Read CHAPTER XXII. ON THE PRESENT WEAKNESS OF DESPOTISM. of Select Speeches of Kossuth, free online book, by Kossuth, on

[Speech at the Harrisburg Banquet.]

About three hundred persons sat down to dinner, a large portion of them members of the legislature. Governor Johnston presided, assisted by Ex-Senator Cameron. A toast complimentary to Governor Johnston having been drunk with great enthusiasm, the Governor briefly responded. After returning his thanks for the compliment, he alluded to the mission of Kossuth. The great Magyar came here not for sympathy alone, but for aid for the cause of republican freedom. He not only wanted that, but encouragement of our government in aid of the cause of down-trodden Hungary. No profession, but action was wanted; and he exhorted his hearers never to cease acting, until the government took the high ground necessary to secure to Hungary the simple justice she demanded. In conclusion he gave the third toast:

“Hungary Betrayed but not subdued; her constitution violated, her people in chains, her chief in exile. The star of freedom will yet shine through the dark night of her adversity.”

Kossuth, in response, opened by lamenting that the perpetual claims upon his time, and the pressure of sorrowful feelings on his heart, made it impossible for him to study how to address them suitably. He proceeded to say:

But to what purpose is eloquence here? Have you not anticipated my wishes? Have you not sanctioned my principles? Are you not going on to action, as generous men do, who are conscious of their power and of their aim? Well, to what purpose, then, is eloquence here? I have only to thank and that is more eloquently told by a warm grasp of the hand than by all the skilful arrangement of words.

I beg therefore your indulgence for laying before you some mere facts, which perhaps may contribute to strengthen your conviction that the people of the United States, in bestowing its sympathy upon my cause, does not support a dead cause, but one which has a life, and whose success is rationally sure.

Let me before all cast a glance at the enemy. And let those imposed upon by the attitude of despotism in 1852, consider how much stronger it was in 1847-8. France was lolled by Louis Philippe’s politics, of “peace at any price,” into apathy. Men believed in the solidity of his government. No heart-revolting cruelty stirred the public mind. No general indignation from offended national self-esteem prevailed. The stability of the public credit encouraged the circulation of capital, and by that circulation large masses of industrious poor found, if not contentment, at least daily bread. The King was taken for a prudent man; and the private morality of his family cast a sort of halo around his house. The spirit of revolution was reduced to play the meagre game of secret associations; not seconded by any movement of universal interest the spirit of radical innovation was restrained into scientific polemic, read by few and understood by fewer. There was a faith in the patriotic authority of certain men, whose reputation was that of being liberal. One part of the nation lived on from day to day without any stirring passion, in entire passiveness; the other believed in gradual improvement and progress, because it had confidence in the watchful care of partizan leaders. The combat of Parliamentary eloquence was considered to be a storm in a glass of water, and the highest aspiration of parties was to oust the ministry and take their place. And yet the prohibition of a public banquet blew asunder the whole complex like mere chaff.

Germany was tranquil, because the honest pretensions of the ambition of her statesmen were satisfied by the open lists of parliamentary eloquence. The public life of the nation had gained a field for itself in Legislative debates a benefit not enjoyed for centuries. The professors being transferred to the legislative floor, and the college to the parliament, the nation was gratified by improvements in the laws, and by the oratory of her renowned men, who never failed to flatter the national vanity. It believed itself to be really in full speed of greatness, and listened contented and quiet like an intelligent audience to an interesting lecture even in respect to the unity of great Germany. The custom-association (Zollverein) became an idol of satisfied national vanity, and of cheerful hopes; science and art were growing fast; speculative researches of political economy met an open field in social life; men conscious of higher aims wandered afar into new homes, despairing to find a field of action in their native land. Material improvement was the ruling word, and the lofty spirit of freedom was blighted by the contact of small interests.

And yet a prohibited banquet at Paris shook the very foundation of this artificial tranquillity, and the princely thrones of Germany trembled before the rising spirit of freedom, though it was groping in darkness, because unconscious of its aim.

