Volume 5 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfFerenc Hörcher

Enlightened Reform or National Reform?

The Continuity Debate about the Hungarian Reform Era and the Example of the Two Széchenyis (1790–1848)1


This paper returns to the problem of how to interpret the Reform Era, a constant issue of Hungarian historiography since the 1840s. While most master narratives continue, even today, to repeat that it actually began in 1830, there are compelling arguments that in fact the reform programs of the 1830s were deeply rooted in the earlier movements of the 1790s, or even in Joseph II’s reforms of the 1780s.
The paper offers an overview of some of the latest trends in the research of the problem (in the writings of Károly Kecskeméti and Gábor Vermes, viewed from the perspective of Ambrus Miskolczy), as well as a reconstruction of the ways in which contemporaries saw the issue during the Reform Era. In the second part, it compares two important aristocratic protagonists of the age, father and son, Counts Ferenc Széchényi and István Széchenyi.2 It will show that there are indeed close links between these two people, including their plans for reform and their anglophile political attitudes. As both of them played major roles in their own time and were often regarded as heroes by members of their respective societies, if the link between them is strong enough, their example can presumably be used as an argument for the continuity thesis between the two reform generations of the period, and thereby for an interpretation of the Reform Era in the context of the late Enlightenment.

Keywords: continuity, Hungarian Reform Era, historiography, István Széchenyi, Ferenc Széchényi, Enlightenment, liberalism

Preliminary Remarks

One of the key questions of narratives of political history is how to make sense of apparent historical ruptures or breaks. Although the issue is obviously present in all kinds of historical narratives, it is more pressing in the history of political thought, confined to specific cultural contexts. We know that the transition into modernity most often was accompanied by social unrest, political upheavals and frequent and abrupt changes of political regimes, resulting in a series of rather divergent political settings in a short span of time. In this respect, Central Europe certainly has one of the richest catalogues of problems: in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sharp historical turns were part and parcel of daily political life in the region.

This paper, an exercise in the history of political thought, will not use new primary resources. It will rely on the basic research that has been done by historians of the Reform Era to analyze a recurring debate in the discourse on the Hungarian past. In Hungarian historiography, the question of continuity versus rupture is a key issue. One particular manifestation of this is the debate about how to look at the period between 1790 and 1848 and how exactly to connect in a historical narrative the well-known political phases of this era. The historian’s choices are telling with regards to their professional and personal priorities, including their value-hierarchy. As soon as you claim, for example, that there is continuity between the 1790s and the 1830s, you can easily argue that what is called Hungarian Liberalism grew out of the spiritual fermentation of what is usually labeled Enlightenment. Also, it will represent the fathers’ generation (active at the turn of the century) as having been quite in tune with the spirit of its age, while the sons (who entered the public arena in the 1820s) will probably be characterized as latecomers. On the other hand, by disconnecting the 1830s from signs of change at the end of the previous century, one presents Hungarian Liberalism as a post-romantic phenomenon which has more to do with the rise of nationalism and turbulent social upheavals than with the European program of the Enlightenment.

Most researchers agree that the death of Joseph II in 1790 was a milestone in Hungarian history, a moment when perhaps for the first time the political elite as a whole directly confronted the challenges posed by modernization in the Habsburg Empire. 1848/9, the so-called “civic revolution” and later war of independence, is among the most influential dates of the country’s modern history. However, when historians of the so-called Hungarian Reform Era try to make sense of the troubled process which led from 1790 to 1848, they soon find themselves in one of two opposing camps. On the one side there are those who argue for a continuity of reform efforts among the Hungarian aristocracy, nobility and intelligentsia, which they claim began with the diet of 1790 and led in a more or less uninterrupted fashion to the reform agenda of the 1830s. This view is criticized by those who refer to two brutal attacks on real or supposed Hungarian enemies of Vienna, first around 1795, using as an alibi the so-called Hungarian Jacobin conspiracy and led by the state’s earlier secret agent, Ignác Martinovics, and later in 1812, when, after an unsuccessful negotiating process between the diet and the king, Francis I, inspired by the absolutistic tendencies of Joseph II’s rule, adopted an even more authoritative style of rule and decided not to summon the diet for 13 years.

If we look at the periods demarcated by these events, the following rather divergent time spans can be delineated during the six decades between 1790 and the outbreak of the Revolution: 1) 1790–1795, 2) 1795–1812, 3) 1812–1825/30, 4) 1825/1830–1848/9. I offer the following brief characterization of these dates:

1) 1790–1795: a period of intense reform efforts and public debate, which concluded with the public execution of the participants in the alleged Jacobin conspiracy of Ignác Martinovics and his small circle by the Court;

2) 1795–1812: a joint effort of Court and Country, Vienna and Pozsony (Bratislava), to counterbalance the effects of the French Revolution;3

3) 1812–1825/30: a period of arbitrary rule by the Habsburgs, when the Hungarian diet was not summoned by the king;4 and finally

4) 1825/1830–1848/9: The actual Reform Era in the narrow sense.5

Certainly the opposing political atmospheres of these four stages suggest a rather stormy climate, including the misguided, farce coup d’état, followed first by public executions and later by authoritarian and unconstitutional rule, which led through the unprecedented Reform Era to a bloodless revolution, to establish the first responsible Hungarian government, but led further into a rather bloody war of independence, and finally to a total surrender of the autonomous and constitutional Hungarian kingdom before the combined armies of the Habsburgs and the Russian Czar.

