Transylvania in the Summer of 1848

The harmonization of Transylvania's administrative structure with that of Hungary was bound to be slow and gradual. Transylvania's particular circumstances would have justified some differentiation, {3-262.} but the liberals, notably Miklós Wesselényi and László Teleki, considered that those same particularities hindered domestic liberalization, and they therefore opted for a comprehensive approach to the creation of a homogeneous constitutional state. Although Marosvásárhely and Kolozsvár would have preferred that the highest judicial forum, the royal court of appeal, continue to function in Transylvania, many liberals wanted a fully centralized judicial system, with the highest court in Pest. It would have taken years to find the optimal solution to such complex problems.

The centralization of legislative authority was never debated. As soon as the act of union was ratified and a new national assembly convened in Pest, the Transylvanian diet was dissolved. There was little mourning for this autonomous provincial legislature; the liberals, in particular, associated the diet (apart from its final session) with setbacks and disappointments. Transylvania's leading liberals headed for Pest to sit in parliament or serve on the unification committee. Károly Szász and Zsigmond Kemény already held appointments as undersecretaries of state. In the counties, the office of lord lieutenant was filled mostly from the second rank of liberal notables, although those conservative incumbents who had gone along with the revolution and remained popular were not replaced.

To facilitate continuity, the Gubernium and the Vienna-based chancellery for Transylvanian affairs were retained and incorporated into the new government structure. When the governor, József Teleki, moved to Pest to chair the committee on unification, the Gubernium was left in the charge of the vice-chairman, János Mikó, who had decided in early May to break with the conservatives and cooperate with the liberal government in Hungary, and of Ferenc Kemény, who tended to shift back and forth between the liberals and the conservatives. In June, the government and Palatine Stephen had appointed Baron Miklós Vay as the king's plenipotentiary commissioner in Transylvania; the Transylvanians would have preferred Széchenyi, but he refused to be a candidate. Vay had {3-263.} been one of the leaders of the former Conservative Party, but even liberals respected him for his upright and straightforward character. In retrospect, many criticized the appointment; Vay himself had been ambivalent about taking on the difficult assignment in an unfamiliar region. It may be that a former opposition politician would have done better at safeguarding Transylvania's interests in this revolutionary period. Yet there were some sound reasons for appointing an aristocrat who enjoyed the confidence of the monarch. For one thing, people set great store by rank and personal presence, by pomp and circumstance; for another, part of the Transylvanian nobility (which functioned as a ruling aristocracy) resented the liberation of serfs and was therefore ambivalent about a union engineered by liberals. And it has to be admitted that, at least initially, Vay's balanced and modest demeanor helped to enhance the prestige of the Hungarian government.

Once the abolition of serfdom had been proclaimed, resistance began to wane among the peasantry. There had been several clashes, including the one at Mihálcfalva, in early June. Villagers in some previously quiescent districts of Küküllő and Felső-Fehér counties prevented the local magistrate from reading out the Gubernium circular promising abolition, arguing that they had taken the oath at Balázsfalva and would only listen to instructions from that source. After the abolition of serfdom, conflicts acquired a more local character. In villages where social tensions were low, the landowners tried to nurture good relations by organizing public feasts and pointing out that the nobility had made sacrifices to facilitate the abolition of serfdom. Wesselényi had drawn up a circular on behalf of the Gubernium, explaining in detail the provisions for abolition, but many former serfs were mystified by his political elucubrations. For some, the frequent references to liberty and equality evoked the egalitarian notions they had assimilated from catechism. Landlords noted that 'the villagers seemed surprised when we failed to don peasant garb and head off to till the land with our {3-264.} own hands.'[47]47. Baroness Jozefa Wesselényi, wife of Baron János Bánffy, in Emlék-iratai 1848-49-i élményeiről, ed. by L. Kelemen (Cluj-Kolozsvár, 1931), p. 6. At harvest time, an acute shortage of labour gave rise to new tensions between landlords and peasants. In many places, peasants (apart from former members of the lesser nobility) refused to harvest even in return for half of the crop, fearing that the authorities would construe such action as acceptance of their former feudal dependence. They also feared that their allotments would be classified as allodial, leaving them to share the fate of seigniorial cotters, who were not eligible for grants of land pursuant to the abolition of serfdom. In mid-July, some county councils, including that of Kolozs, authorized the use of force to compel curialists and cotters on seigniorial lands to return to work, or to pay compensation in money and kind, depending on their previous agreement with the landlords. Indeed, landowners often attempted to draw peasants into contracts which allowed the lands to be declared seigniorial. Alternatively, they simply declared the lands used by peasants to be seigniorial and exacted labour rent. Others tried to compel the peasants to make up for arrears in their socage obligations. The situation was so chaotic that even petty nobles, who had been using seigniorial lands in exchange for services, requested their 'release from serfdom' and free title to the lands they had been renting.