Italy fair, unfortunate Italy looking into the mirror of its ancient glory, heaved with gloomy grief; but the sky of the heaven was as clear and blue above, as it ever was since creation’s dawn: and it sung like the bird in a cage placed upon a bough of the blooming orange tree. And then Pius IX, placing himself at the head of Italian regeneration, became popular as no man in Rome since Rienzi’s time, In 1848 men heard with surprise, on the coast of the Adriatic, my name coupled in vivas with the name of Pius IX. But the sarcasm of Madame De Stael that in Italy men became women was still believed true; so that too many of the Italians themselves despaired of conquering Austria without Charles Albert.

Austria had not for centuries, and Prussia never yet has, experienced what sort of a thing a revolution is, and the falling of the vault of the sky would have been considered less improbable than a popular revolution in Berlin or Vienna, where Metternich ruled in triumphant proud security.

The house of Austria was considered as a mighty power on earth; respected, because thought necessary to Europe against the preponderance of Russia. No people under the dominion of this dynasty, had a national army, and all were divided by absurd rivalries of language, kept up by Metternich’s Machiavelism. The nations were divided; none of them was conscious of its strength, but all were aware of the united strength of a disciplined and large imperial army, the regiments of which had never yet fought one against another, and never yet had broken the spell of the black and yellow flag by tearing it to pieces with their own hands.

And yet, when Paris stirred and I made a mere speech in the Hungarian Parliament, the house of Austria was presently at the mercy of the people of Vienna; Metternich was driven away, and his absolutism replaced by a promise of constitutional life.

In Gallicia the odium connected with the despotic Austrian rule had, by satanic craft, been thrown upon those classes which represent the ancient Polish nationality; and the well-deserved hatred of aristocratic oppression, though living only in traditional remembrances, had prevailed in the sentiments of the common people over the hatred against Austria, though despotic and a stranger; so much so, that, to triumph over the ill-advised, untimely movement of 1846, Austria had nothing to do but open the field to murder, by granting a two dollars’ reward for every head of a Polish land proprietor.

And in Hungary the people of every race was equally excluded from all political right from any share of constitutional life. The endeavours of myself and my friends for internal improvements for emancipation of the peasantry for the people’s restoration to its natural rights in civil, political, social, and religious respects, were cramped by the Hapsburg policy. But the odium of this cramping was thrown by Austria upon our own conservative party: and thus our national force was divided into antagonistic elements.

Besides, the idea of Panslavism and of national rivalries, raised by Russia and fostered by Austria, diverted the excitement of the public mind from the development of common political freedom. And Hungary had no national army. Its regiments were filled with foreign elements and scattered over foreign countries, while our own country was guarded with well-disciplined foreign troops. And what was far worse than all this, Hungary, by long illegalities corrupted in its own character, deprived of its ancient heroic stamp, germanized in its saloons, sapped in its cottages and huts, impressed with the unavoidable fatality of Austrian sovereignty, and the knowledge of Austrian power, secluded from the attention of the world, which was scarcely aware of its existence, Hungary had no hope in its national future, because it had no consciousness of its strength, and was highly monarchical in its inclinations, and generous in its allegiance to the King. No man dreamed of the possibility of a revolution there, and he who would have suggested it would only have gained the reputation of a madman.

Such was the condition of Europe in the first half of February, 1848. Never yet seemed the power of despots more steady, more sure. Yet, one month later, every throne on the continent trembled except the Czar’s. The existence of dynasties depended upon the magnanimity of their people, and Europe was all on fire.

And in what condition is Europe now? Every man on earth is aware that things cannot endure as they are. Formerly millions believed that a peaceful development of constitutional monarchy was the only future reserved for Europe. Now nobody on the European continent any longer believes that constitutional monarchy can have a future there. Absolutist reaction goes with all that arrogance which revolts every sentiment, and infuriates the very child in its mother’s arms. The promise, the word, the oath of a king are become equivalent to a lie and to perjury. Faith in the morality of kings is plucked out, even to the last root, from the people’s heart.

The experiment of constitutional concessions was thought dangerous to the dynasties, as soon as they became aware that the people of Europe is no imbecile child, that can be lulled to sleep by mockery; but that it will have reality. Thus the kings on the greater part of the continent, throwing away the mask of liberal affectations, deceived every expectation, broke every oath, and embarked with a full gale upon the open sea of unrestricted despotism. They know that Love they can no longer get; so we have been told openly, that they will not have LOVE, but MONEY, to maintain large armies, and keep the world in servitude. On the other hand, the nations, assailed in their moral dignity and material welfare, degraded into a flock of sheep kept only to be shorn equally with the kings detest the mockery of constitutional royalty which has proved so ruinous to them.

