03 April 2009

Lajos Kossuth

In 1848, revolution spread across Europe. The middle classes clamored for more representative government, for more civil liberties and for less economic regulation. National groups endeavored to replace multi-ethnic empires with independent national states. The situation in Europe was reported in Auburn's newspapers, but the distant strife became more real for Auburnians when Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the revolution in Hungary, visited the city in 1852.

After Hungary's failed revolt against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kossuth toured the United States to gather support for the cause of Hungarian independence. Many Americans had become familiar with Kossuth through a sympathetic biography published at Auburn by Derby & Miller in 1851. When he arrived in the United States in December of that year, Kossuth was embraced by anti-slavery politicians as a champion of human freedom. William H. Seward introduced in the Senate a welcoming resolution and opened the debate on the issue of Hungarian independence: "We honor those who serve the common cause of civil liberty throughout the world. That cause is our own cause." The resolution met with considerable opposition from representatives of the slave states. "You see how timid dlavery is," remarked a disgusted Seward. "It dare not tolerate freedom in Europe." Kossuth and his wife arrived in Auburn on 29 May 1852 and were weekend guests in the Seward home. The pomp and ceremony that attended their visit reflected the international importance of the Hungarian patriot and exile.

Levi Parsons, Jr., was studying for the ministry at Auburn Theological Seminary at the time of the Kossuth visit. He was the son of one of the charter members of the seminary's board of trustees and, like his father, would one day serve as president of that board. In a letter of 29 May 1852 to his father at Marcellus, young Parsons wrote of the excitement of the day: Kossuth is expected in express train at half after one this afternoon. Governor Seward will welcome him in behalf of the people, and he is to stop at Seward's house. He gives an address in the Second Presbyterian Church this afternoon, tickets are sold for $1.00. Have concluded that I cannot afford that amount. The city is all alive. Genesee Street is filled with Hungarian and American flags. Dr. Hickok has purchased one of the ten dollar Hungarian Bonds which will commence drawing interest after the independence of Hungary is achieved. The Doctor will probably have that to fall back on in his old age."

Upon his arrival at the depot, the Kossuth entourage boarded carriages fraped with the Hungarian tricolor. The procession through Chapel, North and Market Streets made its way tot he American Hotel on Genesee Street as cannons were fired and church bells peeled. A crowd of ten thousand people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the visitor. At the hotel, Mayor Benjamin Franklin Hall delivered a substantial address. As the author of books on history and geography, he was unable to resist including in his remarks excyclopaedic information about Hungary. Kossuth replied with a briefer address: "I heartily thank you for your words of description and history of my country since the reign of King Stephen who gave us our ancient constitution." He then invited the people of Auburn to express "in some intelligible manner" their support for the cause of Hungarian independence.

At the Seward home, Kossuth prepared for the afternoon lecture at the nearby church. Ticket receipts and other donations from those in attendance netted over one thousand dollars for the cause. A reception at the hotel then afforded the people of the city an oppportunity to meet their distinguished guest. On Sunday, the Kossuths attended services at St. Peter's Church before continuing their tour. During the trip to Syracsue, Kossuth told a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily Times that his visit to Auburn had been the most agreeable and encouraging since his arrival in the United States.

Kossuth's American tour did little to advance the cause of Hungarian independence, however, and the United States did not further involve itself in the national aspirations of the Hungarian people. More than a century later, in 1956, the Hungarian people again pleaded with the United States for aid in overthrowing an oppressive foreign master. The appeal was ignored, however, and Soviet tanks quickly and brutally suppressed the uprising. Decades later, the dissolution of the Soviet empire provided another opportunity for the United States to promote the democratic aspirations of the peoples of central and eastern Europe. In the light of recent history, Seward's plea on behalf of the cause of Kossuth and Hungary contain a pertinent and prophetic message:

"It is clear that the days of despotism are numbered.... There is to come, sooner or later, a struggle between the representative and the arbitrary systems of government. That struggle will be between Russia and all the peoples of southern and western Europe. True wisdom dictates that we lend to European nations, struggling for civil liberty, all possible moral aid to sustain them until they can mature and perfect their strength."