If we examine these four historical contexts in detail, we find interesting facts. First of all, one notes the obstinately non-modernist policy of Metternich’s Vienna, which determines the space for maneuver for Hungary.6 A far more interesting question, however, is whether the tyrannical moves were enough to put an end to both the intellectual fermentation, which was so characteristic of the spiritual climate of the early 1790s, and the actual social process of an awakening public, roused by the threat of royal absolutism on the one hand and the external danger of the French revolution and Napoleon’s European-wide warfare on the other.7 In the political environment of external and internal threats there is undoubtedly a perceptible calming down of political fever both on the level of the diet and on the level of the county assemblies, as well as a fast decline in the political pamphlet literature so characteristic of the political culture of the early 1790s.8

The creative energy of the national elite turned towards politically less sensitive fields, including the rather fervent but introverted movement aiming at linguistic neology and the polishing of the literary register of the language, the so-called language reform or “nyelvújítás,” the establishment of cultural institutions9 and the organization of literary workshops, journals and networks. The substantial question is how a historian is to evaluate this withdrawal of the political elite from direct political involvement and the decision to concentrate their powers on the cultural and interpersonal field. One could argue that this phenomenon proves that the tactics of the court were successful, keeping Hungarian nobles far from direct political participation, which bore an ever-present revolutionary potential. One could also argue, however, that this interim activity served indeed as a preparatory school for the next political elite, and—to use another metaphor—as a bridge to connect the fervent political activity of the early 1790s with those of the period of 1830–1848.

Before reconstructing the problem in a case study of the relationship of Ferenc Széchényi and István Széchenyi, this paper will first try to summarize the latest wave of scholarly literature. It will examine two prominent moments of the Hungarian historians’ debate in their contexts, showing the relevance of the issue for a general interpretation of Hungarian political culture and providing examples of how the interpretation of the problem may vary depending on the given historian’s perspective and context. After that, the case study of the father and son represents the micro-level of the analysis, still in a sketchy format, but suggesting a way to handle the issue in a reflective manner, learning from earlier professional practices.

The Latest Phase of the Discontinuity Debate

By now, there is an extended branch of historical literature directly addressing the problem of discontinuity.10 If one looks at the main protagonists of the last chapter of the historiographical debate, their geographic distribution is quite remarkable. Interestingly, the debate by now seems to be more relevant for those who work on Hungarian history outside of the borders of Hungary. The issue of continuity had a long prehistory in Hungarian historiography, but recently was first reconsidered by Moritz Csáky in his monograph on the relationship between Enlightenment and Liberalism.11 Perhaps the most articulate debating partners, however, were Károly Kecskeméti and Gábor Vermes, who both published a volume on their opposing views. Kecskeméti defended the continuity thesis in his French publication on liberal reformism in Hungary.12 Gábor Vermes, on the other hand, published a Hungarian language volume on the history of Hungary between 1711 and 1848, based on his research into this topic in the framework of a two-decade long research project.13 While Kecskeméti agreed with Csáky’s main thesis, according to which the Hungarian Reform Era was a direct continuation of the political climate of the early 1790s, Vermes’ long term panorama emphasized the traditionalist culture of the Hungarian political elite, which prompted them to take every opportunity to try to resist external influences of change and reform. His emphasis is less on the Enlightened nature of the Reform age and more on the causes of the dissolution of the traditionalist agenda and the discrepancies between the different types, periods and discourses of reform initiatives. He explicitly denies that the brave efforts of the Enlightenment could really have survived after 1795, and even less after 1812.

The significance of the debate is not simply historiographical. These authors, working respectively in a German, French and English speaking scientific environment, transmitted their respective views of Hungary and its role in early nineteenth-century Europe to their scientific community, which, of course, had no direct access to much of the source material in question.14 It was therefore of crucial importance how they translated the discourses of early nineteenth-century Hungarian politics into the languages and terminologies used by their reader. As for long periods of time Hungarian historiography was cut off from mainstream Western trends, these “translators” had and still have a huge impact in the fashioning of an adequate terminology to make Hungarian debates understandable for foreign readers.

It is crucial to understand how Western historians translate the terms of Werbőczy-based customary law of the country and the terms of the strategic games of grievances or gravaminal policy (sérelmi politika), which was so characteristic of the activity of Hungarian diets in the age. In this respect, Professor László Péter played an important role: he made tremendous efforts to develop an English terminology with which to talk and write about Hungarian political thought in a historical perspective. His efforts were not independent of the achievements of other British colleagues, including the two Seaton-Watsons, Professors Macartney, Cushing and Robert Evans among others, as well as Péter’s student, Martyn Rady, the major international authorities of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Hungarian political thought. These historians had a wide range of knowledge of Hungarian history, and they also made tremendous efforts to explain Hungarian historical ideas to foreign audiences. They were not involved in the political debates about historiographical positions, which were so characteristic of Hungarian intellectual life both in the Horthy and the Kádár eras, and this “spectatorial” position liberated them most of the time from the possible mistakes of direct political overtones in history writing. Yet perhaps none of them was or has been able to avoid taking a politico-philosophical position, as all historiographical problems have theoretical connotations. After all, as we have seen, the continuity debate itself seems to be connected to larger issues of the relationship between the Hungarian Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. I cannot address this aspect of the debate in this essay in a more detailed fashion, and offer this observation only as a cautionary remark, provoked by the fact that the continuity question has been of interest to historians who lived or live outside the borders of Hungary.

In what follows I offer first a short glimpse of the early nineteenth-century Hungarian context. Then I give an assessment of some of the conclusions one can draw from the present turn of the debate.15 Finally, I provide a case study in which I examine the relationship between Count Ferenc Széchényi and his son, Count István Széchenyi. I wish to test the view according to which there is continuity between the Hungarian Reform age and the 1790s. I will also argue that one possible reason behind the common agenda (if there was one) of the father’s generation and the son’s generation is their common source of inspiration: the European (and more particularly, in a number of cases, the British) Enlightenment.16

Nineteenth-Century Views of the Issue of Continuity

I have already observed that the continuity debate began contemporaneously with the actual phenomenon it described. In fact, the idea of discontinuity was an important building block of the self-identification and the ideology of the members of the new generation of the Reform Era, who were keen to show that something unprecedented had begun with their début. According to their official doctrine or founding myth,17 it was Count István Széchenyi, who, first with his gesture of offering one year of his estate’s revenue for the establishment of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and later with the publication of his book Credit (Hitel, 1830),18 woke the nation from its slumber—an idea which was in fact loudly promulgated by Széchenyi himself.19 In his A Kelet népe (The People of the East, 1841) he wrote, “as 10, 12 years ago, the deep sleeping-sickness of this order made awakening and agitation the most urgent necessity, so today, when we see all other phenomena except for a sleeping-sickness, we have to strive to calm down the passions.20 In other words, according to his own interpretation, in the 1830s he had been right to wake the nation, but by the 1840s his duty was rather to calm down its hot passions.

