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Louis Kossuth was born at Monok, in Zemplin, one of the northern counties of Hungary, April 21, 1802. His family was ancient, but impoverished; his father served in the Austrian army during the wars against Napoleon; his mother is represented to have been a woman of extraordinary force of mind and character. Kossuth thus adds another to the long list of great men who seem to have inherited their genius from their mothers. As a boy he was remarkable for the winning gentleness of his disposition, and for an earnest enthusiasm, which gave promise of future eminence, could he but break the bonds imposed by low birth and iron fortune. A young clergyman was attracted by the character of the boy, and voluntarily took upon himself the office of his tutor, and thus first opened before his mind visions of a broader world than that of the miserable village of his residence. But these serene days of power expanding under genial guidance soon passed away. His father died, his tutor was translated to another post, and the walls of his prison-house seemed again to close upon the boy. But by the aid of members of his family, themselves in humble circumstances, he was enabled to attend such schools as the district furnished. Little worth knowing was taught there; but among that little was the Latin language; and through that door the young dreamer was introduced into the broad domains of history, where, abandoning the mean present, he could range at will through the immortal past.
In times of peace the law offers to an aspiring youth the readiest means of ascent from a low degree to lofty stations. Kossuth, therefore, when just entering upon manhood, made his way to Pesth, the capital, to study the legal profession. Here he entered the office of a notary, and began gradually to make himself known by his liberal opinions and the fervid eloquence with which he set forth and maintained them; and men began to see in him the promise of a powerful public writer, orator, and debater.
The man and the hour were alike preparing. In 1825, the year before Kossuth arrived at Pesth, the critical state of her Italian possessions compelled Austria to provide extraordinary revenues. The Hungarian Diet was then assembled, after an interval of thirteen years. This Diet at once demanded certain measures of reform before they would make the desired pecuniary grants. The court was obliged to concede these demands. Kossuth, having completed his legal studies, and finding no favorable opening in the capital, returned, in 1830, to his native district, and commenced the practice of the law, with marked success. He also began to make his way toward public life by his assiduous attendance and intelligent action in the local assemblies. A new Diet was assembled in 1832, and he received a commission as the representative in the Diet of a magnate who was absent. As proxy for an absentee he was only charged, by the Hungarian Constitution, with a very subordinate part, his functions being more those of a counsel than of a delegate. This, however, was a post much sought for by young and aspiring lawyers, as giving them an opportunity of mastering legal forms, displaying their abilities, and forming advantageous connections.
This Diet renewed the Liberal struggle with increased vigor. By far the best talent of Hungary was ranged upon the Liberal side. Kossuth early made himself known as a debater, and gradually won his way upward, and became associated with the leading men of the Liberal party, many of whom were among the proudest and richest of the Hungarian magnates. He soon undertook to publish a report of the debates and proceedings of the Diet. This attempt was opposed by the Palatine, and a law hunted up which forbade the "printing and publishing" of these reports. He, for a while, evaded the law by having his sheet lithographed. It increased in its development of democratic tendencies, and in popularity, until finally the lithographic press was seized by Government. Kossuth, determined not to be baffled, still issued his journal, every copy being written out by scribes, of whom he employed a large number. To avoid seizure at the post-office, they were circulated through the local authorities, who were almost invariably on the Liberal side. His periodical penetrated into every part of the kingdom, and men saw with wonder a young and almost unknown public writer boldly pitting himself against Metternich and the whole Austrian cabinet. Kossuth might well, at this period, declare that he "felt within himself something nameless."
In the succeeding Diets the Opposition grew still more determined. Kossuth, though twice admonished by Government, still continued his journal; and no longer confined himself to simple reports of the proceedings of the Diet, but added political remarks of the keenest satire and most bitter denunciation. He was aware that his course was a perilous one. He was once found by a friend walking in deep reverie in the fortress of Buda, and in reply to a question as to the subject of his meditations, he said, "I was looking at the casemates, for I fear that I shall soon be quartered there." Government finally determined to use arguments more cogent than discussion could furnish. Baron Wesselenyi, the leader of the Liberal party, was arrested, together with a number of his adherents, among whom Kossuth was of too much note to be overlooked.