Royalty has lost its sacredness in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. Both parties equally recognize that the time has come when the struggle of principles must be decided. Absolutism or republicanism the Czar or the principles of America there is no more compromise, no more truce possible. The two antagonist principles must meet upon the narrow bridge of a knife-edge, cast across the deep gulf which is ready to swallow him who falls. It is a struggle for life and death.

That is the condition of the European continent in general. A great, terrible, bloody uprising is unavoidable. That is known and felt by every one. And every sound man knows equally well that the temporary success of Louis Napoleon’s usurpation has only made the terrible crisis more unavoidable. Ye men of “peace at any price,” do not shut your eyes wilfully to the finger of God pointing to the mène, tekel, upharsin written with gigantic letters upon the sky of Europe. Despots never yield to justice; mankind, inspired with the love of freedom, will not yield up its manhood tamely. Peace is impossible.

Gentlemen, the success of my mission here may ensure the victory of freedom; may prevent torrents of martyrs’ blood; may weaken the earthquake of impending war; and restore a solid peace. But be sure, the certainty of the European struggle does not depend upon your generous support; nor would my failure here even retard the outbreak of the hurricane.

Should we, not meeting here with that support, which your glorious Republic in its public capacity and your generous citizens in their private capacity can afford without jeopardizing your own welfare and your own interest (and assuredly it never came into my mind to desire more) should we, meeting with no support here, be crushed again, and absolutism consolidate its power upon the ruins of murdered nations, I indeed cannot but believe that it would become a historical reproach of conscience, lying like an incubus upon the breast of the people of the United States from generation to generation. I mean, the idea, that had you not withheld that support which you might have afforded consistently with your own interest, Hungary perhaps would be a free, flourishing country, instead of being blotted out from the map; and Europe perhaps free, and absolutist tyranny swept from the earth.

You then would in vain shed a tear of compassion over our sad fate, and mourn over the grave of nations: nor only so; but the victory of absolutism could not fail to be felt even here in your mighty and blessed home. You would first feel it in your commercial intercourse, and ere long you would become inevitably entangled; for as soon as the Czar had secured the submission of all Europe, he would not look indifferently upon the development of your power, which is an embodiment of republican principles.

I am not afraid to answer the question, as to what are our means and chances of success but prudence commands me to be discreet. Still, some considerations I may suggest.

The spell of Austria is broken. It is now notorious that the might of the dynasty, though disciplined, well provided, and supported by deluded races, which had been roused to the fury of extermination against us it is now notorious that all this satanically combined power proved unable to withstand the force of Hungary, though we were surprized and unprepared, and had no army and no arms, no ammunition, no money, no friends, and were secluded and forsaken by the whole world. It was proved that Austria could not conquer us Magyars, when we were taken unaware; who can believe that we could not match her now that we are aware and predetermined? Yes, if unprepared in material resources, we are yet prepared in self-consciousness and mutual trust; we have learned by experience what is required for our success.

In former times Hungary was the strength of Austria. Now, Austria is weak, because it has occupied Hungary. It was strong by the unity of its army, the power of which was founded upon the confidence in this unity. That confidence is broken, since one part of that army raised the tri-colour flag, and cast to the dust the double-headed eagle, the black and yellow flag, which was the emblem of the army’s unity.

Formerly the Austrian army believed that it was strong enough to uphold the throne; now it knows that it is nothing by itself, and rests only upon the support of the Czar. That spirit-depressing sentiment is so diffused among the troops, that, only take the reliance upon Russia away, or make it doubtful whether Russia will interfere or not, and the Austrian army will disperse and fall asunder almost without any fight; because it knows that it has its most dangerous enemies within its own ranks; and is so far from having any cement, that no man, himself attached to that perjured dynasty, can trust the man beside him in the ranks, but watches every movement of his arm. In such an army there is no hope for tyrants.

The old soldiers feel humiliated by the issue of our struggle. They are offended by having no share in the reward thrown away on despised court favourites. The old Croat regiments feel outraged in their national honour by being deceived in their national expectations. The recruits brought with them recollections of their bombarded cities and of the oppression of their families; and in that army are 140,000 Hungarians who fought under our tri-coloured flag against Austria, and whose burning feelings of national wrong are inspired by the glorious memory of their victories.