This myth was challenged as early as 1830. Baron József Eötvös, a key actor of the period, who was 10 years younger than Lajos Kossuth, in 1830 made the following remark to Ferenc Kazinczy:


How much my homeland (hazám) owes the honorable gentleman, I and all true Hungarians feel this deeply, for although in every nation a great power sleeps, it sleeps until culture will wake it. In my homeland, Mr. Kazinczy laid down the first stone of the temple of culture, out of which the genius emerges, who now awakens our still dormant national power and pulls it from ugly passivity to a noble life.21

This quote from Eötvös, 22 years younger than Széchenyi, is understandable if we recall that for some time he was rather critical of the count. He was even ready to join Kossuth in the debate about A Kelet népe, when Kossuth, later the most popular politician of the country, tried to answer the challenge of Széchenyi, the clarion of the nation. While Széchenyi positioned himself in opposition to his frightened, ageing father, thus presenting himself as the leader of a new and fresh generational revival, his debate partner, Kossuth, tried to show the ties connecting the prophet of the Reform age to the preceding generation in order to indicate a certain belatedness in his whole approach. In his counterargument Kossuth claims, and then came the diet of 1825, about which Count Széchenyi so truly said: “the counter effect of the momentary pressure clearly proved to the world that the prince of Hungary ruled a vivid and young nation, not an old and dead one.” Kossuth, the outstanding orator, concluded from this fact that “this does not suggest that our nation was already frozen at the brink of the tomb.”22

Interestingly, the two positions, Széchenyi’s self-fashioning presentation of himself as the biblical clarion for the whole nation on the one hand and Kossuth’s efforts to question Széchenyi’s role in the reform movement on the other, were addressed by Zsigmond Kemény in his historical essay about Széchenyi. Kemény, a journalist and political thinker, did not accept the view that the 35 years between the two generations’ heydays was “a sign of political death of the reforms.” In his view, it was only a “political slumber.” In Kemény’s historical narrative, the language reformers in fact almost directly prepared the way for the political reformers. In short, “Kazinczy was Széchenyi’s predecessor.23 Kemény was a close friend of Eötvös, and the two of them, together with their two further friends, tried to recount the founding myth by drawing a closer link between the generation of the 1790s and that of the 1830s. One of them was the lawyer-historian-publicist László Szalay, who made the following contention in 1844:


We, who do not belong to the youngest generation, who did not read Kossuth’s papers as adolescents, but rather read those by [István] Kultsár and [István] Márton,24 did not acquire our knowledge of journalism [publicisztikai ismeret] from the aforementioned, but rather acquired it at least partly from the pamphlet literature of 1790–92.25

The other one was the lawyer and journalist Ágoston Trefort, who in 1845 made the following claim: Our century is the offspring of the eighteenth century, and though its physiognomy is different, the basic capital of its operations is the intellectual treasure which was accumulated by its precursor, which we consume unconsciously, as if we had collected it.26 These and other quotes from the period between 1830 and 1848 by the leading generation of what is called the flourishing Reform Era provide ample evidence that some of the main protagonists of the 1830s worked hard to establish the principle of continuity between their historical moment and the 1790s. Of course, this reinterpretation of their recent past served very well-considered political purposes, and this topic is worth further consideration.

The Last Phase of the Continuity Debate

Given the focus and framework of this essay, I cannot expand on all of the aspects of the history of the debate. Ambrus Miskolczy’s recent thoughtful summary of it is rich in details, and it does not need to be retold. I would return rather to our specific context and examine some of the conclusions that can be drawn concerning “Hungarian revisionism in the West” with the help of Miskolczy’s narrative.

Ambrus Miskolczy seems to favor the positions of Moritz Csáky and Károly Kecskeméti.27 As mentioned, both of them published a volume about the period recently, introducing the problem for their language community. Csáky’s aims are obvious from the title of his book. His main thesis is that there was a gradual shift from Enlightenment to liberalism in Hungarian political thinking, and he finds the breakthrough in the 1810s. As he sees it, “the constitution of the estates served as the formal starting point of democratic representation.28 In Miskolczy’s interpretation, Csáky’s findings are in tune with those of literary historians, “as they basically try to seize the turning point between the two periods in changes of the public’s perception and less in the flips of the political-public sequels.29

Even more telling is Miskolczy’s reading of Kecskeméti’s book, which has since been published in Hungarian as well.30 Kecskeméti arrives at the following conclusion: “the Hungarian liberals of the nineteenth century were aware of what their country owed to Joseph.31 Miskolczy is not uncritical with regards to Kecskeméti’s narrative (for instance, he argues that Kecskeméti paints the narrow path which led from 1790 to 1830 as a wide and comfortable road, which certainly was not the case), and he digs into the historical details to weigh the merits of his arguments. He finds a bit counterproductive Kecskeméti’s main bit of evidence, the quote by Szalay mentioned above. According to Miskolczy, it only proves that the grandchildren of the great generation of the 1790s were ready to turn back to the examples of their grandfathers, thereby actually revolting against their own fathers. But it is more important for us, in the context of this inquiry that in Miskolczy’s reading Kecskeméti finds “the centralists” the real inheritors of the Hungarian Enlightenment.32 This closely tied group of politicians, intellectuals and journalists was also called the club of Hungarian doctrinaires, who in the sparkling rhetorical and political clash between Széchenyi’s supporters and those of Kossuth first chose Kossuth, but later got closer to Széchenyi. The circle included Eötvös, Trefort, Szalay, Antal Csengery, Dániel Irinyi and a bit further away also Kemény. Miskolczy seems to be again a bit ironical or sarcastic when he writes that, according to Kecskeméti, “they were the most perfect thinkers of the age.33 It should be clear: Kecskeméti’s claim about the centralists as the real successors to the Enlightenment is hardly questionable. I myself have also mentioned Eötvös, Szalay, Trefort and Kemény as people who had a lively interest in the ideas of the previous generation, and who were indeed well versed in their intellectual heritage. István Fenyő, the monographer of the centralists, also argued that there was a direct link between them and the Enlightenment.34 In the article about this theme, which he published independently as well, Fenyő demonstrated with ample philological apparatus their connections with the Theresian-Josephinist program, with Palatine Joseph, their readings of József Hajnóczy and Gergely Berzeviczy, and their links to Széchenyi, and perhaps even more importantly, to Ferenc Kölcsey. All these influences point to that narrow path which we need as a proof to establish the connection between this new generation and their (fore)fathers.

