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The World’s Famous Orations.
America: II. (1818–1865). 1906.

William Cullen Bryant

His Welcome to Kossuth

LET me ask you to imagine the contest, in which the United States asserted their independence of Great Britain, had been unsuccessful; that our armies, through treason or a league. of tyrants against us, had been broken and scattered; that the great men who led them, and who swayed our councils—our Washington, our Franklin, and the venerable president of the American Congress—had been driven forth as exiles. If there had existed at that day, in any part of the civilized world, a powerful Republic, with institutions resting on the same foundations of liberty, which our own countrymen sought to establish, would there have been in that Republic any hospitality too cordial, any sympathy too deep, any zeal for their glorious but unfortunate cause, too fervent or too active to be shown toward these illustrious fugitives? Gentlemen, the case I have supposed is before you. The Washingtons, the Franklins, the Hancocks of Hungary, driven out by a far worse tyranny than was ever endured here, are wanderers in foreign lands. Some of them have sought a refuge in our country—one sits with his company our guest to-night—and we must measure the duty we owe them by the same standard which we would have had history apply, if our ancestors had met with a fate like theirs.

I have compared the exiled Hungarians to the great men of our own history. Difficulty, my brethren, is the nurse of greatness—a harsh nurse, who roughly rocks her foster-children into strength and athletic proportion. The mind grappling with great aims and wrestling with mighty ingredients, grows, by certain necessity, to their stature. Scarce anything so convinces me of the capacity of the human intellect for indefinite expansion in the different stages of its being, as this power of enlarging itself to the compass of surrounding emergencies. These men have been trained to greatness by a quicker and surer method than a peaceful country and a tranquil period can know.

But it is not merely or principally for their personal qualities that we honor them; we honor them for the cause in which they failed so gloriously. Great issues hang upon that cause, and great interests of mankind are crushed by its downfall. I was on the continent of Europe when the treason of Görgey laid Hungary bound at the feet of the Tsar. Europe was at that time in the midst of the reaction; the ebb-tide was rushing violently back, sweeping all that the friends of freedom had planned into the black bosom of the deep. In France the liberty of the Press was extinct—Paris in a state of siege—the soldiery of that Republic had just quenched in blood the freedom of Rome—Austria had suppressed liberty in northern Italy—absolutism was restored in Russia, along the Rhine, and in the towns and villages of Würtemberg and Bavaria, troops withdrawn from the barracks and garrisons filled the streets and kept the inhabitants quiet with the bayonet at their breast. Hungary at that moment alone upheld, and upheld with a firm hand and dauntless heart, the blazing torch of liberty. To Hungary were turned the eyes, to Hungary clung the hopes of all who did not despair of the freedom of Europe.

I recollect that while the armies of Russia were moving like a tempest from the North upon the Hungarian host, the progress of events was watched with the deepest solicitude by the people of Germany. I was at that time in Munich, the splendid capital of Bavaria. The Germans seemed for the time to have put off their usual character, and scrambled for the daily prints, wet from the press, with such eagerness that I almost thought myself in America. The news of the catastrophe at last arrived; Görgey had betrayed the cause of Hungary and yielded to the demands of the Russians. Immediately a funeral gloom settled like a noonday darkness upon the city. I heard the muttered exclamations of the people, “It is all over—the last hope of European liberty is gone.”

Russia did not misjudge. If she had allowed Hungary to become independent, or free, the reaction in favor of absolutism had been incomplete; there would have been one perilous example of successful resistance to despotism—in one corner of Europe a flame would have been kept alive, at which the other nations might have rekindled, among themselves, the light of liberty. Hungary was subdued; but does anyone who hears me believe that the present state of things in Europe will last? The despots themselves fear that it will not; and made cruel by their fears, are heaping chain on chain around the limbs of their subjects.

They are hastening the event they dread. Every added shackle galls, into a more fiery impotence, those who wear them. I look with mingling hope and horror to the day—a day bloodier, perhaps, than we have yet seen—when the exasperated nations shall snap their chains and start to their feet. It may well be that Hungary, made less patient of the yoke by the remembrance of her own many and glorious struggles for independence, and better fitted than other nations, by the peculiar structure of her institutions, for founding the liberty of her citizens on a rational basis, will take the lead. In that glorious and hazardous enterprise, in that hour of care, need, and peril, I hope she will be cheered and strengthened with aid from this side of the Atlantic; aid given not with the stinted hand, not with a cowardly and selfish apprehension, lest we should not err on the safe side—wisely, if you please. I care not with how broad a regard to the future, but in large, generous, effective measure.

And you, our guest, fearless, eloquent, large of heart and of mind, whose one thought is the salvation of oppressed Hungary, unfortunate but undiscouraged, struck down in the battle of liberty, but great in defeat, and gathering strength for future triumphs, receive this at our hands, that in this great attempt of man to repossess himself of the rights which God gave him, tho the strife be waged under a distant belt of longitude, and with the mightiest despotism of the world, the Press of America takes part with you and your countrymen. I give you—“LOUIS KOSSUTH.”