In most districts, individuals and communities, groups of cotters, and even whole villages would find a lawyer, seminarian, or other literate person to put their old and new grievances in writing, for submission to the Gubernium, the commander-in-chief, the royal commissioner, the Hungarian government, or the parliament. Naturally, those who wished to exercise the right to move were unwilling to simply hand over their land to other peasants; still others demanded the return of recently exchanged plots, or of land that had been confiscated and then granted to others. In spring 1848, many of the villages that had revolted, and then been forced to provide labour, along with some that had shrunk from such radical action, laid claim to fields, pastures and woods, on the grounds that 'every Hungarian citizen ... has to make a decent living.'[48]48. Károly Jakab, 'Kolozsmegyei szegények szószólója által,' a petition drafted by several villages and handed in to the parliament in Pest. OL, Archivum Regnicolare, Diet of 1848-49, Lad. XX. Fasc. 2. A. 183/m-p. In the {3-265.} counties, some 10–15 percent of the villages submitted collective grievances against their landlord (see table 11). The situation was apparently peaceful in the Fogaras district and in Hunyad County — perhaps because villagers could no longer find a trustworthy and literate person after the repression of radical wing of the Romanian national movement.


Table 11: The number of individual and collective complaints submitted by peasants to the Transylvanian Gubernium and the city of Kolozsvár and Pest from April 1848 to the fall of 1848

Municipal authority (country) Number of villages Individual complaints
(the petitions of 1, 2 or 3 people)
Collective complaints
(several people, tax-paying comm.
or a village)
owing to being forced to do socage work owing to consfication of land or the small amount of compensation number of villages from which the complaints were sent owing to residue socage owing to the confiscation of common land, field, pasture, forest or againts a border class number of villages from which the complaints were sent
Alsó-Fehér 195 4 4 4 1 5
Felső-Fehér 72 16 6 5 5 8
Doboka 171 6 51 40 13 15 28
Hunyad 376 2 2 2 2
Kolozs 205 5 24 25 18 24 36
Küküllő 114 12 10 6 7 13
Belső-Szolnok 147 1 21 19 7 7
Torda 170 7 6 11 7 14 18
Fogaras 63 4 2 3 3


The significance of the number of arrests in spring and summer 1848 is debatable (see table 12). In the Székelyföld, there was a surge in personal vendettas that ended in manslaughter. Selective reprisals aimed at deterrence would have incurred the risk of social upheaval in that region, and also in Küküllő County, where Balázsfalva had inspired a collective spirit of resistance. In the Szászföld, arrests occurred only in the district of Brassó. When, in late summer 1848, a report was compiled on the two hundred people who had been taken into custody since mid-April, it was found that close to two-thirds of them were already free on bail. Those arrested included Romanian priests as well as Hungarian nobles who had publicy denounced the liberalism of the Hungarian government. Thus the situation was comparatively calm, and the authorities were only moderately concerned when it was reported that many rural folk remained convinced the 'Hungarian lords' had overthrown the emperor and put a king in his place.