One more thing needs to be said however. In this longstanding historiographical debate about intellectual origins what is really at stake is not the simple factual question of whether a genuine Hungarian Enlightenment and a native Hungarian liberalism existed. These questions by now seem to be a bit outdated and scholastic as well (for what exactly would one mean by a “real” Hungarian Enlightenment and a “real” Hungarian liberalism), but the very existence and persistence of the question can be seen as symptoms of a well-formed political inferiority complex problem. Again, this is not something that history writing could directly tackle. But as historians of political thought we have to ask how and to what extent this complex captured the imagination of Hungarian historians as well, and how far it still distorts a real assessment of the Hungarian past, including perhaps even this very essay.

To be explicit, an equivalent of what is called Whig historiography in the Anglo-Saxon context is easy to detect in the Hungarian historiographic convention, mostly in its independence-oriented Protestant variation, but also in its progressivist-communist incarnation. István Bibó represented a combination of these two traditions. Bibó proceeded from the assumption that belatedness is a key issue of Hungarian modernization, and that all political thought and action should be judged in comparison with contemporary Western standards.

In fact, as I see it, the continuity thesis in this context is an argument that the reform movement was not as belated as we used to think, and that it is comparable to parallel efforts of the European Enlightenment. While I agree with a substantial part of the views of those who defend the continuity thesis, at the same time I endeavor to step out of the false dichotomy of Protestant-leftist values of independence and progress versus Catholic-conservative values of loyalty and order in order to provide a perspective which shows that what is regarded as the birth of nationalism is indeed closely connected to an earlier period of Cosmopolitan ways of thinking.

In what follows, I offer a case study: an analysis of the relationship of István Széchenyi to his father Ferenc, in order to see whether indeed the continuity thesis can be substantiated on the micro-level. My further aim is to reflect on the consequences of a substantiated thesis of continuity: to what extent and in what directions does it restructure our understanding of the Reform Era.

A Case Study: István Széchenyi and His Father

Hungarian aristocratic families in the late eighteenth century brought up their children in a spirit which suggested a close, sometimes sentimental, but not yet romantic relationship between parents and offspring. It preserved something of the patriarchal nature of family relationships so characteristic of the early modern period. One part of this sentimental upbringing was the expectation that children speak and write to their parents in a decent and proper way.35 If we read the early letters of István to his parents, we sense this sort of veneration, which was characteristic in their circle. Sometimes István sounds as if he regarded his parents as his idols: “It is my resolute intention to follow in the footsteps of my parents, who are beloved by everyone.”36 Although this good relationship became more troubled when the young man joined the army and was forced to request considerable financial support to cover the costs he incurred while fighting abroad, he seems to have taken to heart most of the final pieces of advice he received from his father. He carefully retained the letter of spring 1817, in which his dying father bid farewell to his son, and kept it with him as a talisman. In this letter, his father asked his son for pardon if he had caused him any pain with his “bad example.” He kept reminding István of his “Christian and civil obligations”37 and the importance of being liked by God and his fellow human beings. He warned him of the unreliability of public opinion: “Public opinion is a tribunal for all of us which we should never rule out, but which we are never obliged to accept unconditionally or search for as the only guideline.”38 He advises István to get rid of all readings that could seduce his “belief, heart and morals” and to collect books which have moral, historical, statistical or military subjects. But even more importantly, Ferenc encourages him to acquire the mental, moral and intellectual abilities necessary to “serve the state.” He is aware of the defects of István’s moral education, but he consoles him and himself that “what is necessary can still be supplemented (in order to let you govern a state, conduct an army, defend the rights of your family, serve your homeland, look after your stocks and felicitate your fellow human beings).39 He also wrote about the importance of learning foreign languages and travelling abroad (not distinguishing between the two), but he warns his son that these two things alone would not satisfy the need to be “useful to the state.40

Széchényi’s advice to his son, a gesture resembling that of Polonius to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, does not fit the usual description of the father’s late views and the commonly supposed relationship between the father and son very well. For example, according to the notes of a pre-1990 edition of István’s diary, Ferenc Széchényi had been a supporter of Josephinist reforms, but after 1795 he had become an “unbending conservative,” and he had spent his last decades “as a recluse, in a sort of religious fervor.”41 The letter quoted above, in contrast, contains sober suggestions along a Christian stoical line, cherishing virtues like “modesty [szerénység], seclusion [visszavonultság] and propriety [illemtudás].42 His advice also includes reservations about material richness, and suggests the importance of a good relationship with servants and their stewards, “If they find in you science, justice, order, enduring industry and charity, they will also serve you honestly, with diligence, and justly, and they will handle your servants in a humane manner.43

This letter seems to support the idea that Széchényi was not a bigoted religious fanatic, not even in his old age, as he is presented in most of the simplified historical narratives. He surely must have lost many of his youthful hopes. He was indeed a radical idealist as a young aristocrat, and during the early years of the 1790s he served as one of the engines of the reform wing. He had a vision of the “impenetrable warrant of the constitution, because nine million people defend it, who have the same homeland and whose hearts beat with the same rhythm.”44 If this was his starting point in 1790, by 1792 he had arrived at a reform plan which indeed foreshadowed much of the guiding ideas of the son: security of person and property for the serfs, customs to be paid by nobles, industrial, commercial and credit allowances, etc., and the much vaguer hope that everyone in the country might join the political community.45

