The Emergence of a Hungarian Reform Movement in the 'Two Sister Countries' and Its Organization in Transylvania

The Hungarian national movement that emerged in Transylvania had some distinctive features, but it was intimately tied to the movement in Hungary proper. The movements in the 'two sister countries' had common goals but followed different courses in identifying and pursuing priorities.

Transylvanians could draw some lessons from the experience in Hungary, where the national movement had gathered strength earlier. In Hungary, ideas that the Transylvanians were merely toying with had already been consolidated into a political program. Taking their cue from the session of the Hungarian diet in 1825–27 at Pozsony, Transylvanians soon began to demand that their diet be convened as well. The reform initiatives taken by Count István Széchenyi filled them with enthusiasm. Széchenyi was still a little-known officer in the hussars when, in 1825, he gave away a year's income from his estates to found the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; later, he initiated a project to regulate the flow of the {3-97.} Danube at the Iron Gates, then commissioned the building of a bridge linking the two halves of the future capital, Buda and Pest. The three books that he published between 1830 and 1833 — Hitel (Credit), Világ (Light), and Stadium — had a tremendous impact; a rumour that the first work had been translated into Romanian greatly alarmed Transylvania's Gubernium. Széchenyi's conclusion, that most contemporary problems were due to the feudal system, struck with particular force, and many of his arguments were soon disseminated in the Transylvanian press. For Transylvanian Hungarians who yearned for change, Széchenyi became the 'founder of Hungarian Nationhood, the creator of National Welfare, and the Classic Hungarian Writer, in other words, the greatest man of both Hungarian Motherlands.'[92]92. Sándor Bölöni Farkas's address to István Széchenyi, quoted in S. Paszlavszky, 'Gr. Széchenyi István aranytolla,' Hazánk (1888), pp. 78-9.

Széchenyi appeared on the political stage just as the political reform movement got under way. If the Hungarian campaign for national renaissance had a powerful impact, it was largely thanks to the efforts of a Transylvanian magnate, Baron Miklós Wesselényi. A passionate and romantic figure, known for his vigorous participation in sports, Wesselényi had been involved in the opposition movement mounted by Transylvanian nobles in 1819–20, and he subsequently led efforts to bring the nobility into tune with modern times. He and Széchenyi made a tour of western Europe, learning much about reform along the way, and later they jointly tried to win over the upper classes to the cause of reform by founding a race track, a casino (club), and a fencing school. Their ways parted around 1830. Széchenyi favoured more moderate reforms, based on the aristocracy; he wanted to avoid confrontation with the Viennese government which, he believed, would come to see the necessity of change. However, many reform-minded people considered that if 'Széchenyi was the first to diagnose his country's ills, Wesselényi was the one who found the right remedy for them.'[93]93. Gergely Édes's letter to Wesselényi, Pápa, 9 November 1836, OL, Filmtár 8368.

In fact, among their contemporaries, it was Wesselényi and a man from Szatmár County, Ferenc Kölcsey, who did the most to {3-98.} link the issue of social reform to the long-standing cause of national independence. When part of the counties' landed nobility espoused the cause of reform, the Hungarian liberal-national movement entered the political arena. The young Transylvanian magnate became one of the theoreticians of that movement. Due to censorship, his book Balítéletekről (On Misjudgments) could only be published abroad, in 1833, two years after it had been written. The work related the negative effect of serfdom on economic development and depicted with unprecedented vividness the exploitation and humiliation of serfs. Wesselényi was convinced that 'Poland would not be rattling the shackles imposed by her despotic ruler if most of her population were not oppressed, if peasants had not been relegated to the margin of national existence.'[94]94. Wesselényi's diary, May 1835, OL, Filmtár 5495. At a time when several counties backed the proposal that serfs be allowed to commute their charge, Wesselényi issued a more radical call, for the enactment of nationwide regulations governing commutation, that is, the terms on which a serf could gain free title to the land that he had hitherto been allowed to cultivate in exchange for labour and produce. This strategy for creating a bourgeois national society was rooted in the reconciliation of interests. If both serf peasants and noblemen had a stake in reform, the movement toward a liberal and democratic national society would acquire a broader social base. Wesselényi considered that the Estates' representative institutions, the autonomy of the counties, and the national assembly were all essential to the success of the reform movement, and argued for their reinforcement.