Kossuth became at once sanctified in the popular mind as a martyr. Liberal subscriptions were raised through the country for the benefit of his mother and sisters, whom he had supported by his exertions, and who were now left without protection. Wesselenyi became blind in prison; Lovassi, an intimate friend of Kossuth, lost his reason; and Kossuth himself, as was certified by his physicians, was in imminent risk of falling a victim to a serious disease. The rigor of his confinement was mitigated; he was allowed books, newspapers, and writing materials, and suffered to walk daily upon the bastions of the fortress, in charge of an officer. Among those who were inspired with admiration for his political efforts, and with sympathy for his fate, was Teresa Mezlenyi, the young daughter of a nobleman. She sent him books, and corresponded with him during his imprisonment; and they were married in 1841, soon after his liberation.
In the second year of Kossuth's imprisonment Austria again needed Hungarian assistance. The threatening aspect of affairs in the East, growing out of the relations between Turkey and Egypt, determined all the great powers to increase their armaments. A demand was made upon the Hungarian Diet for an additional levy of 18,000 troops. A large body of delegates was chosen pledged to oppose this grant except upon condition of certain concessions, among which was a general amnesty, with a special reference to the cases of Wesselenyi and Kossuth. The more sagacious of the Conservative party advised Government to liberate all the prisoners, with the exception of Kossuth; and to do this before the meeting of the Diet, in order that their liberation might not be made a condition of granting the levy, which must be the occasion of great excitement. The cabinet temporized and did nothing. The Diet was opened, and the contest was waged during six months. The Opposition had a majority of two in the Chamber of Deputies, but were in a meagre minority in the Chamber of Magnates. But Metternich and the cabinet grew alarmed at the struggle, and were eager to obtain the grant of men, and to close the refractory Diet. In 1840 a royal rescript suddenly made its appearance, granting the amnesty, accompanied also with conciliatory remarks, and the demands of the Government for men and money were at once complied with.
Kossuth issued from prison, in 1840, bearing in his debilitated frame, his pallid face, and glassy eyes, traces of severe sufferings, both of mind and body. He repaired for a time to a watering-place among the mountains to recruit his shattered health. His imprisonment had done more for his influence than he could have effected if at liberty. The visitors at the watering-place treated with silent respect the man who moved about among them in dressing-gown and slippers, and whose slow steps, and languid features, disfigured with yellow spots, proclaimed him an invalid. Abundant subscriptions had been made for his benefit and that of his family, and he now stood on an equality with the proudest magnates. These had so often used the name of the "Martyr of the Liberty of the Press," in pointing their speeches, that they now had no choice but to accept the popular verdict as their own.
Soon after his liberation, Kossuth came forward as the principal editor of the Pesth Gazette (Pesthi Hirlap), which a bookseller who enjoyed the protection of the Government had received permission to establish. The name of the editor was now sufficient to electrify the country; and Kossuth at once stood forth as the advocate of the rights of the lower and middle classes against the inordinate privileges and immunities enjoyed by the magnates. But when he went to the extent of demanding that the house-tax should be paid by all classes in the community, not even excepting the highest nobility, a party was raised up against him among the nobles, who established a paper to combat so disorganizing a doctrine. This party, backed by the influence of the Government, succeeded in defeating the election of Kossuth as member from Pesth for the Diet of 1843. He was, however, very active in the local assembly of the capital.
Kossuth was not altogether without support among the higher nobles. The blind old Wesselenyi traversed the country, advocating rural freedom and the abolition of the urbarial burdens. Among his supporters at this period, also, was Count Louis Batthyanyi, one of the most considerable of the Magyar magnates, subsequently President of the Hungarian Ministry, and the most illustrious martyr of the Hungarian cause. Aided by his powerful support, Kossuth was again brought forward, in 1847, as one of the two candidates from Pesth. The Government party, aware that they were in a decided minority, limited their efforts to an attempt to defeat the election of Kossuth. This they endeavored to effect by stratagem, but failed utterly.
Kossuth no sooner took his seat in the Diet than the foremost place was at once conceded to him. At the opening of the session he moved an address to the king, concluding with the petition that "liberal institutions, similar to those of the Hungarian Constitution, might be accorded to all the hereditary states, that thus might be created a united Austrian monarchy, based upon broad and constitutional principles." During the early months of the session Kossuth showed himself a most accomplished parliamentary orator and debater; and carried on a series of attacks upon the policy of the Austrian cabinet, which for skill and power have few parallels in the annals of parliamentary warfare. Those form a very inadequate conception of its scope and power, whose ideas of the eloquence of Kossuth are derived solely from the impassioned and exclamatory harangues which he flung out during the war. These were addressed to men wrought up to the utmost tension, and can be judged fairly only by men in a state of high excitement. He adapted his matter and manner to the occasion and the audience. Some of his speeches are marked by a stringency of logic worthy of Webster or Calhoun; but it was what all eloquence of a high order must ever be--"logic red-hot."