Having embarked on these high ideals, he had good reason to be frustrated at first in the second half of the 1780s, when the policies followed by Joseph II turned out to be hard for him to reconcile with Hungarian interests, and then after 1795, when his earlier secretary, the talented political thinker József Hajnóczy, got executed in the Martinovics trial. He himself was also rightly accused of having gone too far in his loyalty to his king at a time when the country was threatened by the monarch’s absolutist policies.46 But it is hardly acceptable to claim that he had given up his sense of national belonging, nor does it seem probable that he had given up his aspirations to serve his homeland, as the foundation of the national museum and library amply proves. Also, obviously, he brought up his children in a spirit of service to their nation, and there is no indication that he changed his views in this matter. The fact that this did not exclude his loyalty to an absolute ruler only reminds us to be careful with generalizations: even if there was a longstanding debate between the king and the country in the Hungarian political tradition, one of its key constitutional principles was and remained the need for a balance and ongoing cooperation between king and country, which might have been relevant for ardent patriots, like the elder Széchényi, as well. Certainly, with the Habsburgs, it was easier to respect this demand of the constitution if you were Catholic and an aristocrat than if you were Protestant or belonged to any other unprivileged denomination or minor social class, including the nobility as well.

It is also obvious that there was a very outspoken religiosity in Széchényi’s late years, but it would be hard to characterize it as a sign of provincial traditionalism, opposed to the trendy ideas of his age. His religiosity was closely linked to the most popular trend in contemporary Vienna, one which had Europe-wide support, in the form of the Romantic movement in art and thought. His close relationship to Klemens Maria Hofbauer (1751–1820), originally a hermit but later a celebrated Catholic priest and preacher and member of the Redemptorist Congregation, is just one sign of the fact that Széchényi’s religious fervor was not a delirium that bordered on madness, as it was sometimes described, even by his son.47 Certainly, the circle of which he was the centre was open to seemingly inexplicable mystic experiences, and the rituals followed by them might have seemed sometimes even embarrassing from the outside, but all this was quite in tune with the Catholic revival characteristic of Restoration Vienna.48 This atmosphere attracted spiritual celebrities and artists to Vienna, including Adam Müller, Dorothea and Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Gentz and others. Széchényi himself became a minor star in Vienna’s social and religious life, providing a home for the informal gathering of his socially well-positioned and cultured friends and fellows in his apostolical and evangelizing activity. Although Széchényi withdrew from public activity and concentrated on this sort of charity work, his son’s accounts of him seem to be a bit exaggerated and tendentious. They were no doubt based on his own personal recollections, but they were perhaps also colored by political motivations and at times influenced by his attempts to position himself. The characteristic presentation of their common story, in which he describes the decline and death of his father as an allegory of the decline and death of eighteenth-century Hungarian patriotism and his own embarkation as the birth of a new kind of national awareness, is telling. The story is an important part of his argument against Kossuth, and it includes the following confession: “since my father, whose civil virtues were shining, as ‘Hungarian’, had fallen into his grave hopelessly, I kept comparing the life signs of other nations with the thread of the life of the Hungarian, to find out if there is still hope for resurrection, or if it has gone forever. This was the deepest task of my life.”49 This play of counterpoint, according to which his father was sacrificed on the altar of national renaissance, serves to emphasize the unprecedented significance of his own role in awakening the “Hungarian.” The book in which he poses in this role was published at the very moment when he sensed that his role as the first pioneer of the Hungarian reform movement was challenged by the leading voice of the next generation, his main rival, the rhetorically talented and charismatic young lawyer, Lajos Kossuth. And it is exactly this sort of self-fashioning by István Széchenyi that provoked Kossuth to fashion an oration against it, which builds up the following way.

In Kossuth’s reading, the whole point of Széchenyi’s book was to show that “this nation is a weakened patient,” and he (Széchenyi) is the dedicated physician, who with his assistants has been healing the patients for 15 years.

According to Kossuth, however, the nation is and was not as old and ill, and it was not standing so close to the brink of the grave, as Széchenyi painted it. To argue in support of this second point, Kossuth referred back to the diet of 1790, of which he claimed that in it, the Enlightenment was joined by patience. He also referred especially to the workings (munkálat) of the committees of the diet, of which even “the children of the nineteenth century” could be proud, and to the zeal and self-sacrifice that characterized the next quarter of a century. He defended even the periods of stagnation (presumably the absolutist phase between 1812–1825), because it was during that time that the champions of the Reform Era were brought up. The fact that the nation was so enthusiastic about Széchenyi’s suggestions was, in Kossuth’s assessment, a sure sign that it was the living-dead entity painted by Széchenyi.50

The important point of this fine pamphlet is that Kossuth attributes a special significance to the apparently inactive period of the early nineteenth century, explaining it as a time for preparation. Of course the language reform is often interpreted as a necessary step in preparation for the Reform Era, but Kossuth seems to be more sensitive to an issue which failed to catch the phantasy of most mainstream representatives of the earlier generation who took part in national politics: the close connection between institutionalized culture and reform politics. Generally, historians describing this period continue to stress the frustration caused by the Viennese Court’s de-politicizing strategy among the Hungarian nobility and intellectuals, but in fact cultural institutional innovations, following in the footsteps of the two Széchenyis, played a major role in the project of nation-building, and should themselves be taken as substantial forms of political self-expression. Museum, library, educational institution, academy, theater, casino—these were all envisioned and realised by Széchényi and his son as tools with which to organize and educate the political elite of the day, thus widening the circle of those involved in the affairs of the nation and their political armor.

As Ferenc Széchényi’s example shows, the practice of cultural institution building grew out of the aristocratic habits of patronizing the arts. However, very soon it turned into indirect support for the cause of the nation.51 Ferenc Széchényi’s strategic moves to establish the National Museum and Library grew out of the traditional practice of his own social standing, and yet it came to be seen by his nation as foundational work for long-term national progress.