Indeed, this was the only realistic avenue to political reform in Hungary. In the absence of a strong bourgeoisie, only the landed nobility had the social status required to lead the movement for change and to reconcile the interests of other groups and social strata. The absolutist régime had been able to protect serfs from their noble oppressors, but now, when the movement got under way, and the reformist nobility wanted to turn the serfs into 'free citizens,' the rulers became disoriented and clung in some desperation to the {3-99.} timeworn practices of bureaucratic absolutism. Emperor Francis and his government loathed the idea of anti-feudal social reform, for 'the government wants an urbarium for its own sake, while Wesselényi and many others want an urbarium in order to forge a nation.'[95]95. Ferenc Kölcsey's diary, Pozsony, 11 January 1833, in Kölcsey Ferenc összes művei (Budapest, n.d.), p. 1245. Thus Vienna rejected the legislative proposal, issuing from the diet that met at Pozsony in 1832–36, to grant the serfs voluntary commutation and freeholds. The régime feared that laws such as those proposed by the Hungarians would unleash a irresistible movement toward a constitutional system based on popular representation, and thus spell the death of absolutism.

Wesselényi was held in such high regard by county councils that, in 1832–33, he became leader of the reformist opposition at the Pozsony diet. Although he regarded the Hungarian national movements of the 'two sister countries' as an organic whole, he could also draw a tactical distinction between them. Thus this eminently progressive social reformer helped to draft the grievances of the Transylvanian Estates in a such a way that, at least for public consumption, they entailed nothing more than the restoration and entrenchment of the feudal constitution.

The social base for bourgeois transformation was weaker in Transylvania than in Hungary. In the former, the system of feudal orders was less mature, social conditions more archaic, and there was no 'middle nobility' to assume the political function of a bourgeoisie. Instead, a large number of magnates, scions of the most illustrious families, stepped into the breach to lead the opposition movement. Although, as in Hungary, county administration could offer an apprenticeship in the art of politics, it had been largely shorn of autonomy by the central government. Transylvania's counties did not, like those in Hungary, have the right to levy taxes; their civil servants were paid from the central treasury; and the possibility of electing officials was limited, for the central government could choose freely from the three candidates nominated for each of the three recognized denominations.

{3-100.} On the other hand, precisely because of its small numbers, the Transylvanian opposition was less diffuse than its counterpart in Hungary. The half-dozen most influential figures were all widely known and respected, and could function as a cohesive leadership. Since each of them had estates in more than one county, they could move about the county assemblies like 'wandering patriots' and conduct a coherent campaign for reform.

Their rallying-cry for mobilizing feudal society was the infringement of the feudal constitution. In the interest of strengthening county autonomy, they proposed to simplify the election of county officials by submitting not nine, but three names to the government. This issue had been exercising the nobles for some fifteen years; Alsó-Fehér County had made several unsuccessful attempts to effect the same change. The proposal served to win over those aristocrats and nobles who had been previously passed over for public office. The campaigners rallied the less affluent, lower nobility with a proposal that the latter be once again exempt from taxes. As a result, the lesser nobles, Hungarians and ethnic Romanians alike, came to form a solid base of the Hungarian opposition movement; meetings convened to select the movement's officers drew 500–800 participants, and as many as two or three thousand gathered at the rallies called to elect delegates.

The most dissatisfied social group, found in the Székelyföld, consisted of lesser nobles who were subject to taxation and of the border-guard communities. By firmly denouncing the infringement of Székely liberties, the opposition movement exercised a tremendous impact among them, stirring up a veritable hornets' nest. It was probably at the initiative of Count János Bethlen the younger that Udvarhelyszék took the lead in calling for the abolition of noble titles and ranks in Transylvania's széks and counties. Although the initiative ostensibly concerned itself with the equality of all nobles, it was evidently motivated by the liberal ideal of full civil rights.

{3-101.} The lesser nobles (lófő) and infantrymen in the frontier-guard regiments invoked the Székelys' traditional liberties and equality to promote their interests vis-à-vis both the military institution and the upper nobility (primors). With regard to the former, their goal was to get rid, once and for all, of the burden of military service. With respect to the primors, they demanded equal rights in access to public office and an equitable distribution of common lands, so that each Székely received the same amount, regardless of the size of his estate; the people in Háromszék reminded Wesselényi that 'the first settlers had no landed property,' and 'the land they acquired with sword and blood was shared out equally.'[96]96. The letter to Wesselényi is found in the records of the military investigation into the disturbances in Transylvania. Kriegsarchiv, Hofkriegsrat, 1840, C 59/8. They often vowed to get rid of the primors, whom they despised for having betrayed them, but they would readily seek alliance with the primors in their agitation against the border-guard institution, and some of them acknowledged that the primors had done much to safeguard the nation's identity and institutions. The administrative and judicial agencies of the Székely széks offered a sheltered forum for attacks on the border-guard system; border-guard officers would blame the recurrent disturbances on the primors and allege that the latter wanted to undermine the military institution only in order to exercise greater control over the lower orders.

