The Diet of 179091;
The 'Supplex Libellus Valachorum'

The Habsburg empire had overcome some of its foreign policy problems by the time the Transylvanian diet was finally convened, in December 1790. By the terms of the Reichenbach Treaty (27 July 1790), It retrieved Belgium, without having to go to war, and — as a modest counterpart — gave up its conquests in the Balkans. The fighting spirit of Hungary's diet was on the wane, and, as the Transylvanian diet was about to convene, the Saxon 'nation' put itself on the record as being firmly opposed to unification with Hungary. In order to prevent the Transylvanian estates from getting carried away by their new-found freedom to legislate, the central government submitted a set of royal instructions that the diet was bound to find rather disagreeable. First, the estates should devise procedural rules for the county assemblies and the diet. Next, they should address the problems of villeins (socage, abolition {2-740.} of perpetual villeinage, guarantees of the villeins' personal liberty and property rights); Vienna would exploit this issue for some fifty years to hold the estates in check. The estates were also instructed to develop a new system of taxation in which the armalists and Church nobles would remain exempt, but which would not impose additional burdens on other strata. In order to deter land-owning nobles, who were hungry for office, from seeking reforms, the government was prepared to give access to the public service to armalists and Church nobles, and, in the case of certain posts, to commoners as well. Finally, the diet was instructed to draw up a plan for judicial reform.

Over a period of some three and a half months, the estates barely considered the royal propositions, concentrating instead on the restoration of 'constitutional forms'. They showed great common sense in reelecting György Bánffy, Transylvania's preeminent Josephinist statesman, as governor, endorsing the nominated candidates for the posts of chairman of the estates and prothonotary, and leaving the other Gubernium councillors in their posts. However, the opposition did flex its muscles in demanding that certain senior officials be called to account for having harmed the interests of the estates. The opposition was led by a man of some enlightenment, the elder Miklós Wesselényi. (This grandson of the former diet chairman István Wesselényi had left military service because of religious discrimination, and later served a long prison sentence in Kufstein Castle for having committed an outrage.) The diet therefore asked the Gubernium for information on past proposals and denunciations that were harmful to the country, and demanded, above all, to see the files of the Jankovics Committee. Predictably, this initiative, which tried to exploit the principle of ministerial responsibility in defence of the estates' rights, had no practical consequences. In addition, the estates questioned the validity of Maria Theresa's 1765 decree, by which Transylvania was designated a 'Grand Principality', and took an oath of unity.

{2-741.} Apart from these attempts to restore a constitutional order based on the estates, debate over grievances took up much of the first few months of the session. Some of the complaints touched on religion: the failure to invite the Protestants' superintendents and boards to attend the diet, and the exclusion of Unitarians in the choice of a prothonotary. Others involved military matters: discrimination against Hungarian soldiers with respect both to promotion and to civilian employment after demobilization; and the neglect of Hungarian as a language of military command.

There were complaints about the taxation of Church nobles and armalists, and of Székely lesser nobles (lófő) and infantrymen. However, the Székely issue was complicated both by the fact that the latter two groups had little confidence in the noble delegates from their széks, and by a petition from some villein communities in requesting exemption from socage. The diet laid charges against the drafter of the petition, a lawyer named Pál Dersi. György Bánffy tried to quell the hysterical reaction of the estates, but he gave instructions that a close watch be kept on the behaviour of the Székely peasantry. The estates also laid charges against Martin Hochmeister, for having published a calendar in which the Horea uprising was blamed on the 'rigidity' of landowners. With this initiative, they expected to kill two birds with one stone: obtain 'moral satisfaction' for the allegedly excessive leniency shown toward the rebels, and strike fear in the Josephinist intellectuals and burghers. Once again, the cool-headed György Bánffy intervened to head off a crisis. (In the event, neither Dersi nor Hochmeister were brought to trial.) The estates would make a second attempt to dredge up the problem. They demanded that the uprising be re-investigated; that charges of treason be laid against not only the initiators of the disturbance but also against those who had obstructed armed intervention; and that compensation and citizenship rights be granted to those who had backed the nobles in 1784. The initiative was not followed up.[19]19. OL, EOKL, Gubernium Transylvanicum: Praesidialia 1790, p. 61.

{2-742.} The estates were rather more constructive with regard to official use of Hungarian and the promotion of Hungarian culture. On their instruction, the minutes of the diet were recorded in Hungarian. In the midst of this debate, they took note of György Aranka's proposals for a Hungarian Philological Society of Transylvania (Erdélyi Magyar Nyelvmívelő Társaság), which was to be the first Transylvanian–Hungarian institution analogous to an academy.

At the diet's initial session, the third main topic of debate was union with Hungary. The proponents of reunification had to contend not only with the opposition of the Saxons, but also with some reticence on the part of the Székely estates, which feared for their special privileges, and with the Protestants' justifiable apprehensions that reunification would harm their rights. The diet had just gathered in plenary session for the debate on union when, on 25 February 1791, Leopold II decreed that the court chancellery for Hungary and Transylvania should once again be split into two. Unaware of this effective veto of reunification, the diet proceeded to pass a resolution on the terms of union; in fact, these provided for little more than the inclusion of Transylvania in the Hungarian royal oath, the right of the governor to participate in the Hungarian diet, and the preservation of Joseph II's measures to combine the two chancelleries and abolish the customs barrier between Hungary and Transylvania. Leopold II tactically split up the issue into several components and rejected the proposal.