István Széchenyi quite naturally followed this example, but added to it an extra dimension by combining the Hungarian version of the aristocratic ideology of politeness and refinement with the new insight that the nation’s real strength lies in a strong middle class (középesülés), which needs a quality education and the possibility to refine their minds.52 Széchenyi’s stunningly brave claim is that the real resource of a state is the “cultivated mind” (kiművelt emberfő) among its citizens. The argument of the present paper is that this claim does not come out of the blue. It is closely connected with the practice of cultural sponsorship developed in the Enlightenment and popularized by members of the previous generation. Széchenyi’s program is easily decoded if one uses the vocabulary of the Enlightenment as the code of interpretation.

The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century witnessed the evolution of an institutional infrastructure for the arts and sciences all over Europe, which laid the way for the (more) middle class culture of the industrial revolution and the birth of what is called “commercial society” in the British and French traditions. The connections between sociability, commerce and culture were developed by the theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Hume, Smith, Millar, Ferguson and Robertson. They became heroes of Central European “anglophilia” and important in particular as reference points for both Ferenc Széchényi and his son, István.53 The ideas of the Scots were immediately well-received in Germany, in particular through Göttingen and other major university centers, as well as in key scientific and cultural journals, in the form of reviews, excerpts and translations, as well as debates and pamphlets criticizing British authors.54 No doubt, the German discussion of the bürgerliche Gesellschaft profited from this reception history. The German term is used to describe a social organization based on the hard-working, disciplined, ethical and innovative spirit of the middle classes, but one which also depends on the culture and education of its individuals and communities, as the term Bildungsbürger (educated middle class citizen) so tellingly expresses.

Certainly, the aristocratic status of the Széchenyi family did not allow István to identify directly with the ethos of the ordinary citizenry. The way in which children of the aristocracy at the turn of the century were brought up offered them a much wider intellectual and social panorama and a much more luxurious lifestyle. Yet the real merit of Széchenyi’s program was closely connected to a new, urban Lebensform experienced by the middle classes in major cities. In fact, Széchenyi’s aim, inspired by eighteenth-century Britain’s example, was to domesticate the rural nobility of Hungary to the social standards of urbanized high culture. His efforts to establish institutions which provoked refined but large-scale social gatherings on a regular basis, including the horse race and the Casino, his building project of the Chain bridge between Buda and Pest to connect the chief trade routes of the two sides, his support for the establishment of the national theatre, and even the simple fact that he applied for citizenship in both Pest and Buda, all of these can prove his conscious effort to propagate city life and urbanized manners.


The main issue of this paper is not to question the originality of the entrée of István Széchenyi. Rather, it tried to show how and to what extent Enlightenment thought and practice was still part and parcel of early nineteenth-century Hungarian intellectual life and to point out that István’s “practical philosophy” and that of his father, in spite of the differences between them alleged by István Széchenyi, had common roots in the thought of the earlier Josephinist era and in the Continental fashion of Anglophilia. As we have seen, the son’s attempt to distance himself from his father was of an “ideological” nature, but it was adopted by the public opinion of the period, and this strengthened the position of the discontinuity thesis.

The close relationship between Ferenc Széchényi’s and István Széchenyi’s respective acts (the establishment of the national Museum and Library in the case of the former and the establishment of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the case of the latter) supports the validity and relevance of the continuity thesis and reveals how broadly the ideas of the Reform Era could be interpreted in the context of the discursive framework of the Enlightenment. In other words, this case study seems to support the continuity thesis, which, once accepted, casts the Reform Era in a different light. It differs both from the picture that participants themselves preferred and from the way in which the Whig-style national historiographical tradition usually characterized it. If the birthdate of the Reform Era is in fact neither 1825 nor 1830, but rather it is to be looked for somewhere around the 1780s–1790s, this might have consequences concerning not only the periodization of the first half of the nineteenth century, but also the narrative and the evaluative content of the historiographical category of the Reform Era itself. In other words this conclusion reinforces the view according to which the reform movement was born in the Cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Enlightenment and the nationalist turn was only a later development, effectively introduced only around the 1840s.


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1 This essay was written as part of the research project no. K 108 670 with the support of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund, entitled Művészetek és tudomány a nemzetépítés szolgálatában a 19. századi Magyarországon [Arts and Sciences Serving the Building of the Nation in Nineteenth-century Hungary].

2 The two Széchenyis, father Ferenc Széchényi and son István Széchenyi used different ways of spelling their names.

3 For further details, see: János Poór, Kényszerpályák nemzedéke 1795–1815 (Budapest: Gondolat, 1988).

4 For further details see: Gábor Pajkossy, “Az abszolutizmus és a rendiség utolsó küzdelmei: Az első reformtörekvések (1790–1830),” in 19. századi magyar történelem 1790–1918, ed. András Gergely (Budapest: Korona Kiadó, 1998), 127–58.

5 For further details, see: Gábor Pajkossy, “A reformkor (1830–1848),” in 19. századi magyar történelem: 1790–1918 (Budapest: Korona Kiadó, 1998), 197–246, and András Gergely, “A forradalom és az önvédelmi háború (1848–1849),” in 19. századi magyar történelem, 247–91.

6 On the relationship between Metternich and Széchenyi, see Ferenc Hörcher, “Trust, Credit and Commerce: Count Széchenyi’s Vision of How to Build Social Cohesion in 19th Century Hungary,” in A bizalom, ed. Sándor Laczkó (Szeged: Pro Philosophia Szegediensi Alapítvány–Magyar Filozófiai Társaság–Státus Kiadó, 2015), 102–18.

7 See Gabriella Gáspár, A polgári nyilvánosság kezdetei Magyarországon (Budapest: Agroinform Kiadó, 2002).

8 Perhaps the first account of this pamphlet civil war (and by now this account has become the classic account) is Győző Concha, A kilenczvenes évek reformeszméi és előzményeik (Budapest: Franklin, 1885, present edition: 2005).

9 See my paper on this issue: Ferenc Hörcher, “‘Soft power’ a reformkorban? A Széchenyiek tudománypolitikai céljai,” Korall 52 (2016): 5–28.

10 In addition to the literature quoted below, see for example Folytonosság vagy fordulat? A felvilágosodás kutatásának időszerű kérdései, ed. Attila Debreczeni (Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 1996); Gábor Zoltán Szűcs, “Kontinuitás és diszkontinuitás a 18–19. század fordulójának magyar politikai kultúrájában: Politikaidiskurzus-történeti esszé,” Századvég 55 (2010): 19–42.