Table 12: The number of people imprisoned for incitement in the spring and summer of 1848

Municipal authority
Number of villages from which the induvidual or collective complaints were sent
Number of the arrested and those set free on the basis of a bail
Number of places where the arrested came from

The counties pursued the investigation of grievances, but many of these could not be redressed in short order. Another ominous circumstance was that when priests and notaries failed to persuade peasants to return to work, the county authorities would apply local rulings and resort to force. Vay noted that 'landlords and officials had given free rein to their brutality in several localities.'[49]49. Vay to Bertalan Szemere, 2 September 1848, quoted in I. Deák, A szabadságharc története, p. 208. On one occasion, the central government did take effective action: Kossuth, in his capacity as finance minister, applied the spirit of a Kolozsvár law to free Romanians in the Szászföld from their tithe obligation. On the other hand, soldiers had to be dispatched to several localities to extract tithes from Saxon peasants. In the Székelyföld, an old pattern was repeated when peasants who remained landless tried to join the national guard in the hope of obtaining land. A visit by Vay momentarily cooled tempers, if only because many believed that he was the king in disguise. By mid-summer, the royal commissioner could report that 'major problems can be found nowhere — minor ones everywhere.'[50]50. Miklós Vay's report to Bertalan Szemere, Kolozsvár, 28 July 1848. OL, 1848/49, Belügyminisztérium, elnöki iratok. 1848: 674. In fact, people worried less about politics than about two menaces arriving from the southeast, cholera and locusts.

The threat of civil war, which loomed in late May and early June, was dispelled by the royal assent to union and by the abolition of serfdom. The Saxons got tired of blaming their diet delegates for the outcome, and Nagyszeben's press muted its once ardently anti-unionist tone. Yet Saxon leaders made clear that they regarded the union as a 'contract'; in petitions to the government and parliament, they reiterated, with greater force than at Kolozsvár, the demand for recognition of their special legal status. The most important development in Saxon public life was the political mobilization of young people. In August, under the guidance of {3-268.} Stephan Ludwig Roth, a youth rally was organized at Medgyes. Instead of engaging in political confrontation, they wanted to promote a sense of community and called for the organization choral groups and sports clubs. 'We will be strong if Germany is strong,' they wrote in a letter to Frankfurt, and added that 'we wish to be what we have always been; honest German people and honest citizens of the state to which we belong.'[51]51. St. L. Roth, Gesammelte Schriften und Briefe VII. Bd.: Das Schicksal, ed. O. Folberth (Berlin, 1964), pp. 79-80. The feeling of solidarity with the 'motherland,' meaning Germany, momentarily overshadowed the wish for an undivided Austrian empire. The stress laid on loyal citizenship reflected a desire to fit into the new political structure of Hungary; on the negative side, the young Saxons did not seem to share the commitment of Brassó's press to the ideal of liberty.

The Romanian national movement also adopted a posture of wait-and-see. The movement to take up arms in the Érc Mountains did not turn into a rising, although on June 19–20, when rumours flew that troops were on their way, the alarmed villagers made preparations to resist. When the royal assent to union was made public, Abrudbánya was secured by a few companies of soldiers, and the Gubernium launched an exhaustive investigation, in consequence of which several Romanian priests and officials were put under arrest. Those who had attempted to mobilize the peasants in May and June sought refuge in Nagyszeben or Wallachia. Among them was the principal ringleader, Iancu, who may have retained some hope of compromise, for he promised in a parting message that if the investigations failed to unveil the 'truth,' he would turn 'to the Magyars of Hungary.'

