1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kossuth, Lajos
KOSSUTH, LAJOS [Louis] (1802–1894), Hungarian patriot, was born at Monok, a small town in the county of Zemplin, on the 19th of September 1802. His father, who was descended from an old untitled noble family and possessed a small estate, was by profession an advocate. Louis, who was the eldest of four children, received from his mother a strict religious training. His education was completed at the Calvinist college of Sárospatak and at the university of Budapest. At the age of nineteen he returned home and began practice with his father. His talents and amiability soon won him great popularity, especially among the peasants. He was also appointed steward to the countess Szápáry, a widow with large estates, and as her representative had a seat in the county assembly. This position he lost owing to a quarrel with his patroness, and he was accused of appropriating money to pay a gambling debt. His fault cannot have been very serious, for he was shortly afterwards (he had in the meantime settled in Pesth) appointed by Count Hunyady to be his deputy at the National Diet in Pressburg (1825–1827, and again in 1832). It was a time when, under able leaders, a great national party was beginning the struggle for reform against the stagnant Austrian government. As deputy he had no vote, and he naturally took little share in the debates, but it was part of his duty to send written reports of the proceedings to his patron, since the government, with a well-grounded fear of all that might stir popular feeling, refused to allow any published reports. Kossuth’s letters were so excellent that they were circulated in MS. among the Liberal magnates, and soon developed into an organized parliamentary gazette (Orszagyulesi tudositasok), of which he was editor. At once his name and influence spread. In order to increase the circulation, he ventured on lithographing the letters. This brought them under the official censure, and was forbidden. He continued the paper in MS., and when the government refused to allow it to be circulated through the post sent it out by hand. In 1836 the Diet was dissolved. Kossuth continued the agitation by reporting in letter form the debates of the county assemblies, to which he thereby gave a political importance which they had not had when each was ignorant of the proceedings of the others. The fact that he embellished with his own great literary ability the speeches of the Liberals and Reformers only added to the influence of his news-letters. The government in vain attempted to suppress the letters, and other means having failed, he was in May 1837, with Weszelenyi and several others, arrested on a charge of high treason. After spending a year in prison at Ofen, he was tried and condemned to four more years’ imprisonment. His confinement was strict and injured his health, but he was allowed the use of books. He greatly increased his political information, and also acquired, from the study of the Bible and Shakespeare, a wonderful knowledge of English. His arrest had caused great indignation. The Diet, which met in 1839, supported the agitation for 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. Immediately after his release Kossuth married Teresa Meszleny, a Catholic, who during his prison days had shown great interest in him. Henceforward she strongly urged him on in his political career; and it was the refusal of the Roman priests to bless their union that first prompted Kossuth to take up the defence of mixed marriages.
He had now become a popular leader. As soon as his health was restored he was appointed (January 1841) editor of the Pesti Hirlap, the newly founded organ of the party. Strangely enough, the government did not refuse its consent. The success of the paper was unprecedented. The circulation soon reached what was then the immense figure of 7000. The attempts of the government to counteract his influence by founding a rival paper, the Vilag, only increased his importance and added to the political excitement. The warning of the great reformer Szechenyi that by his appeal to the passions of the people he was leading the nation to revolution was neglected. Kossuth, indeed, was not content with advocating those reforms—the abolition of entail, the abolition of feudal burdens, taxation of the nobles—which were demanded by all the Liberals. By insisting on the superiority of the Magyars to the Slavonic inhabitants of Hungary, by his violent attacks on Austria (he already discussed the possibility of a breach with Austria), he raised the national pride to a dangerous pitch. At last, in 1844, the government succeeded in breaking his connexion with the paper. The proprietor, in obedience to orders from Vienna (this seems the most probable account), took advantage of a dispute about salary to dismiss him. He then applied for permission to start a paper of his own. In a personal interview Metternich offered to take him into the government service. The offer was refused, and for three years he was without a regular position. He continued the agitation with the object of attaining both the political and commercial independence of Hungary. He adopted the economic principles of List, and founded a society, the “Vedegylet,” the members of which were to consume none but home produce. He advocated the creation of a Hungarian port at Fiume. With the autumn of 1847 the great opportunity of his life came. Supported by the influence of Louis Batthyany, after a keenly fought struggle he was elected member for Budapest in the new Diet. “Now that I am a deputy, I will cease to be an agitator,” he said. He at once became chief leader of the Extreme Liberals. Deak was absent. Batthyany, Szechenyi, Szemere, Eotvos, his rivals, saw how his intense personal ambition and egoism led him always 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. The crisis came, and he used it to the full.