11 Moritz Csáky, Von der Aufklärung zum Liberalismus: Studien zum Frühliberalismus in Ungarn (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1981).

12 Károly Kecskeméti, La Hongrie et le reformisme libéral: Problèmes politiques et sociaux (1790–1848) (Rome: Klincksieck, 1989).

13 Gábor Vermes, Hungarian Culture and Politics in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1711–1848 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014). For an earlier publication by this scholar of the eighteenth-century context see Gábor Vermes “A tradicionalizmus és a felvilágosodás keveredése a tizennyolcadik század második felében Magyarországon,” Sic Itur Ad Astra 17, no. 3–4 (2006): 87–112.

14 Although Latin was the official written language produced at the Hungarian diet until the late 1830s and the use of German was also accepted in the public sphere, knowledge of Hungarian is a standard requirement if one wishes to study Hungarian history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

15 See especially the writings of Ambrus Miskolczy and Zoltán Gábor Szűcs: Ambrus Mickolczy, “Egy történészvita anatómiája: 1790–1830/1848: Folytonosság vagy megszakítottság? (avagy mit üzent Kossuth Lajos?,” Aetas 20 (2005): 160–212; Idem, A felvilágosodás és a liberalizmus között: Folytonosság vagy megszakítottság? Egy magyar történészvita anatómiája (Budapest: Lucidus Kiadó, 2007); Zoltán Gábor Szűcs, “Magyar protokonzervatívok,” Kommentár 4, no. 4 (2009): 17–31; Zoltán Gábor Szűcs, “Burke és a magyar ‘protokonzervatívok’: Politikai diskurzustörténeti esettanulmány,” in Edmund Burke esztétikája és az európai felvilágosodás, ed. Ferenc Hörcher and Márton Szilágyi (Budapest: Ráció, 2011), 248–70. See also the last author’s work quoted above.

16 For a comparative view of the legal thought of different national Enlightenments, see Ferenc Hörcher, “Beccaria, Voltaire, and the Scots on Capital Punishment: A Comparative View of the Legal Enlightenment,” in Scotland and France in the Enlightenment, ed. Deidre Dawson and Pierre Morère (London: Associated University Presses, 2004), 305–30.

17 Mihály Horváth, Huszonöt év Magyarország történelméből 1823-tól 1848-ig, 2nd edition (Pest: Ráth, 1868), 1–3.

18 My interpretation of Széchenyi’s Hitel is summarized in Ferenc Hörcher, “Ahol a politikai és a gazdasági eszmetörténet metszi az irodalomtörténetet: A Hitel tudományközi kontextusai,” in Jólét és erény: Tanulmányok Széchenyi István Hitel című művéről, ed. Sándor Hites (Budapest: Reciti Kiadó, 2014), 9–27.

19 According to Horváth, Széchenyi was “the Moses of our new age.” Horváth, Huszonöt év, 44.

20 “[V]alamint 10, 12 évvel ezelőtt ezen rendnek mély álomkórsága a’ felébresztést, a’ felrázást tette legsürgetőbben szükségessé: úgy ma, midőn minden jelenség mutatkozik inkább mint az álomkórságé, ismét azon kell iparkodni mindenek felett, hogy a’ szenvedelmek csilapítassanak.” István Széchenyi, A Kelet népe, 2th edition (Pozsony: Wigand Károly Fridrik, 1841), 69. Accessed April 12, 2016, http://mek.niif.hu/05500/05533/05533.htm.

21 “Mennyit köszönhet hazám a tekintetes úrnak, én és minden igaz magyar mélyen érzi, mert alszik nagy erő minden nemzetben, de alszik, csak a míveltség ébreszti fel, hazámba Kazinczy úr tette míveltségünk temploma első kövét, melyből kilép majd a géniusz, ki most még szunnyadó nemzeti erőnket felébreszti, s csúf nyugalomból nemes életre ragadja.” Baron József Eötvös to Ferenc Kazinczy, December 30, 1830, in József Eötvös, Levelek, edited and the foreign language letters translated by Ambrus Oltványi (Budapest: Magyar Helikon, 1976), accessed April 12, 2016, http://mek.oszk.hu/05400/05480/05480.htm, letter 3.

22 Lajos Kossuth,“Felelet gróf Széchenyi Istvánnak,” in István Széchenyi, A Kelet népe, ed. Zoltán Ferenczi (Budapest: Magyar Történelmi Társulat, 1925), 419–20.

23 Zsigmond Kemény, “Széchenyi,” in idem, Tanulmányai I (Pest: n.p., 1870), 325–26, cited in Miskolczy, A felvilágosodás, 88.

24 István Kultsár (1760–1828) was a turn-of-the-century secondary school teacher, writer, journalist, publisher and theatre director. István Márton (1770–1831) was a pastor in the Calvinist church, theology and philosophy professor.

25 “[M]i, kik a legújabb ivadékhoz nem tartozunk, kik serdülő korunkban nem Kossuth lapjait olvastuk, hanem Kultsáréit vagy Mártonéit, bizony nem ezekből, hanem legalább részben – az 1790–92-diki pamfletirodalomból – merítgettük publicisztikai ismereteinket.” László Szalay, Publicisztikai dolgozatok II (Pest: n.p., 1847), 17.

26 “Századunk a XVIII. századnak gyermeke, s bár physiognómiája más, működésének alaptőkéje azon eszmekincs melyet előde szerzett, s melyet mi öntudatlanul fogyasztunk, mintha önmagunk gyűjtöttük volna.” Ágoston Trefort, “XVIII. század,” Pesti Hírlap, February 6, 1845, cited in Kecskeméti, Magyar, 10.

