The US and the 1848 Hungarian Revolution

by | Jul 7, 2014 | Common History

Many Americans were sympathetic towards this case, and some Hugarian leaders cited the American War of Independence as an inspiration.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was one of the many European Revolutions of 1848 and closely linked to other revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas. Many Americans were sympathetic towards this case, and some Hugarian leaders cited the American War of Independence as an inspiration.

In the early 1830s, a reformist group led by Ferenc Deák came to power in the Hungarian Parliament (Diet). Some of its members looked to the United States as a model, in particular, for its jury trial system and religious tolerance. At around the same time, a group of „Dietal Youth” began to attend the sessions. One member was Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer appointed a delegate on an absent baron. In 1841, Kossuth began a new political journal, Pesti Hírlap, which exposed social injustice and called for reforms, sometimes based on the „capitalism and political liberalism” of Western Europe and the United States.

This attitude characterized the political thinking of the period before the Hungarian Revolution in 1848. In March that year, caught up in the revolutionary furor that had seized France, Kossuth (as member of the Diet) urged the body to send the opposition’s demands to the Habsburg court. The opposition sought „responsible and representative government and civil liberties in a de-feudalied Hungary”, as well as „freedom of the press and full equality before the law.” In Vienna, students and workers demonstrated on March 13, forcing Chancellor Clemens von Metternich from power. On March 15, thousands of students marched in Pest, and disturbances spread around the country.

On March 18, Emperor Ferdinand agreed to the Diet’s demands: Hungary would remain part of the Empire through „personal union” with the emperor, and a constitutional government would be established. A new Hungarian cabinet was formed, led by Count Lajos Batthyány, with Deák as Justice Minister and Kossuth as the Minister of Finance. The Diet passed the April Laws, which provided for a hereditary constitutional monarchy, a legislature, equality before the law, and an end to restrictions on land use and transfer. Nonetheless, power was limited to the Hungarians, and while most Hungarians supported these changes, the non-Hungarian minorities felt threatened.

The new Hungarian Government set about strenghthening its military forces, as did the newly appointed leader of Croatia, Josip Jelacic, who was loyal to the Habsburgs. In June, a parliament was elected. In August, the Batthyány Government announced its refusal to support Vienna in the event of a war with Frankfurt, and at the end of the month, Vienna announced that the April Laws were not valid. The Croatian army crossed into Hungary but the Hungarian army stopped them on September 29 near Pákozd. On October 3, Vienna issued decrees dissolving the Hungarian parliament and installed Jelacic as a royal commissar in charge of Hungary. In response, the Hungarian legislature created a National Defense Committee headed by Kossuth. Viennese leaders were forced to crush another uprising at home in early October, before turning their attention to Hungarian military efforts.

On January 1, 1849, the Hungarian revolutionary government was forced to evacuate from Pest-Buda, and moved to Debrecen, bringing with it the crown of St. Stephen. Fighting continued throughout the spring, and on April 14, Hungary proclaimed itself an independent republic. The Parliament then elected Kossuth as its President. In early May, the Habsburg ruler appealed to the Russian Tsar for military assistance, which came int he form of 200,000 Russian troops.

Many Americans were sympathetic towards Hungary’s revolt against Austrian rule, and some Hugarian leaders cited the American War of Independence as an inspiration. The U.S. Minister in Vienna offered to serve as an intermediary in pursuit of an armistice between Austria and Hungary during the winter of 1848-49, but Secretary of State James Buchanan feared that it could bring the United States into a European conflict. In June 1849, President Zachary Taylor appointed A. Dudley Mann, a Virginian working with the U.S. Legation in Paris, as a special and confidential agent of the United States to the Government of Hungary. Mann was to travel to Hungary and present a letter of introduction. He was authorized to recognize the new government if Hungary appeared „able to maintain the independence she had declared.” Mann had gotten no farther than Vienna when Austrian and Russian armies defeated the Hungarians in the Battle of Temesvár on August 9, and the Hungarian forces surrended at Világos on August 13.

President Taylor faced accusations from his congressional opponents and from some newspapers that he had not moved swiftly enough to recognize the fledgling Hungarian republic. In his annual message to Congress in December, Taylor argued that while he had avoided any interference in the conflict, he had been „in accordance with the general sentiment of the American people, who deeply sympathized with the Magyar patriots” in his preparations to be the first to recognize a new Hungarian state – had one been successfully established. Taylor met with Hungarian refugees in January 1850.

The leaders of Hungary’s defeated independence movement faced execution, prison and exile. Kossuth and some of his associates fled to Turkey; when Austria and Russia demanded their extradition, the Ottoman Sultan instead imprisoned the men. The harsh repression that followed the revolution sparked a negative reaction in the United States, whose population sympathized with the democratic aspiration of Hungary.

(Source: The United States and Hungary – Paths of Diplomacy)

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