In fact, Romanians in the Érc Mountains soon dispatched a lawyer to Pest, and several Romanian communities requested that the work of the Gubernium's investigative commission be reviewed; the authorities turned a deaf ear to this legitimate demand, giving the Romanians another excuse for harbouring thoughts of revenge. Church leaders continued to counsel calm and moderation {3-269.} and, in their circulars, stressed the advantages of unification. Thus Şaguna would, on the one hand, urge Pest to grant legal recognition of the Romanian nation, and, on the other hand, argue in his circular letters that measures such as the abolition of tithes for the Szászföld's Romanians and the investigation of military abuses indicated that the Romanian nation, too, could finally enjoy the fruits of liberty and equality. The liberal, politically moderate members of the intelligentsia also favoured acceptance of the new constitutional and legal order, and they tended to overestimate the opportunities offered by that order for the promotion of Romanian interests. The new political reality was accepted both by Brassó's Romanian newspaper, which consistently advocated political participation, and by the paper in Balázsfalva. The former pointed out that 'the new laws in Hungary and Transylvania have nullified all the laws that had oppressed the Romanians and other peoples' and 'have addressed all the points raised at the national meeting in Balázsfalva, apart from the principle of nationality in its most literal sense.'[52]52. 'Suzeran. Semisuzeran în Moldavo-România,' Gazeta, 14-16 June 1848, no. 48.

The Hungarian government applied the principles of individual liberty and respect for human dignity without qualifications. Thus, when people in some of the towns attempted to restrict the activity of Jews in distilling and threatened to expel them, Imre Mikó dismissed legalistic objections by invoking the imperative of 'humaneness' and asked the Hungarian interior minister to intervene.[53]53. 'Az erdélyi Gubernium felirata a magyar belügyminisztériumnak. Fogalmazvány Mikó Imre saját kezű betoldásával,' Kolozsvár, 20 August 1848. OL, GP 1848: 9838. The appropriate response was not long in the coming, for the Hungarian government had consistently tried to act against any manifestation of anti-semitism.

However, the harmful legacies of the past could not be eliminated in short order. This was illustrated not only by the difficulties in implementing the abolition law, but also in the election of deputies. To be sure, the Kolozsvár law had radically modified electoral procedures in the towns and the 'taxalist' localities. The franchise was no longer based on civic status, but on the value of {3-270.} personal property. Previously, the delegates from most of these localities had been chosen by a hundred-member communitas and other councils; now, the electorate was considerably enlarged, in larger towns by a factor of ten. In the Szászföld, diet delegates had been commonly chosen by an electoral commission consisting of two representatives from each village and six from each town council; with the property qualifications, the franchise was extended to hundreds of people. To be sure, the lawmakers had tried to forestall the emergence of an anti-liberal majority by setting a very high threshold for village electors: only people who paid eight forints in taxes over and above the poll tax were eligible to vote. To give the peasants a sense of involvement, the villages, depending on their population, were allowed to delegate one or two electors. Even so, only some 4,000 former serfs could join the 30,000–40,000 lesser nobles on the electoral rolls. Romanians were not the only ones to feel the effects of these restrictions. In the Székelyföld, only 600 serfs won the right to vote, in addition to 20,000–25,000 lesser nobles and frontier guards. On the other hand, Romanians constituted most of the lesser nobility (apart from some urban dwellers) in the Fogaras district, and a significant proportion of the lesser nobility in several counties.

Bearing in mind the predominance of Hungarians in the towns and the comparatively large number of Saxons who paid high taxes, it could be anticipated that there would be no more than 14 Romanians among the 73 parliamentary deputies from Transylvania, or barely a fifth, at a time when Romanians accounted for more than half of the population. In the event, Transylvania sent all of six Romanian deputies to Pest (where they were joined by 14–15 Romanians who had been elected in other regions of Hungary), and, in most counties, the successful candidates were liberals of established reputation. The main reason for this was that, in many localities, the majority of eligible voters preferred to tend their fields. In some places, Romanians demonstrated their opposition to {3-271.} the electoral system by boycotting the polls; it is even more significant that, to all appearances, the Romanian lesser nobles did not change their electoral habits. Understandably, the Romanian intelligentsia was dissatisfied with the electoral system and the outcome of the election. Yet its members tended to underestimate the opportunities it offered for promoting their nation's interests, although the legal provision for some popular representation was greeted with some enthusiasm in Balázsfalva's Romanian newspaper.