27 Miskolczy, A felvilágosodás, 59–66.

28 Ibid., 60.

29 Ibid., 61.

30 Károly Kecskeméti, Magyar liberalizmus, 1790–1848 (Budapest: Argumentum Kiadó, 2008).

31 Ibid., Magyar liberalizmus, 24.

32 Miskolczy, A felvilágosodás, 65.

33 Ibid.

34 See his monograph: István Fenyő, A centralisták: Egy liberális csoport a reformkori Magyarországon (Bu­dapest: Argumentum, 1997). The specific article about this topic is: “A centralisták hazai előzményei 1848 előtt,” Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények, 96, no. 3 (1992): 295–319, accessed April 30, 2016, http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00001/00369/pdf/itk00001_1992_03_295-319.pdf.

35 For a reader on aristocratic and middle class family life from this period, see A művelt és udvarias ember: A társas viselkedés szabályai a magyar nyelvű életvezetési és illemtankönyvekben (1798–1935). Szöveggyűjtemény, ed. Anna Fábri (Budapest: Mágus Kiadó, 2001).

36 “Eltökélt szándékom szüleimnek, kik mindenki szeretetét kivívták, nyomdokaiba lépni.” István Széchenyi, June 5, 1809, cited in Vilmos Fraknói, Gróf Széchényi Ferencz, 1754–1820 (Budapest: A Magyar Történelmi Társulat Kiadása, 1902), 313.

37 Cited in ibid., 338.

38 Ibid., 340.

39 Ibid., 342.

40 Ibid.

41 István Széchenyi, Napló, ed. Ambrus Oltványi, 2nd edition (Budapest: Gondolat, 1982), 1514–15. This description follows István’s own description of his father, narrated from the viewpoint of the old Viczay: “My good old father was seen by the senior Viczay as atheist, as a patriot in flames, as an ardent royalist, as a bigot, and so on. That’s how the waves have carried him, how shall they carry me?” November 21, 1820, Napló, 180. See also the characterization given by Csorba: “limitless honoring of authority, inflexible loyalty to the court, and an intensive catholic commitment almost bordering on bigotry.” László Csorba, István Széchenyi (Budapest: M-Érték Kiadó, 1991, 2010), 17. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

42 Quoted by Fraknói, Gróf Széchényi, 343.

43 Ibid., 344.

44 Ferenc Széchenyi, “Pártatlan gondolatok az 1790-ben megtartandó országgyűlésről,” March 10, 1790, Vienna, excerpt in Magyarország története a 19. században: Szöveggyűjtemény, ed. Gábor Pajkossy (Budapest: Osiris, 2006), 34–38, 38.

45 Csorba, István Széchenyi, 153. Csorba argues that this reform plan might have had a direct influence on the son, when he wrote Stadium. Ibid., 152–54.

46 László Csorba is right to claim that “the turn separating the early and the late phase of his career is not yet fully disclosed.” Ibid., 13.

47 István wrote that his children were frightened that perhaps “his mind would be wholly muddled up, and the last period of his life, for all those who surrounded him with love and honor, will become embarrassing.” Cited in Fraknói, Gróf Széchényi, 348.

48 For a detailed account of this part of Ferenc Széchényi’s life, including an account of other members of this spiritual circle, see: Katalin Gillemot, Gróf Széchényi Ferenc és bécsi köre (Budapest: Türk-Nyomda, 1933).

49 “[M]ióta annyi polgári erényekkel fénylő atyám, mint «magyar» reménytelen szállott sirjába, azóta meg nem szünőleg hasonlitgatám más nemzetek’ életjeleit a’ magyarnak életfonalával össze; mikép kiismerném: van-e még feltámadása körűl remény vagy nincs-e többé. Életem’ legmélyebb feladása ez vala.” Széchenyi, A Kelet, second edition, 6.

50 Lajos Kossuth, “Felelet gróf Széchenyi Istvánnak Kossuth Lajostól,” in idem, A “Felelet” és más vitairatok Széchenyi István A’ Kelet népe című könyvére (Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, 1986), 8–9.

51 For a similar project of a patron of arts, a contemporary, friend and relative of Széchenyi, see: György Kurucz, Keszthely grófja: Festetics György (Budapest: Corvina, 2013).

52 “Whatever collects the patriots, even if because of an insignificant cause, is useful and good, and its blessed consequences are numerous. From concentration—middling (középesülés)—comes—as we said—nationality, and from that national virtue.” (Minden, ami a hazafiakat nyilván gyűjti össze, még ha legcsekélyebb ok lenne is, hasznos és jó, s áldott következési számlálhatlanok. Koncentrációbúl – középesülésből – foly – mondottuk – nemzetiség s ebbűl nemzeti erény.) István Széchenyi, Hitel (Pest: Petrózai Trattner J. M.–Károlyi Ostván Könyvnyomtató Intézete, 1830), 176. Accessed April 12, 2016, https://ia800502.us.archive.org/25/items/hitelist00sz/hitelist00sz.pdf.

53 For an overall assessment of this paradigm see István Hont: “The Language of Sociability and Commerce,” in The Languages of Political Theory in Early Modern Europe, ed. Anthony Pagden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 253–76. Ferenc and István both traveled in Britain. Ferenc met with Adam Smith, and István returned to Britain on a regular basis. His first trip to London in 1815 was a strange and reversed grand tour, in the course of which he was anxious to learn not only the language but also all the layers of British culture, including journals, novels, mechanical discoveries, theatre, and to visit “the temple of English poetry,” Shakespeare’s oeuvre. He planned to travel around Scotland, as his father had done, but he was also interested in Ireland. (See his letter written on 15. October, 1815, from London to his father, in Ezt köztünk! Isten áldja! Széchenyi István válogatott levelei, ed. and trans. Henriett Kovács et al. (Budapest: MTA Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont, 2014), 35–37. At the end of this tour he famously declared, “There are only three things in England that in my opinion one has to learn, and all the others are nothing: the constitution, the machines, and horse breeding.” István Széchenyi, Napló, December 13, 1815, 63. For Anglomania as a historical phenomenon in general, see Ian Buruma, Anglomania: A European Love Affair (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998).

54 See Ferenc Hörcher, “Sensus Communis in Gellert, Garve and Feder: An Anglo-Scottish element in German Popular Philosophy,” in idem, Prudentia Iuris: Towards a Pragmatic Theory of Natural Law (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2000), 137–57.



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