s dignity; and therefore, respectfully thanking this highly distinguished assembly in my country’s name, I have the boldness to say that Hungary well deserves your sympathy; that Hungary has a claim to protection, because it has a claim to justice. But as to myself, I am well aware that in all these honours I have no personal share. Nay, I know that even that which might seem to be personal in your toast, is only an acknowledgment of a historical fact, very instructively connected with a principle valuable and dear to every republican heart in the United States of America. As to ambition, I indeed never was able to understand how anybody can love ambition more than liberty. But I am glad to state a historical fact, as a principal demonstration of that influence which institutions exercise upon the character of nations.
We Hungarians are very fond of the principle of municipal self-government, and we have a natural horror against centralization. That fond attachment to municipal self-government, without which there is no provincial freedom possible, is a fundamental feature of our national character. We brought it with us from far Asia a “thousand years ago, and we preserved it throughout the vicissitudes of ten centuries. No nation has perhaps so much struggled and suffered for the civilized Christian world as we. We do not complain of this lot. It may be heavy, but it is not inglorious. Where the cradle of our Saviour stood, and where His divine doctrine was founded, there now another faith rules: the whole of Europe’s armed pilgrimage could not avert this fate from that sacred spot, nor stop the rushing waves of Islamism from absorbing the Christian empire of Constantine. We stopped those rushing waves. The breast of my nation proved a breakwater to them. We guarded Christendom, that Luthers and Calvins might reform it. It was a dangerous time, and its dangers often placed the confidence of all my nation into one man’s hand. But there was not a single instance in our history where a man honoured by his people’s confidence deceived them for his own ambition. The man out of whom Russian diplomacy succeeded in making a murderer of his nation’s hopes, gained some victories when victories were the chief necessity of the moment, and at the head of an army, circumstances gave him the ability to ruin his country; but he never had the people’s confidence. So even he is no contradiction to the historical truth, that no Hungarian whom his nation honoured with its confidence was ever seduced by ambition to become dangerous to his country’s liberty. That is a remarkable fact, and yet it is not accidental; it springs from the proper influence of institutions upon the national character. Our nation, through all its history, was educated in the school of local self-government; and in such a country, grasping ambition having no field, has no place in man’s character.
The truth of this doctrine becomes yet more illustrated by a quite contrary historical fact in France. Whatever have been the changes of government in that great country—and many they have been, to be sure—we have seen a Convention, a Directorate, Consuls, and one Consul, and an Emperor, and the Restoration, and the Citizen King, and the Republic; through all these different experiments centralization was the keynote of the institutions of France—power always centralized; omnipotence always vested somewhere. And, remarkable indeed, France has never yet raised one single man to the seat of power, who has not sacrificed his country’s freedom to his personal ambition!
It is sorrowful indeed, but it is natural. It is in the garden of centralization that the venomous plant of ambition thrives. I dare confidently affirm, that in your great country there exists not a single man through whose brains has ever passed the thought, that he would wish to raise the seat of his ambition upon the ruins of your country’s liberty, if he could. Such a wish is impossible in the United States. Institutions react upon the character of nations. He who sows wind will reap storm. History is the revelation of Providence. The Almighty rules by eternal laws not only the material but also the moral world; and as every law is a principle, so every principle is a law. Men as well as nations are endowed with free-will to choose a principle, but, that once chosen, the consequences must be accepted. , With self-government is freedom, and with freedom is justice and patriotism. With centralization is ambition, and with ambition dwells despotism. Happy your great country, sir, for being so warmly attached to that great principle of self-government. Upon this foundation your fathers raised a home to freedom more glorious than the world has ever seen. Upon this foundation you have developed it to a living wonder of the world. Happy your great country, sir! that it was selected by the blessing of the Lord to prove the glorious practicability of a federative union of many sovereign States, all preserving their State-rights and their self-government, and yet united in one—every star beaming with its own lustre, but altogether one constellation on mankind’s canopy.