At the urging of Romanian bishops and deputies, Interior Minister Szemere added some Romanian substitute members, including Cipariu, to the unification committee, which had been at work since mid-July. It did not bode well that József Teleki, a generally flexible politician, chose to raise legalistic objections and, for a long time, kept them from sharing in the work of the committee. If he had taken a less dilatory approach, and if the Romanians had been given the chance to play a constructive role in negotiations, events might have taken a less tragic turn in September.

When, in late June, a revolution broke out in Wallachia, the leaders of the Romanian national movement in Transylvania hoped that the provisional government in Bucharest might prevail on the Hungarian government to give more serious attention to their demands. They calculated that the Budapest government had an interest in forming an alliance with Wallachia, and such an accord could be made conditional on guarantees for the national rights of Romanians in Transylvania. It was this expectation, along with disillusionment at domestic politics, that led Bariţ to tell his readers in Brassó that 'the fate of the Romanian nation will be determined in Bucharest and Iaşi, not in Kolozsvár, Balázsfalva, or Buda.'[54]54. G. Bariţ, 'Terorismul străin în Moldavo-România, Gazeta, 27 May/8 June 1848, no. 43. To promote revolution in Wallachia, Bariţ published a number of calls to arms and even aired the possibility of armed assistance by Transylvanian Romanians; meanwhile, he often discoursed on the terms of a 'natural alliance' between the Romanian principalities and Hungary.

{3-272.} The initiatives aiming at a Romanian-Hungarian alliance and its eventual expansion into a Danubian confederation originated with Polish émigrés in Paris and coincided with the drive for Romanian unification and independence. The two orientations would alternately merge and work at cross purposes. Some Wallachians and other Romanians dreamed of a state (often referred to as Dacia) that stretched from the Dniester to the Tisza rivers. For the time being, such hopes found expression only in lyrical poetry. The belief that Romanians everywhere belonged to one nation enjoyed even greater currency. The young idealists who pursued the goal of Romanian unity had to do so in secret, for the Russian foreign minister, Nesselrode, had threatened military occupation of the principalities to crush any 'Daco–Roman' initiative.

Romanians in Transylvania also had to tread carefully, for the military authorities took a dim view of Daco–Roman plots. There was some debate over the question among young Romanians at Balázsfalva, and the Daco–Roman orientation came to prevail in one or two villages. When, in June, the authorities refused to allow the Gubernium's decree on the abolition of serfdom to be read out in Nagyiklánd, some villagers protested: 'We will not stick with Hungary, we want to unite with Wallachia and Moldavia, as we have already been made to swear twelve times over.' They later told investigators that these oaths had been administered by Bishop Şaguna, but since the Orthodox bishop was known for his extreme prudence, their claim must be discounted.[55]55. OL, 1848/49, Belügyminisztérium, Rendőri osztály, I. kútfő, 7845. The accused tried to escape punishment by pretending that they had envisaged union only in the religious sense. In his public statements at the national meeting in Balázsfalva, even Bărnuţiu had spoken only of the cultural unity of Romanians and had affirmed that a nation could exist under several separate governments.

In opposition to an Austrian orientation, the Wallachian plotters were inspired by the Polish émigrés' plan for a Danubian confederation to try and link the Romanian and Hungarian initiatives {3-273.} for independence. They wanted this confederation — still undefined as to structure and membership — to become a force in European politics, one that could resist the expansionist pressure of czarist Russia. Little is known about their ideas on Hungarian–Romanian relations. By one account, some Romanians sounded out Hungarian leaders on the prospects for a 'Swiss-type confederation,' but they may merely have been considering such a step while pursuing other options.

