Kossuth, Louis

Born: 1802-09-19 Hungary

Died: 1894-03-20 Italy

Louis (Lajos) Kossuth was a Hungarian lawyer, journalist, politician, statesman, revolutionary, and president-regent of Hungary during the European Revolutions of 1848-49. Born into a strict Lutheran family, Kossuth received instruction in religion from his mother, with supplemental study at the village school. He completed his education at the Protestant college of Sárospatak and the University of Budapest, earning a legal diploma. At the age of nineteen, he returned home to commence practicing law with his father. He also became steward for Countess Szápáry, a widow with a large estate. He lost his position with the countess over questions of financial irregularities, and was accused of appropriating estate funds to pay a gambling debt. Exonerated of these charges, Kossuth moved to Budapest, where Count Hunyady, his employer, appointed Kossuth as his deputy to the Diet of Hungary. He attended the Diet from 1825 to 1827 and from 1832 to 1836. Unable to vote, Kossuth took little interest in the debates, but he did circulate written reports to County Hunyady--the government, fearing public upheaval and revolution, having prohibited the publication of any official proceedings. Kossuth's assiduity in compiling his reports brought him to the attention of liberals and reformers, who used Kossuth's reports to start an unofficial parliamentary gazette, which Kossuth edited. After the Diet dissolved in 1836, Kossuth continued to report on the proceedings of county assemblies, drawing the praise of liberals and reformers and the ire of the Austrian government. Failing to suppress Kossuth's letters, the government arrested him in May 1837. Brought to trial in 1838 on charges of high treason, Kossuth was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Released in 1840, Kossuth married Teresa Meszleny, a Catholic who he met while in jail, who encouraged him to pursue a political career. Emerging from prison a popular figure, Kossuth became editor of the Pesti Hírlap, which became the official organ of the liberal party. Going beyond the reformers, who envisioned an autonomous Hungary within the Austrian Empire, Kossuth increasingly espoused an independent Hungary, violently attacking Austrian rule and promoting the Magyars as rightful rulers of Hungary. In 1844, the owner of the Pesti Hírlap fired Kossuth as editor ostensibly over a salary dispute. He continued to adjudicate for Hungarian political and economic independence, and in 1847, Budapest citizens elected Kossuth to represent them in the Diet, where he became the leader of the national opposition group. On March 3, 1848, as news arrived of revolution in Paris, Kossuth delivered a speech in the Diet calling for parliamentary government for Hungary and constitutional government for Austria. Kossuth's speech sparked revolution in Vienna and Budapest, and reformers established a Hungarian government, with Kossuth as minister of finance. Over the next few months, he traveled throughout Hungary, urging Hungarians to arm for self-defense, and in September, he became president of the Committee of National Defense. Now the virtual dictator of Hungary, Kossuth oversaw the Hungarian government and directed military operations against Austrian forces. In December, Kossuth convinced the Diet to reject the accession of Emperor Franz Joseph as the king of Hungary, and in April 1849, Kossuth issued the Hungarian Declaration of Independence, declaring the Austrian Hapsburgs had forfeited all rights to rule Hungary. The Diet appointed Kossuth president-regent, but Russian intervention on behalf of Austria crushed the Hungarian revolution. In August, Kossuth abdicated and escaped across the border to the Ottoman Empire. Turkish authorities refused to surrender him and other fugitives to Austria and Russia, and in September 1851, Kossuth left the Ottoman Empire for Great Britain. In 1851 and 1852, he made triumphant tours of Great Britain and the United States. Returning to the United Kingdom, he lived in England, where he associated with Giuseppe Mazzini and other Italian revolutionaries. He continued to look for opportunities to free Hungary from Austrian rule. British and French authorities prevented him from raising a Hungarian legion to fight in the Crimean War, but in 1859, he entered into negotiations with Napoleon III to raise a force of Hungarians to help France in its war against Austria for Italian independence. He left England for Italy, but the Treaty of Villafranca scuttled these plans. Kossuth lived in Italy for the remainder of his life and remained involved in Hungarian politics. Unlike his fellow Hungarian exiles, he refused to recognize the Dual Monarchy, insisting on nothing less than Hungarian independence and a republic. He refused all offers of amnesty and, though elected to the Diet in 1867, refused to take his seat.

James Wycliffe Headlam, "Kossuth, Lajos [Louis]," The Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 15:916-18; Eminent Persons: Biographies Reprinted From The Times (London: MacMillan, 1897), 6:100-115; Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 146-68.