Oh, had we had in 1848 such an army of disciplined soldiers as Austria itself keeps now for us, never had one Cossack trod the soil of Hungary, and Europe would now be free. Or, let Austria dismiss them, and they will be disciplined soldiers at home. The trumpet of national resurrection will reach them wherever they are.

Hungary has the conviction of her strength. The formerly hostile races, all oppressed like us, now feel themselves to have been deceived, and unite with us. We have no opposite party in the nation. Some there are, ambitious men, or some incorrigible aristocrats perhaps: but these are no party; they always turn towards the sun, and they melt away like snow in March.

And besides Hungary, the people in Austria too, in Italy, in Prussia, in all Germany, is conscious of its strength. Every large city on the continent has been in the power of the people, and has had to be regained by bombardings and by martial law. Italy has redeemed its heroic character, at Milan, Venice, Brescia, and Rome all of them immortal pages in Italian history, glorious sources of inspiration, heroism, and self-conscious strength. And now they know their aim, and are united in their aim, and burn to show to the world that the spirit of ancient Rome again rises in them.

And then to take into consideration the financial part. Without money there is no war. Now, the nations, when once engaged in the war, will find means enough for home-support of the war in the rich resources of their own land; whereas the despots lose the disposal of those resources by the outbreak of insurrection, and are reduced entirely to foreign loans, which no emperor of Austria will find again in any new revolution.

And, mark well, gentlemen, every friendly step by which your great republic and its generous people testifies its lively interest for our just cause, adding to the prospects of success, diminishes the credit of the despots, and by embarrassing their attempts to find loans, may be of decisive weight in the issue.

Though absolutism was much more favourably situated in 1847 than in 1851, it was overtaken by the events of 1848, when, but for the want of unity and concert, the liberal party must have triumphed everywhere. That unity and concert is now attained; why should not absolutism in 1852 be as easily shaken as in 1848!

The liberal cause is stronger everywhere, because conscious of its aim and prepared. Absolutism has no more bayonets now than in 1848. Without the interference of Russia our success is not only probable, but is almost sure.

And as to Russia remember, that if at such a crisis she thinks of subduing Hungary, she has Poland to occupy, Finland to guard, Turkey to watch, and Circassia to fight.

Herein is the reason why I confidently state, that if the United States declare that a new intervention of Russia will be considered by your glorious republic a violation of the law of nations, that declaration will be respected, and Russia will not interfere.

Be pleased to consider the consequence of such renewed interference, after the passive acceptance of the first has proved so fatal to Europe, and so dangerous even to England itself. We can scarcely doubt, that, if ever Russia plans a new invasion, England could not forbear to encourage Turkey, not to lose again the favourable opportunity to shake off the preponderance of Russia. I have lived in Turkey. I know what enthusiasm exists there for that idea, and how popular such a war would be. Turkey is a match for Russia on the continent. The weak point of Turkey lies in the nearness of Sevastopol, the Russian harbour and arsenal, to Constantinople. Well, an English fleet, or an American fleet, or both joined, stationed at the mouth of the Bosphorus, may easily prevent this danger without one cannon’s shot; and if this be prevented, Turkey alone is a match for Russia. And Turkey would not stand alone. The brave Circassians, triumphant through a war of ten years, would send down 80,000 of their unconquerable horsemen to the plains of Moscow. And Poland would rise, and Sweden would remember Finland and Charles the XII. With Hungary in the rear, screened by this very circumstance from her invasion, and Austria fallen to pieces from want of foreign support, Russia must respect your protest in behalf of international law, or else she will fall never to rise again.

Gentlemen, I thank you for the patience with which you have listened to this exposition long and tedious, because I had no time to be brief. And begging leave to assure you of my lasting gratitude for all the generous favours you have been and will yet be pleased to bestow upon my cause, let me proclaim my fervent wishes in this sentiment:

“Pennsylvania, the Keystone State May it, by its legitimate influence upon the destinies of this mighty power on earth, and by the substantial generosity of its citizens, soon become the keystone of European independence.”

Hon. J. H. Walker, Speaker of the Senate, and several other speakers followed, all decidedly sympathizing with the Hungarians, and advocating intervention for non-intervention.

The speaking continued until after midnight.