The three orders — primors, lesser nobles, and infantrymen — did not consider that serfs and cotters belonged to the Székely 'nation.' Yet the latter, and particularly those who had once belonged to the higher strata, were also imbued with the notion of Székely liberty, which they would invoke in their efforts to escape feudal dependence. At times, Székely soldiers would try to win the support of serfs and cotters in their fight against the primors; and when the issue was redistribution of land, it was their support was sought by the primors. More commonly, all three orders turned against the serfs when the latter tried to join the border guards and thereby obtain Székely rights.

{3-102.} In this apparent bellum omnium contra omnes, everyone invoked the same principle, Székely liberty, and thus, paradoxically, the conflicts within Székely society helped to preserve its cohesion. It seems that the Székelys drew a lesson from their defeat in 1764, at Mádéfalva; they resisted attempts by the border-guard leadership to divide them with arguments that overrode their traditional value system.

Although, in the feudal system, the two groups constituted separate 'nations,' the Székelys had always regarded themselves as a Hungarian people. This sense of unity was reinforced by the emerging Hungarian national movement. The latter's spokesmen would participate in szék assemblies, and Miklós Wesselényi became the most popular politician in the region, a veritable 'hero to the Székelys.'[97]97. De Gerando, La Transylvanie et ses habitants II, p. 169.

If the Transylvanian opposition failed to advocate reform of serfdom, it was in part because it feared that the feudal orders would withdraw their support, and in part because it was not confident of being able to reach the serfs; differences of religion, language, and custom created a wide gap between the world of serfs and that of the castles and manor houses. Following a cholera epidemic, peasants had revolted in Upper Hungary, and in 1831, there were fears of a similar outburst in Transylvania. Peasants evoked an urbarium that would reduce socage obligations, and some said that the time had come to exterminate the nobility. Some of the rural nobility prudently sought shelter in the towns, and there was talk among them of organizing for military action. The opposition tried to calm peasants with old-fashioned, palliative concessions, although an outraged informer reported that the peasantry was being courted with promises of 'just deserts and liberty.'[98]98. 'Javaslatok a kormánynak,' HHStA, Vienna, Österreichisch-Estenisches Hausarchiv, Präsidialakten in Siebenbürgen. Fasz. 52. Varia. Invoking freedom of religion, some counties demanded that attempts to convert the Orthodox to Greek Catholicism be suspended, and, in fact, the conversion campaign, which had been reinvigorated in the 1820s, came to an end. In another initiative, in spring 1831, {3-103.} Wesselényi declared that none of his peasants could be forced into military service, and his lead was followed in several counties where the opposition prevailed. In a petition to the Gubernium, Kolozs County protested that serfs were 'conscripted, in illegal fashion, by force, and affronted in their human dignity.'[99]99. OL, EOKL, Cista Diplomatica, Gyrás gyűlési jegyzőkönyvek, vol. 22, p. 196. A further demand of the opposition, from which all social strata stood to benefit, was for a reduction in the price of salt. The concluding lines of Wesselényi's book were widely cited: 'The shepherd may sit on a piece of salt while eating his bread, but woe betide him if he should dare to put a bit of it in his bag.'[100]100. M. Wesselényi, Balítéletekről (Leipzig, 1833), p. 323.

By accommodating the prevailing rules of political participation and the sensibilities of its most likely supporters, the Hungarian national movement in Transylvania retained a somewhat feudal character. Yet, when circumstances allowed, not only Wesselényi but also some of the counties would unveil hopes for more radical reform. Thus, in 1834, Alsó-Fehér County wrote to Széchenyi that his books had 'lit a torch, thanks to which Hungarians could see that Nationhood, prosperity, and lasting happiness would be attained not through privileges but through universal liberty, mutual understanding, and the pursuit of the common good.'[101]101. OL, EOKL, Gyrás gyűlési jegyzőkönyvek, vol. 4, p. 50. It was not without reason that Transylvanian aristocrats were accused in a satirical verse of 'wishing to forcefully amalgamate / the nobility and the peasantry.'[102]102. MTA Könyvtár, Kézirattár, MS 354/5.