Finally, in April 1791, the diet took up the agenda originally submitted by the monarch. The outcome was a spate of legislation not seen before, or since in Transylvania: one hundred and sixty-two bills, a rationally structured legal code, and a late-feudal, estates-based constitution.

In the law defining Transylvania's constitutional status and the monarch's rights, article II was the most significant. It laid down that the Habsburgs held Transylvania by virtue of the latter's link to the Hungarian Crown, and that the province could not be attached administratively to any other part of the empire.

{2-743.} Thirty-seven bills dealt with the rights of the estates. The matters covered included the oath of union; sanctions against the rulers' advisers in case they offered bad advice; the shared legislative authority of monarch and estates; the immutability of the estates' basic rights; the estates' powers in the realm of foreign relations; the rules of procedure of the diet (which provided, inter alia, that the monarch's representatives [regalists] were to be nominated by local authorities, and left the bishop as the sole representative of the Roman Catholic Church); the right of members of the estates to hold public office (landless noblemen and non-Saxon commoners enjoyed a limited right, while other commoners were totally excluded); the right of the estates to choose the principal officers of the national government, subject to endorsement by the monarch; and the preservation of a joint Hungarian–Transylvanian chancellery. This category of legislation also included bills regarding the status of villeins. With regard to the villeins' freedom of movement, the diet adopted a measured approach: voicing reservations about the situation that prevailed prior to 1785, it abolished perpetual villeinage, but it protected the interests of the landowning nobility by imposing tough conditions on villeins who wished to move. The diet also confirmed that woodlands were the exclusive property of the landowners.

Questions of general economic policy were referred to a committee for further discussion, but the estates devoted much attention to matters of taxation. They reaffirmed the principle of onus non inhaeret fundo, and restored the exemption from taxes of Church nobles, armalists, Székely lesser nobles and infantrymen, and certain privileged localities. The diet affirmed its right to set taxes each year and supervise their collection. With regard to language and culture, one bill made Hungarian an official language in Transylvania, thus raising its status above that of Transylvania's other local languages, while another demanded implementation of the plan for a Transylvanian–Hungarian Philological Society.

{2-744.} The estates took several steps to demonstrate that their country retained some autonomy in military affairs. The office of Transylvania's general was restored; other bills reaffirmed the traditional obligation to take up arms, abolished the frontier guard, provided for the appointment of officers of the Transylvanian regiments and for recognition of distinguished military service, and required that domestic military forces be equipped locally.

Demands regarding the Treasury were comparatively modest, but they were also unrealistic: the estates could not really have expected that the central government would grant them powers over the Treasury, reinstate the system that had prevailed in 1691–93, or restore their right to free trade in salt. (Several bills dealt with major as well as minor aspects of that trade.) The diet also endorsed Joseph II's decision to erase the customs barrier between Hungary and Transylvania, restored the right of noble landowners to lease the collection of tithes, and reaffirmed that assets which had been appropriated by fiscal authorities should be redistributed to Transylvanians.

Nearly one-third of the new laws concerned the judiciary, and they reflected an unusual degree of flexibility on the part of the estates. The pre-1780 system was restored, although the Gubernium retained its function as supreme court. Many bills dealt with the details of this transition; the recent amendments to the criminal code were annulled, and a legal framework was drawn up for guardianship.

Finally, the diet also enacted a number of important bills with regard to religion. It restored the system of four recognized religions and reaffirmed that Orthodoxy — 'already one of the tolerated religions' — could be freely practised. The estates were intent on resolving the tensions between denominations on the basis of the status quo. They accommodated Catholics by restoring the full ecclesiastical authority of the bishop and the holy orders, and the Protestants by removing all obstacles to study abroad. They confirmed {2-745.} that the children of mixed marriages must adopt the religion of the parent of the same sex. However, the estates could not reach consensus on the matter of apostasy and conversion, and on mixed marriages and divorces. Seven standing ('regular') committees were charged with resolving outstanding issues.

Although, in the diet of 1790–91, the estates took a generally conservative tack in their legislative activity, they occasionally showed some disposition to innovate, notably in acknowledging the villeins' right to move, in modifying some aspects of religious policy, and in raising the status of the Hungarian language as well as endorsing the plan for a Transylvanian–Hungarian Philological Society. However, the greatest legislative innovations would come with regard to the questions referred to committee: economic policy, socage, public administration, the judiciary, and education.