On the 3rd of March 1848, as soon as 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 Francis Joseph,” 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 the emperor to their petition it was Kossuth who received the chief ovation. Batthyany, who formed the first responsible ministry, could not refuse to admit Kossuth, but he gave him the ministry of finance, probably because that seemed to open to him fewest prospects of engrossing popularity. If that was the object, it was in vain. With wonderful energy he began developing the internal resources of the country: he established a separate Hungarian coinage—as always, using every means to increase the national self-consciousness; and it was characteristic that on the new Hungarian notes which he issued his own name was the most prominent inscription; hence the name of Kossuth Notes, which was long celebrated. A new paper was started, to which was given the name of Kossuth Hirlapia, 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 of 11th July 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 Pesth 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 Batthyany 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 in fact, if not in name, the dictator. With marvellous energy he kept in his own hands the direction of the whole government. Not a soldier himself, he had to control and direct the movements of armies; can we be surprised if he failed, or if he was unable to keep control over the generals or to establish that military co-operation so essential to success? Especially it was Görgei (q.v.) whose great abilities he was the first to recognize, who refused obedience; the two men were in truth the very opposite to one another: the one all feeling, enthusiasm, sensibility; the other cold, stoical, reckless of life. 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 Görgei’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 Bem to carry on the war in Transylvania. At the end of the year, when the Austrians were approaching Pesth, he asked for the mediation of Mr Stiles, the American envoy. Windischgrätz, however, refused all terms, and the Diet and government fled to Debrecszin, Kossuth taking with him the regalia of St Stephen, the sacred Palladium of the Hungarian nation. Immediately after the accession of the Emperor Francis Joseph all the concessions of March had been revoked and Kossuth with his colleagues outlawed. 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 at the crown himself. For the time the future form of government was left undecided, but Kossuth was appointed responsible governor. The hopes of ultimate success were frustrated by the intervention of Russia; all appeals to the western powers were vain, and on the 11th of August Kossuth abdicated in favour of Görgei, on the ground that in the last extremity the general alone could save the nation. How Görgei used his authority to surrender is well known; the capitulation was indeed inevitable, but a greater man than Kossuth would not have avoided the last duty of conducting the negotiations so as to get the best terms.
With the capitulation of Villagos 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 Great Britain, refused, notwithstanding the threats of the allied emperors, to surrender him and the other fugitives to the merciless vengeance of the Austrians. In January 1849 he was removed from Widdin, where he had been kept in honourable confinement, to Shumla, and thence to Katahia in Asia Minor. Here he was joined by his children, who had been confined at Pressburg; his wife (a price had been set on her head) had joined him earlier, having escaped in disguise. In September 1851 he was liberated and embarked on an American man-of-war. He first landed at Marseilles, where he received an enthusiastic welcome from the people, but the prince-president refused to allow him to cross France. On the 23rd of October he landed at Southampton and spent three weeks in England, where he was the object of extraordinary enthusiasm, equalled only by that with which Garibaldi was received ten years later. 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 pleaded the cause of his unhappy country. Speaking in English, he displayed an eloquence and command of the language scarcely excelled by the greatest orators in their own tongue. 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; an element of charlatanism appeared in his words and acts which soon destroyed his real influence. Other Hungarian exiles protested against the claim he appeared to make that he was the one national hero of the revolution. Count Casimir Batthyany 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 connexion 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; the Hungarians were especially offended by his claim still to be called governor. 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, 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 that time he resided in Italy; he refused to follow the other Hungarian patriots, who, under the lead of Deak, accepted the composition of 1867; for him there could be no reconciliation with the house of Habsburg, nor would he accept less than full independence and a republic. He would not avail himself of the amnesty, and, though elected to the Diet of 1867, never took his seat. He never lost the affections of his countrymen, but he refrained from an attempt to give practical effect to his opinions, nor did he allow his name to become a new cause of dissension. A law of 1879, which deprived of citizenship all Hungarians who had voluntarily been absent ten years, was a bitter blow to him.
He died in Turin on the 20th of March 1894; his body was taken to Pesth, where he was buried amid the mourning of the whole nation, Maurus Jokai delivering the funeral oration. A bronze statue, erected by public subscription, in the Kerepes cemetery, commemorates 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); Maurice, Revolutions of 1848–1849; W. H. Stiles, Austria in 1848–1849 (New York, 1852); Szemere, Politische Charakterskizzen: III. Kossuth (Hamburg, 1853); Louis Kossuth, Memoirs of my Exile (London, 1880); Pulszky, Meine Zeit, mein Leben (Pressburg, 1880); A. Somogyi, Ludwig Kossuth (Berlin, 1894). (J. W. He.)