Upon this foundation your free country has grown to a prodigious power in a surprisingly brief period, a power which attracts by its fundamental principle. You have conquered by it more in seventy-five years than Rome by arms in centuries. Your principles will conquer the world. By the glorious example of your freedom, welfare, and security, mankind is about to become conscious of its aim. The lesson you give to humanity will not be lost. The respect for State-rights in the Federal Government of America, and in its several States, will become an instructive example for universal toleration, forbearance, and justice to the future States, and Republics of Europe. Upon this basis those mischievous questions of language-nationalities will be got rid of, which cunning despotism has raised in Europe to murder liberty. Smaller States will find security in the principle of federative union, while they will preserve their national freedom by the principle of sovereign self-government; and while larger States, abdicating the principle of centralization, will cease to be a blood-field to unscrupulous usurpation and a tool to the ambition of wicked men, municipal institutions will ensure the development of local elements; freedom, formerly an abstract political theory, will be brought to every municipal hearth; and out of the welfare and contentment of all parts will flow happiness, peace, and security for the whole.
That is my confident hope. Then will the fluctuations of Germany’s fate at once subside. It will become the heart of Europe, not by melting North Germany into a Southern frame, or the South into a Northern; not by absorbing historical peculiarities into a centralized omnipotence; not by mixing all in one State, but by federating several sovereign States into a Union like yours.
Upon a similar basis will take place, the national regeneration of Slavonic States, and not upon the sacrilegious idea of Panslavism [a political and cultural movement originally emphasizing the cultural ties between the Slavic peoples but later associated with Russian expansionism], which means the omnipotence of the Czar. Upon a similar basis shall we see fair Italy independent and free. Not unity, but union will and must become the watchword of national members, hitherto torn rudely asunder by provincial rivalries, out of which a crowd of despots and common servitude arose. In truth it will be a noble joy to your great Republic to feel that the moral influence of your glorious example has worked this happy development in mankind’s destiny; nor have I the slightest doubt of the efficacy of that example.
But there is one thing indispensable to it, without which there is no hope for this happy issue. It is, that the oppressed nations of Europe become the masters of their future, free to regulate their own domestic concerns. And to this nothing is wanted but to have that “fair play” to all, for all, which you, sir, in your toast, were pleased to pronounce as a right of my nation, alike sanctioned by the law of nations as by the dictates of eternal justice. Without this “fair play” there is no hope for Europe—no hope of seeing your principles spread.
Yours is a happy country, gentlemen. You had more than fair play. You had active and effectual aid from Europe in your struggle for independence, which, once achieved, you used so wisely as to become a prodigy of freedom and welfare, and a lesson of life to nations.
But we in Europe—we, unhappily, have no such fair play. With us, against every pulsation of liberty all despots are united in a common league; and you may be sure that despots will never yield to the moral influence of your great example. They hate the very existence of this example. It is the sorrow of their thoughts, and the incubus of their dreams. To stop its moral influence abroad, and to check its spread at home, is what they wish, instead of yielding to its influence.
We shall have no fair play. The Cossack already rules, by Louis Napoleon’s usurpation, to the very borders of the Atlantic Ocean. One of your great statesmen—now, to my deep sorrow, bound to the sick bed of far advanced age [Henry Clay]— (alas! that I am deprived of the advice which his wisdom could have imparted to me)—your great statesman told the world thirty years ago that Paris was transferred to St. Petersburg. What would he now say, when St. Petersburg is transferred to Paris, and Europe is but an appendage to Russia?