The individual planners can hardly be blamed if objective conditions did not favour the realization of these lofty objectives. (They were, however, responsible for the consequences of their lack of realism.) The Hungarian government could hardly afford to get involved in a venture that was not backed by any European power. It did favour an alliance with the Romanian principalities, but only as part of the empire. If, indeed, Wallachia's emissaries had been instructed to pursue this option with the Hungarian government, they accomplished nothing. One of them, August Laurian, got caught up in the hurly-burly of Transylvanian politics; he would eventually promote Romanian unity within the framwork of Austria. For the time being, Wallachia's foreign policy was controlled by those who wished to unify Romanians under the tutelage of the emergent Germany. Thus A.G. Golescu may have cited Hungary's abolition of serfdom as deserving emulation, but, in mid-summer, he urged Transylvanian Romanians to join with Saxons and Croats in a counter-revolutionary alliance. When some intercepted letters revealed his scheme to the Hungarian government, Hungarian–Romanian relations predictably took a turn for the worse.

The Wallachians' German orientation did encompass the possibility of compromise. The Transylvanian-born Ioan Maiorescu, who had prepared the submissions to German officials in Frankfurt, favoured peaceful means and disagreed with the attempt to incite Transylvanian Romanians to join a counter-revolutionary alliance {3-274.} against the Hungarians. He was aware that liberals across Europe sympathized with the Hungarians, and when, in mid-November, he came to Frankfurt — representing a government that no longer existed — he argued that Hungary itself would become stronger if it gave up Transylvania and agreed to have the Hungarian and Romanian 'national remnants' in territories of mixed population moved, along with the Hungarians of Székelyföld, to new national states. He would have liked a Habsburg to occupy the Romanian throne and stressed that Romania, linked to Hungary by a mutual security pact, and with its independence guaranteed by Germany, could contribute to the stability of the European balance of power.

Maiorescu's ideas bore some superficial resemblance to those aired by Wesselényi in June, but the notion of a population exchange implied threat and violence, and thus did not seem conducive to peaceful coexistence. In any case, appeals for foreign intervention were a poor substitute for attempts at peaceful, bilateral accommodation. In the absence of domestic support for such accommodation, Maiorescu would shift to a more counter-revolutionary orientation.

In 1848, the diplomatic efforts of Hungary and the Romanian principalities reflected a certain interest in cooperating to safeguard their autonomy as well as a more conflictual wish to maximize power and influence. At times, the exaggerated and contradictory objectives and desires of one were invoked by the other to justify similar aims. The Hungarian government's tentative, dilatory, and at times ill-conceived approach to the nationalities problem antagonized Romanians, as did the notion, periodically aired in the Hungarian press, that the Hungarian Crown legitimated territorial expansion to the east. That option was not simply the nationalistic emulation of great power politics; it also reflected the liberals' wish to secure the new Hungarian state by giving it the balancing function hitherto played by the Habsburg monarchy. They anticipated that Hungary's autonomy would be consolidated if, as seemed likely, {3-275.} Austria's hereditary provinces joined a unified Germany. Some Hungarian statesmen were naive enough to believe that if this came to pass, the Romanian principalities would, of their own volition, rally to the Hungarian Crown; all of them believed in the possibility of establishing mutually beneficial, neighbourly relations.

The contradictions, inconsistencies, and uncertainties of Hungarian and Romanian foreign policy may have owed something to the new leaders' lack of experience in foreign affairs, but they also reflected the fluid state of the European international system. Small nations needed the assistance of great powers to consolidate their autonomy, and they had to adapt to the changing structure of power in Europe in order to be accepted as credible partners. The weaknesses and inner contradictions of the Hungarian and Romanian revolutions, and the threats emanating from abroad, limited the prospects for a bilateral alliance. One of the goals of the Wallachian revolutionaries was to end serfdom, but, even in the absence of a minority problem, they failed at the task. The movement's left wing, which favoured a Hungarian–Romanian alliance, did not win a share of the leading posts in the revolutionary régime. The provisional government in Bucharest had to fight for its survival against a conservative backlash. Finally, in late September, Turkish forces, followed by Russian ones, took control of Bucharest and put an end to the whole revolutionary experiment.

The crushing of the Wallachian revolution led progressive-minded people in Hungary — including Transylvania — to mourn the loss of a potential ally. A similar threat was looming over Hungary as well.