Now came the French Revolution of February, 1848. The news of it reached Vienna on March 1st, and was received at Presburg on the 2d. On the following day Kossuth delivered his famous speech on the finances and the state of the monarchy generally, concluding with a proposed "Address to the Throne," urging a series of reformatory measures. Among the foremost of these was the emancipation of the country from feudal burdens--the proprietors of the soil to be indemnified by the state; equalizing taxation; a faithful administration of the revenue to be satisfactorily guaranteed; the further development of the representative system; and the establishment of a government representing the voice of, and responsible to, the nation. The speech produced an effect almost without parallel in the annals of debate. Not a word was uttered in reply, and the motion was unanimously carried. On March 13th took place the revolution in Vienna which overthrew the Metternich cabinet. On the 15th the constitution granted by the emperor to all the nations within the empire was solemnly proclaimed amid the wildest transports of joy. Henceforth there were to be no more Germans or Sclavonians, Magyars or Italians; strangers embraced and kissed each other in the streets, for all the heterogeneous races of the empire were now brothers: as likewise were all the nations of the earth at Anacharsis Klootz's "Feast of Pikes" in Paris on that 14th day of July in the year of grace 1790--and yet, notwithstanding, came the "Reign of Terror."
Among the demands made by the Hungarian Diet was that of a separate and responsible ministry for Hungary. The Palatine, Archduke Stephen, to whom the conduct of affairs in Hungary had been intrusted, persuaded the emperor to accede to this demand, and on the following day Batthyanyi, who, with Kossuth and a deputation of delegates of the Diet was in Vienna, was named President of the Hungarian ministry. It was, however, understood that Kossuth was the life and soul of the new ministry.
Kossuth assumed the Department of Finance, then, as long before and now, the post of difficulty under Austrian administration. The Diet, meanwhile, went on to consummate the series of reforms which Kossuth had so long and steadfastly advocated.
Up to this time there had been, indeed, a vigorous and decided opposition, but no insurrection. The true cause of the Hungarian war was the hostility of the Austrian Government to the whole series of reformatory measures which had been effected through the instrumentality of Kossuth; but its immediate occasion was the jealousy which sprung up among the Servian and Croatian dependencies of Hungary against the Hungarian ministry. This soon broke out into an open revolt, headed by Baron Jellachich, who had just been appointed Ban, or Lord, of Croatia. How far the Serbs and Croats had occasion for jealousy is of little consequence to our present purpose to inquire; though we may say, in passing, that the proceedings of the Magyars toward the other Hungarian races was marked by a far more just and generous feeling and conduct than could have been possibly expected. But however the case may have been, as between the Magyars and Croats, as between the Hungarians and Austria, the hostile course of the latter is without excuse or palliation. The emperor had solemnly sanctioned the action of the Diet, and did as solemnly denounce the proceedings of Jellachich. On May 29th the Ban was summoned to present himself at Innsprueck to answer for his conduct, and as he did not make his appearance, an imperial manifesto was issued on June 10th depriving him of all his dignities, and commanding the authorities at once to break off all intercourse with him. He, however, still continued his operations, and levied an army for the invasion of Hungary, and a fierce and bloody war of races broke out, marked on both sides by the most fearful atrocities.
The Hungarian Diet was opened on July 5th, when the Palatine, Archduke Stephen, in the name of the king, solemnly denounced the conduct of the insurgent Croats. A few days after, Kossuth, in a speech in the Diet, set forth the perilous state of affairs, and concluded by asking for authority to raise an army of 200,000 men, and a large amount of money. These proposals were adopted by acclamation, the enthusiasm in the Diet rendering any debate impossible and superfluous.