Alas! Europe can no longer secure to Europe fair play. England only remains; but even England casts a sorrowful glance over the waves. Still, we will stand our ground, “sink or swim, live or die.” You know the word; it is your own. We will follow it; it will be a bloody path to tread. Despots have conspired against the world. Terror spreads over Europe, and persecutes by way of anticipation. From Paris to Pesth [Pesth; Budapest The capital and largest city of Hungary] there is a gloomy silence, like the silence of nature before the terrors of a hurricane. It is a sensible silence, disturbed only by the thousandfold rattling of muskets by which Napoleon prepares to crush the people who gave him a home when he was an exile, and by the groans of new martyrs in Sicily, Milan, Vienna, and Pesth. The very sympathy which I met in England, and was expected to meet here, throws my sisters into the dungeons of Austria. Well, God’s will be done! The heart may break, but duty will be done. We will stand our place, though to us in Europe there be no “fair play.” But so much I hope, that no just man on earth can charge me with unbecoming arrogance, when here, on this soil of freedom, I kneel down and raise my prayer to God: “Almighty Father of Humanity, will thy merciful arm not raise up a power on earth to protect the law of nations when there are so many to violate it?” It is a prayer and nothing else. What would remain to the oppressed if they were not even permitted to pray? The rest is in the hand of God.
Sir, I most fervently thank you for the acknowledgment that my country has proved worthy to be free. Yes, gentlemen, I feel proud at my nation’s character, heroism, love of freedom and vitality; and I bow with reverential awe before the decree of Providence which has placed my country into a position such that, without its restoration to independence, there is no possibility for freedom and independence of nations on the European continent. Even what now in France is coming to pass proves the truth of this. Every disappointed hope with which Europe looked towards France is a decree more added to the importance of Hungary to the world. Upon our plains were fought the decisive battles for Christendom; there will be fought the decisive battle for the independence of nations, for State rights, for international law, and for democratic liberty. We will live free, or die like men; but should my people be doomed to die, it will be the first whose death will not be recorded as suicide, but as a martyrdom for the world, and future ages will mourn over the sad fate of the Magyar race, doomed to perish, not because we deserved it, but because in the nineteenth century there was nobody to protect ” the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
But I look to the future with confidence and with hope. Manifold adversities could not fail to impress some mark of sorrow upon my heart, which is at least a guard against sanguine illusions. But I have a steady faith in principles. Once in my life indeed I was deplorably deceived in my anticipations, from supposing principle to exist in quarters where it did not. I did not count on generosity or chivalrous goodness from the governments of England and France, but I gave them credit for selfish and instinctive prudence. I supposed them to value Parliamentary Government, and to have foresight enough to know the alarming dangers to which they would be exposed, if they allowed the armed interference of Russia to overturn historical, limited, representative institutions. But France and England both proved to be blind, and deceived me. It was a horrible mistake, and has issued in a horrible result. The present condition of Europe, which ought to have been foreseen by those governments, exculpates me for having erred through expecting them to see their own interests. Well, there is a providence in every fact. Without this mistake the principles of American republicanism would for a long time yet not have found a fertile soil on that continent, where it was considered wisdom to belong to the French school. Now matters stand thus: that either the continent of Europe has no future at all, or this future is American republicanism. And who can believe that two hundred millions of that continent, which is the mother of such a civilization, are not to have any future at all? Such a doubt would be almost blasphemy against Providence. But there is a Providence indeed—a just, a bountiful Providence, and in it I trust, with all the piety of my religion. I dare to say my very self was an instrument of it. Even my being here, when four months ago I was yet a prisoner of the league of European despots in far Asia, and the sympathy which your glorious people honours me with, and the high benefit of the welcome of your Congress, and the honour to be your guest, to be the guest of your great Republic — I, a poor exile — is there not a very intelligible manifestation of Providence in it ? — the more, when I remember that the name of your guest is by the furious rage of the Austrian tyrant, nailed to the gallows.
I confidently trust that the nations of Europe have a future. I am aware that this future is vehemently resisted by the bayonets of absolutism; but I know that though bayonets may give a defence, they afford no seat to a prince. I trust in the future of my native land, because I know that it is worthy to have one, and that it is necessary to the destinies of humanity. I trust to the principles of republicanism; and, whatever may be my personal fate, so much I know, that my country will preserve to you and your glorious land an everlasting gratitude.
Continuation of Kossuth biography:
In 1832 he was designated a substitute to represent a local noble in the Hungarian Diet (national parliament). Kossuth, a prolific writer and editor, produced a record of the Diet’s proceeding as well as other newspapers and journals. In 1837, his advocacy of political reform and national independence led to his imprisonment for three years by the Austrian government. During his confinement, he taught himself English by studying the Bible and Shakespeare.
