Louis Kossuth was a legendary figure in the European politics and society of the early to mid-19th century.
A spellbinding orator, Kossuth had been a leader in the public uprisings that spread across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. He saw both extraordinary success and abject failure in his struggle against the entrenched power of monarchs.
Fleeing arrest, Kossuth came to the U.S. in 1851, and in February of the next year, he arrived in Columbus to a hero’s welcome. Speaking to the Ohio General Assembly, he gave his view of the country and its promise.
Kossuth was born in 1802 to a family of the minor nobility in what is now Hungary but then was part of the kingdom of Austria-Hungary. His father had a small estate and made his living primarily as an attorney. The Lutheran Kossuth family included his mother, two brothers and a sister.
Educated in the local schools, Kossuth became fluent in German and Slovak, as well as Hungarian, and entered his father’s law practice when he was 19. He soon met a nobleman named Count Hunyady, and Kossuth became his personal assistant and aide. Over the next several years, he served as an aide to other members of the nobility and became well-acquainted with the governance and leaders of Hungary.
As he did so, he became increasingly opposed to the arbitrary power wielded by the aristocracy and more and more open to the liberating ideas of the French Revolution.
By the late 1830s, his public opposition earned him a four-year prison sentence for treason from the powerful Habsburg dynasty that had ruled Austria-Hungary for generations.
Kossuth’s health suffered during his imprisonment, but he put the time to good use learning English by reading the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.
After leaving prison, he continued his political activities in the 1840s and ultimately became governor-president of the Kingdom of Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
However, an alliance of Russian armies with those of Austria-Hungary crushed the revolution. Kossuth fled with his wife and family to Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. Austria wanted him back, but the Ottoman Turks would not give him up.
In time, he was invited to the U.S., and the American steamship Mississippi carried him and his family to Gibraltar. Kossuth traveled to England, then set sail for America.
Arriving in New York in December 1851, Kossuth was met by a large and enthusiastic reception.
In Washington, he dined with President Millard Fillmore and became only the second foreigner after the Marquis de Lafayette to address a joint session of Congress.
From Washington, Kossuth undertook an extensive tour of the South and West, returning to the East across the Midwest. The purpose of his tour was to raise money for the revolutionary movement in Hungary and to seek direct American participation in his European struggle.
Traveling south from Cleveland, his train made a stop in Delaware, where he addressed a large audience.
Arriving in Columbus at the station where the Greater Columbus Convention Center is today, Kossuth was met by a large group consisting of state officials, members of local fire and militia companies and what a later history described as “a vast throng of citizens, including many delegations from the country for fifty miles around.”
Columbus was a community of fewer than 20,000 people at this time, and it seems most of them turned out to see Kossuth: “An escorting procession was formed at the station, and moved up High Street to the Neil House” where Kossuth made a few remarks. “In the evening, he was serenaded by one of the German bands of the city.”
At 11 a.m. Feb. 5, he spoke to a large crowd from a platform in front of the old courthouse. Two days later, he spoke to a joint session of the Ohio General Assembly.
He said in part, “The spirit of our age is democracy: all for the people and all by the people; nothing about the people without the people.”
During his stay in the capital city, Kossuth remarked “that in the city of Columbus, reality is more delightful than even the most delightful historical dream.”
Kossuth soon left Columbus and continued his quest for financial support and American participation in his fight for independence.
He left America with pledges of money but without American participation.
The U.S. recently had won a war with Mexico and had no wish to become involved in Europe, a place many recent immigrants were only too happy to leave.
Kossuth died in Hungary in 1894. Kossuth Street in German Village is named for him.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.