The Struggle for Local Power

The Pest assembly had turned against the February Patent; conservatives who had chosen to serve the new régime lost their self-confidence, liberals openly opposed the reforms, and the émigrés unanimously supported the liberals. In these circumstances, the Vienna régime could not count on the Hungarian parliament to facilitate the work of the Viennese Reichsrat, and this, in turn, put the whole centralist experiment in jeopardy. The beleaguered Schmerling had to produce results, and he therefore attempted to create a Transylvanian Parliament, one that would accept the new order; this could then reduce the significance of the Hungarian refusal and help to break Pest's resistance.

'{3-417.} All constitutional issues are questions of power,'[44]44.É. Somogyi, A birodalmi centralizációtól a dualizmusig. Az osztrák német liberálisok útja a kiegyezéshez (Budapest, 1976), p. 11. admitted Schmerling. In 1861, he began to back the Romanians in their national endeavours, in the hope that a promise of granting rights might facilitate cooperation between the government and Romanian politicians, and that a separate, Transylvanian diet, with the participation of Saxons and Romanians, would provide opportunities for the government to exploit and manipulate the difficult relations between the nationalities. The Transylvanian chancellor, Ferenc Kemény, did not oppose the convocation of a diet, but he wanted to follow the conservative tradition and organize the elections on a quasi-feudal basis, by granting advantages to those whose rights were entrenched in 1791. At the same time, he wanted to accommodate new social realities by offering at least token participation to 'the country's new citizens,' especially to newly-freed villeins; he did this by extending the franchise to those, some 10,000 in number, who paid a direct tax of eight forints. The Kolozsvár Gubernium demurred, and in the spring of 1861, it declared itself in favour of union and of the electoral system enacted in 1848. In Vienna, Kemény's project lost its actuality. That summer, Schmerling promised the Romanians that the property qualification would be lowered to 4.5 forints, which was tantamount to guaranteeing a Romanian majority in the diet. Meanwhile, Francis Joseph twice declared to a delegation of Romanians: 'I can assure you, gentlemen, that with regard to a union of Transylvania and Hungary, I will never allow it.'[45]45. Corespondenţa lui Ioan Ratiu cu George Bariţiu (1861-1892), ed. by K. Hitchins and L. Maior (Cluj, 1970), p. 51.

After issuing the letters patent, the sovereign, on 24 March 1861, decreed the abolition of the rigid absolutist system {3-418.} of local administration and the restoration of self-government in the counties, széks and free royal towns of Transylvania. The conduct of that province's affairs was, at the time, subject to a dual system of power. On one side, there was Kemény and Mikó, each with his staff; both were moderate advocates of union, and their general outlooks were similar, if not identical. On the other side was Schmerling's centralist government. The replacement of the absolutist agencies of local administration by a new system of county administration took place amidst a simmering conflict between the two sides.

The province was made up of ten counties, five Székely and nine Saxon széks, two Saxon districts, eleven free royal towns, and eighteen privileged localities. Romanians were appointed to the post of lord lieutenant in the counties of Hunyad and Felső-Fehér; Romanian commissioners were placed in charge of Naszód and Fogaras, which were called districts but functioned like counties. (There were four other Romanian lord lieutenants, in counties of Hungary that had a Romanian majority.) In the Királyföld, Franz Salmen (who had been expelled in 1852) was handed the task of restoring Saxon autonomy, with the proviso that the rights of Romanian inhabitants had to be respected.

As could be expected, this administrative reorganization provoked grave discord between Hungarian liberals and the Romanian political elite, as well as between the latter and Saxon officials and patricians. Hungarian liberals wanted first to restore the counties as they had been after the revolution in 1848, and only then to consider their further development. In 1848 had the county be ceased to be an institution exclusively associated with the nobility, but its transformation into a civil institution and the regulation for the election of municipal delegates to the county — including Romanians — were not carried to completion. As a result, it remained unclear how the Romanian nationality would be integrated into the new political and administrative system.

In the spring of 1861, the Hungarian liberals — in accord with the two wings of the liberal opposition in Pest — followed Kossuth's advice and focused on the reform of local government in their struggle against the centralizers in Vienna. Until 1848, the county assembly of municipal authorities was responsible for the appointment and supervision of civil servants and court officials, as well as for the raising of taxes; it set the general tone and pattern of local political life. For the nobility, it was vital to preserve its predominance, {3-419.} or at least to secure a majority support for its interests, in the counties, which were its traditional bastions and the base for Hungarian national endeavours. Landowners and intellectuals, grouped around János Bethlen Jr and Domokos Teleki, seized the initiative at county meetings and took advantage of the fact that the formation of county committees, and the appointment of officials, was conducted on the basis of the 1848 regulations. As a result, in the spring of 1861, they secured important posts in the political and administrative organs of Transylvania. These positions of power helped them to press their demands. Exploiting the opportunities provided by the October Diploma, this empowered elite turned against the diploma and the letters patent, and demanded constitutionalism and the reinstatement of the 1848 laws; and, considering the union to be a legal fact, it demanded that Transylvania's delegates be invited to the national assembly that was about to convene in Pest. Accordingly, they submitted solemn petitions to the Gubernium, the chancellor, the sovereign, to counties in Hungary, and to the Parliament in Pest. Torda county wanted the Pest assembly to restore the union and to formally recognize the equal rights of nationalities; Udvarhelyszék tried to have its delegate admitted to the parliament.