After his release from prison in 1840, Kossuth became the editor of the “Pesti Hirlap,” or Pest Journal. The Pest Journal advocated political reform and an independent legislature for Hungary. In 1847 Kossuth was elected to the Diet as a representative of the county of Pest. Kossuth continued to spread his ideas of independence, and individual liberty and made brilliant speeches demanding a constitution for Hungary. In 1848, Kossuth’s campaigns and demands earned Hungary its own separate constitution from Austria. After the new government was formed, Kossuth was named the Minister of Finance. Shortly thereafter, revolution broke out across Europe. On September 28, 1848, after five months of serving as the minister of Finance, he assumed full control of the revolution in Hungary. He gathered, strengthened, and armed his “revolutionary army.” Not satisfied with their autonomous constitution, he demanded his county’s independence from Austrian rule. In the spring of 1849, Kossuth rallied against the Habsburg monarchy. On April 14, 1849, the Hungarian Diet, inspired by Kossuth, proclaimed the complete independence of Hungary from Austria and deposed the Habsburg Dynasty. The Hungarian declaration of independence was influenced by the American document. At the same time the Diet elected Kossuth “governor-president” and charged him to render an account of his actions to the parliament. Hungary was the last bastion of the democratic revolutions of 1848 to remain standing against the forces of absolutism, and Hungarian developments were carefully followed with considerable sympathy by the governments and people of Europe and the United States.
The inability of the Austrian government to reestablish its authority was a great concern to the autocratic government of Russia. Czar Nicholas I offered to aid the Austrians in suppressing the Hungarian revolution and that offer was accepted by the Austrians. As a result the Russian imperial forces, allies to the Austrians, declared war on the Hungarian Republic. The Russian armies brought the revolution to a quick and bloody end.
After his defeat, Kossuth fled to Turkey where he spent two years in exile. The governments of Great Britain, The United States, and other West European nations successfully pressured the Turkish Sultan to refuse Austrian and Russian demands for Kossuth’s extradition. They were able to arrange for his departure from Turkey, and on September 10, 1851, he steamed from the Turkish port of Smyrna (now Izmir) aboard the U. S. Navy’s frigate Mississippi. After brief stops in France and Britain, he arrived in New York City on December 5, 1851, to great public acclaim. His triumphant six-month tour throughout the United States was an unprecedented popular success.
Although Kossuth did not achieve his goal of winning official United States government support and recognition for continuing his struggle for Hungarian independence, his visit did leave a permanent legacy in America. He gave several hundred speeches in all parts of the United States, including separate addresses to both Houses of Congress. During this tour 250 poems, dozens of books, hundreds of pamphlets, and thousands of editorials were written about him and his democratic ideals.
He left the United States after six months, returning to Europe in July 1852 to rally support for the Hungarian cause. He lived for a period of time in London, and eventually settled in Turin, Italy. In exile he continued his efforts for Hungarian independence, but he did not return to Hungary.
Following his death in Turin on March 20, 1894, his body was returned to Hungary, where he was buried amid nationwide mourning. After his death, Kossuth continued as the popular symbol of the aspiration of the Hungarian people for independence.
Today there are many reminders of Kossuth’s impact on the Unites States of America. There are towns with his name in Indiana, Ohio and Mississippi, and a settlement with a Post office in Pennsylvania. Previous to today there were two other full figure Kossuth statues in the United States, in New York City, New York and Cleveland, Ohio.
And, of course, there is Kossuth County, Iowa where the impact of Kossuth is noted throughout the county with the name Kossuth appearing on buildings and streets in all parts of the county. Kossuth County now has the third full figure statue of Lajos Kossuth in the United States. The statue of Lajos Kossuth, being dedicated today, is not only a reminder of the Hungarian struggle for independence but it is also a reminder of our own United States democracy that Lajos Kossuth idealized so much.