The diet of 1790–91 had to contend with yet another matter, a Romanian petition known as the Supplex Libellus Valachorum. After 1748, and for a period stretching over decades, the Romanians' national movement in Transylvania had generated no new political initiatives, but the bases were being laid for such action. The Romanian intelligentsia was expanding in numbers, historical works rooted in the concept of Daco–Roman continuity were shaping national consciousness, the language was becoming Latinized, and some Romanians acceded to the highest levels of the civil service. These developments contributed to the emergence, in 1789, of a new wave of political activism on the part of the Uniate clergy and the lay intelligentsia, culminating in the Supplex Libellus Valachorum. In its early phase, the movement was spearheaded by the vicar of Naszód, Ioan Para, who besieged the authorities with petitions demanding representation of the Romanians in the diet, a Romanian national congress similar to that of the Serbs, and equal rights for the Romanians by their recognition as the fourth 'nation'.

The Supplex Libellus Valachorum has been characterized as 'unquestionably the most important political document issued in {2-746.} the 18th century by Transylvania's Romanians'.[20]20. D. Prodan, Supplex (Bucharest, 1967)2, p. 9. It was the outcome of a collective effort based in Vienna and in Várad, where the participants were members of a circle around the Uniate bishop, Ignatie Darabont. The principal author was Iosif Méhesi, who drew on the historical documentation compiled by Samuil Micu-Klein; historians continue to debate the identity of the other contributors.

The petition, completed in March 1791, propounded a historical rationale based on the theory of Daco–Roman continuity, thus incorporating the latter's evident weaknesses. The invention of a past far removed from historical reality was characteristic of emergent bourgeois nationalism. However, the Supplex Libellus was correct in asserting that the Romanians had come to form the largest national group in Transylvania. The demands included recognition of Romanians as the fourth 'nation', rights for the Romanian clergy, nobility, and commoners equal to those of their counterparts in the other three 'nations', and the adoption of Romanian place-names, exclusively or in conjunction with others, for administrative districts and localities where Romanians were in the majority. Romanian nationalism had not yet adopted a civic orientation, for the petition sought to entrench the political status of Romanians within the existing structure of estates representing the three 'nations'; yet that expectation was wholly unrealistic.

Around the same time, the Uniate clergy had submitted to the monarch a separate petition that encompassed the same demands as the Supplex Libellus Valachorum, shorn of the historical rationale based on the notion of continuity. Leopold II referred both petitions to the diet, letting the latter assume full responsibility for their rejection. The diet listened in silence as the Supplex Libellus was read out; the estates were now compelled to confront the issue of a Romanian nationality in Transylvania. After discussion of the matter in committee, the diet ruled that Romanians who lived in the lands of the Hungarian and Székely 'nations' could not obtain additional civil rights, for neither the rights of nobles and freemen, nor {2-747.} gations of villeins were dependent on ethnicity. The Saxons, for their part, avoided taking a stand. The estates noted that the Uniates were free to practice their religion, and drafted a bill confirming that the Orthodox had the same right; followers of the two Greek rites were responsible for the support of their priests. Attributing the Romanians' low level of cultural development to the ignorance of their priests, the estates charged the standing committee on religious affairs with finding a remedy to the problem.

The Romanians' initiative was thus unsuccessful. The estates had responded predictably to the demand for equal political status, and they were on solid ground in asserting that members of the two Greek rites were already free to practice their faith. With regard to financial support, the Protestants, at least, could argue that they, too, had to look after their own clergy. To be sure, much of the support for Roman Catholic and Protestant priests came from royal endowments and ancient privileges, whereas, of the two Greek rites, only the Uniates could drawn on a few, similar sources. With regard to the key issue, the Romanians failed to win recognition as an equal 'nation'.

The legislative proposals of the 1790–91 diet went through a thorough screening by the central government. The bill on union was set aside in favour of a provision that essentially reaffirmed the separate status of Transylvania. There was no question of ratifying the immutability of the estates' fundamental rights. Nor did the central government relax its absolutist conception of royal prerogatives. It confirmed that the conduct of foreign relations fell in this category and refused to ratify any of the military bills; of the treasury bills, it endorsed only two of minor importance, and of the tax bills, only one, in heavily amended form. Vienna proved equally unyielding with regard to its supervision of the Catholic Church and of study-trips abroad. Although the central government agreed to lend official status to the Hungarian language, the measure was worded in such a way that it could subsequently be interpreted as favouring the use of Latin.

{2-748.} Vienna was more willing to guarantees certain rights of the estates. In keeping with the Restitutionsedikt, it restored the earlier structure of the judiciary, and some of the diet's proposals for judicial reform received provisional endorsement. The government was obviously pleased at the compromise proposed by the estates with regard to religion, for it endorsed most of the relevant bills, including the one guaranteeing free religious practice to the Orthodox. In the latter case, it did make a potentially significant amendment, dropping the term etiam from the formula hactenus etiam inter toleratas, but this would not be interpreted in practice as curtailing the religion's 'tolerated' status. György Bánffy was appointed chairman of the standing committees that would work out the modalities of the reforms. The committees had between 15 and 25 elected members, but since Bánffy was free to select the eight-member working groups which would assist him in accomplishing the bulk of the task, the central government could rest assured that the opposition would be excluded from the process.