The Hungarians wondered to what extent they had succeeded in reaching a pragmatic modus vivendi with the representatives of the Romanian bourgeoisie — a vital question for them. The Romanians accepted and defended vigorously the essential elements of the 1848 laws — the abolition of villeinage and other measures aiming at a liberal transformation — but did not relax their vehement opposition to union. Although they had a shared interest in the entrenchment of constitutionalism, Hungarian liberals and Romanian intellectuals were unable to overcome their differences and form a common front. Romanian politicians, encouraged by the Viennese government, were adamant that Transylvania remain autonomous; they demanded that liberties be guaranteed on a {3-420.} national basis, and they rejected not only union but also the Hungarian approach to the nationality question, which concentrated on individual rights and cultural freedom. On the other hand, if the nationalities were granted equal rights, the Romanians could win political control of regions where they were in the majority and, in the long run, extend their hegemony over Transylvania.

Hungarian conservatives and liberals all understood that neither in Hungary, nor in Transylvania could the Romanians be excluded from politics and public administration. Nevertheless, the ideas on how they were to be included varied from region to region. With regard to counties in Hungary with a Romanian majority, the Hungarians were not worried if the odd municipal authority fell into Romanian hands; the Hungarians were confident that the latter would agree with the liberals on most fundamental issues, and they were ready to discuss minority rights in a proper, constitutional context. In Transylvania, the Hungarians resigned themselves to Romanian administration in Naszód and Fogaras, which had a large Romanian majority, and they considered it desirable that the Romanians play a bigger role in the Királyföld as well. However, the Hungarians were not prepared to cede power to the Romanians at the county level; at the most, they were willing to admit them to political forums and the country administration on a parity basis. As a general rule, it was those who had served in 1848 who were named to the new county committees, along with a few municipal representatives and other coopted members. The lord lieutenants appointed Romanians to a quarter of the seats on the committees, and they also tried to find some suitable candidates for civil service jobs. 'Romanians are sought for offices like men are dragooned into the army,' wrote the correspondent of the Gazeta Transilvaniei from Doboka.[46]46. 'Foaie pentru minte, inimă şi literatura,' 26 April 1861, quoted in S. Retegan, Dieta româneasca a Transilvaniei (1863-1864) (Cluj-Napoca, 1979), p. 48. In Kolozs County, where the liberals were well entrenched, the local authorities allowed Romanian language to be used both at meetings and in official business, and they also invited other counties to follow suit. The county officials subsequently {3-421.} declared that they 'considered it necessary and reasonable to liberate language from its chains, for language is a necessary tool for the expression of ideas, desires, and grievances, an indispensable vehicle for mutual understanding, cohesion, and fraternization.'[47]47. L. Ürmössy, Tizenhét év Erdély történetéből III (Temesvár, 1894), p. 281. For the first time in history, Romanian deputies joined county committees on the strength of their ethnic status and were free to use their mother tongue in debates as well as in written submissions. Moreover, in the institutions of certain localities, Romanian became predominant. When the government commissioner, Count Gábor Bethlen, chaired the opening session of Naszód's municipal council, he delivered his opening address in Romanian; there, and in Fogaras as well, most of Romanian county councils and officials opted for Romanian as the official language.

By now, such concessions no longer satisfied the Romanian national movement. Petitions were addressed to the councils of counties with a Hungarian majority, solemnly protesting at the exclusion of Romanian priests, and of most Romanian and Hungarian peasants, from county administration. The petitioners insisted that these public bodies take on additional, representative Romanians and set as their first priority the equalization of rights between the two nationalities. The speeches delivered in local political contests, the petitions and counter-petitions aired not only mutual grievances about the past, but also sincere wishes for conciliation. Although the remedies offered varied widely, many people in both camps hoped that national antagonisms could be attenuated.

In 1861, during the political campaigns at the county level, the Romanian bourgeoisie was most active in Alsó-Fehér County. The majority of the population was Romanian, and the county encompassed both the ecclesiastical and intellectual centre of Balázsfalva, and the Érc Mountains, with its traditionally rebellious Romanian peasantry. All this worked in favour of political activism: over a period of months, the Romanians organized numerous processions {3-422.} and public meetings. At a meeting convened by Axente on May 15 at Balázsfalva, the Romanians reiterated their national demands, and — in contrast to the Hungarian opposition — vowed loyalty to the empire, a gesture that was gratefully acknowledged by the central government. Led by laymen and priests, groups of Romanian peasants headed for Gyulafehérvár and Nagyenyed, where their protests evoked memories of 1848–49 and gave cause for concern not only to Hungarian liberals, but to the Transylvanian government as well. Chancellor Ferenc Kemény expressed his disapproval of these popular movements in a message to the archbishop of Balázsfalva, Şuluţiu; the latter assured him that the Romanians would continue to act within the letter of the law.