The first attempts democratize a community were taken in the course of an internal reorganization of the Calvinist Church. Most of the nobles who did not hold public office were Calvinist, and the opposition, led by the elder Count István Bethlen, whose shrewdness had earned him the nickname 'old fox,' turned the Calvinist Church into a political base. The consistory that managed Church affairs was reorganized in two stages; each Calvinist head of family got the right to vote, and commoners could be elected to the consistory by way of a two-stage electoral process. This precedent for democratic representation greatly alarmed the government, which {3-104.} feared that if the opposition forces ever prevailed, they would similarly amend Transylvania's constitution.

The reformed Church leadership gave freer rein to progressive Calvinist clergymen. In their preaching, the latter were already in the habit of linking the Church's social teachings to the libertarian and egalitarian elements of the emergent nationalist ideology. In 1828, Károly Herepei greeted the New Year by declaring 'the time must come when all that men are entitled to, including individual and collective liberty, are regarded as both natural and sacred.'[103]103. K. H[erepei], 'Az elmúlt idő az isteni bölcsesség tüköre,' OSzK Kézirattár, Quart. Hung. 2061. More and more preachers urged that the peasantry be linked to the nation by a bond of mutual interest. Thus Calvinist pastors paved the way for the opposition's campaign, and would continue to serve its goals.

The reformed Calvinist consistory also backed college teachers who professed liberal ideas. When Sámuel Méhes, a Kolozsvár professor, took over the newspaper Erdélyi Híradó, he sought to publish articles that reflected the new spirit. Endre Szász, a law professor at Nagyenyed, became one of the leaders and theoreticians of the reformist opposition. Like Wesselényi and many of his fellow-nobles, Szász was driven by a deep sense of patriotism. He had lost his faith in the cosmopolitanism of the 18th century, and in notions that one could become a citizen of the world; in 1822, on the occasion of his inauguration as professor, he would declare that 'decent men who seek someone with the capacity of sacrificing himself for his fatherland and for mankind will only find such a figure in Plutarch.'[104]104. Szász, Oskolákról, p. 268. Ten years later, in a newspaper article, he connected the events of 1831 to a great, universal process of change, and he noted that social traumas, similar to the workers' rising at Lyons, could only be averted by the institution of a socially equitable and liberal system. In 1822, Szász had praised the British constitution for facilitating the assertion of diverse social interests; ten years later, he praised the English bourgeoisie for its economic activity, although he deplored that it had created a deep gulf between the wealthy and the have-nots. When he cited Hungary as a negative {3-105.} example, it was obviously with the intent of encouraging liberal reformers. And he was similarly inviting emulation when, in 1831, he reported that the Polish revolt had given rise to demands that the serfs not only win their personal liberty but also be given a piece of land.

Károly Szász published, in a hefty volume, the documentary history of the Diploma Leopoldinum, so that this 'basic contract' could be invoked by the opposition in its struggle against bureaucratic absolutism. He defended, in his lectures and on other occasions, the autonomy of the counties, arguing that the monarch did not have the right to tamper with something that, though not codified, was entrenched in legal custom.

The campaign of Hungarian nationalists drew little overt sympathy from civil servants, who were generally paralysed by their servile attachment to the central power, but there were exceptions. The previously noted inventor, Márton Debreczeni, gave up dabbling in Anacreontic verse to begin the composition of a national epic. The most popular early exponent of Hungarian liberalism, Sándor Bölöni Farkas, also came from the ranks of the civil service; his is an exemplary case of Romantic anguish giving way to a yearning for action.

Issued from a Székely military family, the ambitious Bölöni had inherited his father's determination and proud intellect; enduring the humiliations of a civil service career, he rose to the rank of junior clerk at the Gubernium. In his spare time, he translated works by Schiller, Goethe, and Madame de Staël. Bölöni was given to Werther-like melancholy and obsessive introspection, yet he also burned with a desire for action. He wrote, in the early 1820s, that 'life is futile if you see people suffering / and know you cannot fight on their behalf;'[105]105. Korunk Tárczája, 1865, no. 14. at the end of the decade, he would still argue that 'on the whole, he could accomplish more' by drafting the first menu in Hungarian — that is, by helping to Hungarianize social existence — than by a 'theoretical treatise.'[106]106. Bölöni's letter to János Gedő, 11 March 1829, quoted in E. Jakab, Bölöni Farkas Sándor és kora (Keresztény Magvető, 1870), p. 277.