The Imperial forces having been victorious in Italy, and one pressing danger being thus averted from the empire, the Austrian cabinet began openly to display its hostility to the Hungarian movement. Jellachich repaired to Innsprueck, and was openly acknowledged by the court, and the decree of deposition was revoked. Early in September Hungary and Austria stood in an attitude of undisguised hostility. On the 5th of that month Kossuth, though enfeebled by illness, was carried to the hall of the Diet, where he delivered a speech, declaring that so formidable were the dangers that surrounded the nation, that the ministers might soon be forced to call upon the Diet to name a dictator, clothed with unlimited powers, to save the country; but before taking this final step they would recommend a last appeal to the Imperial Government. A large deputation was thereupon despatched to the emperor, to lay before him the demands of the Hungarian nation. No satisfactory answer was returned, and the deputation left the imperial presence in silence. On their return they plucked from their caps the plumes of the united colors of Austria and Hungary, and replaced them with red feathers, and hoisted a flag of the same color on the steamer which conveyed them to Pesth. Their report produced the most intense agitation in the Diet and at the capital, but it was finally resolved to make one more attempt for a pacific settlement of the question. In order that no obstacle might be interposed by their presence, Kossuth and his colleagues resigned, and a new ministry was appointed. A deputation was sent to the National Assembly at Vienna, which refused to receive it. Jellachich had in the meantime entered Hungary with a large army, not as yet, however, openly sanctioned by imperial authority. The Diet, seeing the imminent peril of the country, conferred dictatorial powers upon Kossuth. The Palatine resigned his post and left the kingdom. The emperor appointed Count Lemberg to take the entire command of the Hungarian army. The Diet declared the appointment illegal, and the count, arriving at Pesth without escort, was slain in the streets of the capital by the populace, in a sudden outbreak. The emperor forthwith placed the kingdom under martial law, giving the supreme civil and military power to Jellachich. The Diet at once revolted, declared itself permanent, and appointed Kossuth Governor, and President of the Committee of Safety.
There was now but one course left for the Hungarians: to maintain by force of arms the position they had assumed. We cannot detail the events of the war which followed, but merely touch upon the most salient points. Jellachich was speedily driven out of Hungary toward Vienna. In October the Austrian forces were concentrated, under command of Windischgraetz, to the number of 120,000 veterans, and were put on the march for Hungary. To oppose them the only forces under the command of the new government of Hungary were 20,000 regular infantry, 7,000 cavalry, and 14,000 recruits, who received the name of Honveds, or "protectors of home." Of all the movements that followed, Kossuth was the soul and chief. His burning and passionate appeals stirred up the souls of the peasants, and sent them by thousands to the camp. He kindled enthusiasm, he organized that enthusiasm, and transformed those raw recruits into soldiers more than a match for the veteran troops of Austria. Though himself not a soldier, he discovered and drew about him soldiers and generals of a high order. The result was that Windischgraetz was driven back from Hungary, and of the 120,000 troops which he led into that kingdom in October, one-half were killed, disabled, or taken prisoners at the end of April. The state of the war on May 1st may be gathered from the imperial manifesto of that date, which announced that "the insurrection in Hungary had grown to such an extent" that the Imperial Government "had been induced to appeal to the assistance of his majesty the Czar of all the Russias, who generously and readily granted it to a most satisfactory extent." The issue of the contest could no longer be doubtful when the immense weight of Russia was thrown into the scale. In modern warfare there is a limit beyond which devotion and enthusiasm cannot supply the place of numbers and material force. And that limit was overpassed when Russia and Austria were pitted against Hungary.
On May 1st the Russian intervention was announced. On August 11th Kossuth resigned his dictatorship into the hands of Goergey, who, two days after, in effect closed the war by surrendering to the Russians.
The Hungarian war thus lasted a little more than eleven months, during which time there was but one ruling and directing spirit, and that was Kossuth, to whose immediate career we now return.
Nothing remained for him and his companions but flight. They gained the Turkish frontier, and threw themselves on the hospitality of the sultan, who promised them a safe asylum. Russia and Austria demanded that the fugitives should be given up; but being supported by France and England, the sultan arranged a compromise by which they were detained in Asia Minor as prisoners. Kossuth was released in 1851, and made a tour of the United States, agitating in favor of Hungary. He never returned to his native land, but lived an exile for over forty years. For a while he struggled desperately to help the Hungarians; then, finding that the universal progress of liberal ideas was doing more for them than he ever could, he resigned himself to a peaceful life devoted to literature and science. He died at Turin, March 20, 1894, reverenced by all the world, and mourned by his countrymen with tumultuous demonstrations as their national hero.
Kossuth occupies a position peculiarly his own, whether we regard the circumstances of his rise, or the feelings which have followed him in his fall. Born in the middle ranks of life, he raised himself by sheer force of intellect to the loftiest place among the proudest nobles on earth, without ever deserting or being deserted by the class from which he sprung. He effected a sweeping reform without appealing to any sordid or sanguinary motive. No soldier himself, he transformed a country into a camp, and a nation into an army. He transmuted his words into batteries, and his thoughts into soldiers. Without ever having looked upon a stricken field, he organized the most complete system of resistance to despotism that the history of revolutions has furnished. It failed, but only failed where nothing could have succeeded.