In the Királyföld, seats and districts were reorganized on the pre-1848 model. Delegations requested Mikó and Kemény to restore the Universitas Saxonum, and this was done in May. When it convened in July, the Universitas began by adopting new rules of order, then passed resolutions extending the juridical powers of local boards and setting up of a provisional appeals court; acting in the name of the Universitas, the latter would serve the entire Szászföld. The Saxons' patrician-bureaucrat leadership and the local Romanian bourgeoisie — significant in both numbers and wealth — saw eye to eye on the question of union: broadly speaking, they were against it. However, when it came to sharing the benefits of the new order, they came into conflict, for the Romanians were much worse off here than in the counties. The ongoing reorganization favoured the Saxons; they made sure that the reconstituted councils of the széks take on the former councillors, leaving potential newcomers with only a few vacancies to fill. This restoration, begun on the basis of the 1805 rules, was difficult to reconcile with the principle of equal civil rights, and Comes (Count) Salmen tried to move with the times by letting the Romanians have a few posts. In 1861, for the first time in its long history, the Universitas included (four) Romanian delegates. In Brassó eight Romanians were {3-423.} elected to the centumvirate, and Hungarians and Romanians each elected one of the fifteen senators. Only four Romanians acceded to Nagyszeben's centumvirate, which was expanded to 120 members. As before, senators and delegates to the széks were elected by the centumvirate — much to the displeasure of the Romanians, who formed a majority in most of the széks. Thus the Transylvanian Saxons were intent on defending their ancient privileges. A large delegation of Romanians confronted Salmen with the demands that the Universitas be reconstituted with eleven Saxon and eleven Romanian representatives, that the senate of Szebenszék have an equal number of Romanian and Saxon members, and that there be no discrimination against Romanians in the selection of local officials. Much as in the counties, a vast petition movement got under way; Salmen was besieged with demands for equal rights in public administration and with complaints that the behaviour of the Transylvanian Saxon bourgeoisie was downright 'inhuman, offensive, and humiliating.'[48]48. M. Mester, 'Az erdélyi románok első törvényhatósági küzdelmei a magyarokkal és szászokkal 1860-1863,' Magyarságtudomány, II, 1, p. 13; T.V. Păcăţian, Cartea de aur sau luptele politice naţionale ale românilor de sub coroana ungarâ II (Sibiu, 1906), pp. 622-3. When Salmen threatened police action against politically active Romanian priests, Bishop Şaguna rose to the letter's defence; emulating Şuluţiu's defence of the popular movements in the counties, he enumerated the grievances of Romanians in Királyföld, although he also stressed that the exemplary restraint shown by Romanian priests and intellectuals served the preservation of peace and calm.

Romanian intellectuals in the counties looked to Vienna for support against the Hungarian landowners. With respect to the Királyföld, the tables were turned, for it was the Hungarian-led Gubernium, as well as the court chancellor, Ferenc Kemény, who received the Romanians complaints with traditional understanding and benevolence. The chancellery went so far as to invalidate the restoration of old institutions in Sebesszék and Szerdahelyszék, and to charge a royal commissioner with reorganizing the seats. The Hungarian press was also quick to lend its support to the Romanians' struggle in the Szászföld.

{3-424.} The autonomous towns also turned back to the model of 1848. Mainly because of their small number, the Romanians gained little ground in the town councils. In Brassó they got one seat on the magistracy, and they also won a say in the administration of Szászváros, Szászsebes, Abrudbánya, and Gyulafehérvár, and full control of Vajdahunyad as well as of Hátszeg. That small town, once no more than a military frontier post, became the focus of Romanian political activity; a group of merchants, craftsmen, and intellectuals launched a campaign to turn the Hátszeg area into a Romanian district on the model of Naszód and Fogaras.

By the autumn of 1861, the reorganization of local administration in Transylvania was well-advanced. The Saxons ruled in the Királyföld, while Hungarian liberals and conservatives controlled most of the counties and towns. The Romanians also made some gains, notably in the former military frontier zones, where they created what amounted to an autonomous Romanian district; in Vienna, Kemény tried, without success, to block the Romanian grab for power at Naszód by arguing that a vigorous Romanian national movement would only create problems in the long run. However, the emergence of a comparatively balanced political situation did not bring tranquillity. In counties controlled by Hungarians, the Romanians protested against the latter's hegemony; where local administration was under Romanian control, it was the Hungarians who protested. Both displayed their rejection of the existing political balance — even as a temporary compromise — by staging theatrical exits from council meetings, by passive resistance, and by submitting petitions.

It was not in Transylvania, but in the distant world of the émigrés that the most comprehensive plan was devised for overcoming the cleavage between nationalities. The author was Lajos Kossuth, and he approached the problem from a broad European perspective.