{3-106.} A few years later, following a visit to the United States, Bölöni published an account that was hailed by Széchenyi as one of the most valuable and popular works written in Hungarian. Most Transylvanians knew that America was the land of religious freedom, but now they learned that America's liberal constitution offered the widest scope possible for fulfilling man's potential. Bölöni noted, for instance, that for Americans, 'the only laws are the laws of nature, and only common sense is required to explain these.'[107]107. S. F. Bölöni, Utazás Észak-Amerikában, ed. and introd. by S. Benkő (Bucharest, 1966), p. 276. This notion, along with those of equality and human rights, rang like a political manifesto. At around the same time, Alexis de Tocqueville was writing his own, seminal reflections on democracy in America and noting some of its potential weaknesses. Coming from a more feudal milieu, Bölöni was guided in his at times overly optimistic assessments by the belief that 'only freedom can nurture a truly liberated and educated man.' He wanted to persuade his readers that positive action was right, meaningful, and possible. The impact of his work was also evident in the negative reactions that it aroused; at county assemblies, noblemen would defend their rights by declaring that 'we are not in America' and arguing that a democracy based on nobility was superior to the middle-class variant found across the Atlantic.[108]108. Erdélyi Híradó, 11 November 1842, no. 90.

Bölöni was only one of the many intellectuals — mostly of noble origin — who emerged as fierce critics of the feudal system. It is scarcely surprising that Unitarians figured prominently among those who denounced a system that turned even religion into a tool of petty politics. Although Unitarians accounted for less than ten percent of Transylvania's Hungarian population, they spanned all social strata, and included a lone, eccentric magnate, one of the Bethlen counts, who had converted from Calvinism. Unitarians were marked by a profound sense of political exclusion, and also by a sense of moral superiority blended with rationalism; they had produced martyrs, but no inquisitors. Perhaps it was when their theology veered to deism that Unitarians became so receptive to rationalism {3-107.} and exhibited what Bölöni characterized as the harmony of 'reason and conscience.'[109]109. Bölöni, Utazás, p. 163. Though largely excluded from political and public life, they enjoyed the support of the landed nobility and exploited the social opportunities for influencing politics.

It was an indication of the new relationship between intellectuals and the high-born that when Sándor Bölöni Farkas dedicated his book to his travelling companion, Count Ferenc Béldi, he did so as a token of friendship and respect, and without the customary, fulsome expressions of reverence due to aristocrats. Bölöni was one of the prime initiators of a rapprochement between the nobility and the middle class. He joined Wesselényi and another renowned sportsman, Ádám Kendeffi, in founding a fencing academy as well as a casino (gentlemen's club) at Kolozsvár, and their example was followed in most of the other towns.

The casinos served as a meeting place for nobles and intellectuals who had recently moved to town, and helped not only to break down social barriers but also to improve the nobility's public image; more than one aristocrat became a champion of social equality and derided the anachronistic arrogance of his less adaptable peers. The opposition took great pains to win over conservative burghers, who tended to be suspicious and cling to their privileges, and who could be influential in the diet. From 1837 onwards, the towns and other privileged localities sent a total of thirty-eight delegates to the diet, two more than those representing the counties and Székely széks. To be sure, a majority vote was required mainly for the election of state officials; in general the diet's official position was determined by its chairman, on the basis of consultations with the more eminent representatives of the counties.

Another force for progress were the liberals among those who pursued the old tactic of raising grievances. By exploiting that tactic to promote the cause of the national opposition, they managed — for a time — to rally much of the feudal orders. Most of these liberals considered that since Transylvania's constitution guaranteed {3-108.} representation of a multitude of cross-cutting national and religious interests, it would be senseless for the existing diet to try to enact social reform. Some saw the solution in an early restoration of the unified Hungary that had existed in the Middle Ages; if this could be achieved with the help of the Pozsony diet, Transylvanians would come to share in the benefits of the Hungarian reform movement. However, most Transylvanians felt that, at least in the short run, this option was not feasible, and looked merely for some support from the mainstream of Hungary's reformist opposition.

In the event, the Hungarian unionist movement proved to be far more extensive and powerful than the tentative efforts of the 1790s. Contacts multiplied between county assemblies. Inspired by Wesselényi, Szatmár County took the lead, in 1830; two years later, Alsó-Fehér County circulated a letter to counties in Hungary calling for 'forces to unite.' Kolozs County urged the Pozsony diet to open discussions on unification with the Transylvanian diet. At Pozsony, Wesselényi drew on his prestige as leader of the opposition to call for an early meeting of Transylvania's diet.