Introducing Joseph II Attempts Reform In Hungary,
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As King of Hungary and Bohemia, and as Germanic Emperor, Joseph II, a man of ideals, found himself hampered by hereditary institutions and traditions. The attempted reforms of this ruler, though too advanced for their times, are justly deemed worthy of commemoration by historians. Like the work of all leaders who aim at improvement before the world is ready, they were prophetic of a better day.
Joseph II, son of Francis I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, was born at Vienna in 1741. He succeeded to the possessions of the house of Austria on the death of his mother in 1780. The troubles of his reign, especially in Hungary, were due to his own progressive and technically illegal acts on the one hand, and to the narrow conservatism of the people, and the illiberality of the nobles, on the other.
By most of the historians of Hungary and Bohemia the reign of Joseph II is described as disastrous for both countries. But a more philosophical view than those historians often furnish is presented by Vambery, the great Hungarian writer, who gives to the endeavors of Joseph the credit of enduring significance.
This selection is from Story of Hungary by Arminius Vambery published in 1887.
The royal crown of Hungary has ever been, from the time it encircled the brow of St. Stephen, an object of jealous solicitude and almost superstitious veneration with the nation. It continued to loom up as a brilliant and rallying point in the midst of the vicissitudes and stirring events of the history of the country during all the centuries that followed the coronation of the first king. The people looked upon it as a hallowed relic, the glorious bequest of a long line of generations past and gone, and as the symbol and embodiment of the unity of the state. The different countries composing Hungary were known under the collective name of the “Lands of the Sacred Crown,” and, at the period when the privileged nobility was still enjoying exceptional immunities, each noble styled himself membrum sacræ coronæ (“a member of the sacred crown”). In the estimation of the people it had ceased to be a religious symbol, and had become a cherished national and political memorial, to which the followers of every creed and all the classes without distinction might equally do homage. Nor was the crown an every-day ornament to be displayed by royalty on solemn occasions of pageant. The King wore it only once in his life, on the day of his coronation, when he was bound solemnly to swear fidelity to the constitution, before the high dignitaries of the state, first in church, and to repeat afterward in the open air his vow to govern the country within the limits of the law. Thus in Hungary it has ever been the ancient custom, prevailing to this day, that, on the king’s accession to the throne, it is he who, on his coronation, takes the oath of fidelity to his people, instead of the latter swearing fealty to the king. The right of succession to the throne is hereditary, but the lawful rule of the king begins with the ceremony of coronation only. It requires this ceremonial, which to this day is characterized by the attributes of medieval pomp and splendor, to render the acts of the ruler valid and binding upon the people; without it every public act of such ruler is a usurpation.
During eight centuries all the kings and queens, without exception, had been eager to place the crown on their heads, in order to come into the full possession of their regal privileges. Joseph II was the first king who refused to be crowned. He felt a reluctance to swear fidelity to the constitution, and to promise, by a solemn oath, to govern the country in accordance with its ancient usages and laws. The people, therefore, never called him their crowned king; he was either styled “Emperor” by them, or nicknamed the kalapos (“hatted”) king. His reign was but a series of illegal and unconstitutional acts, and a succession of bitter and envenomed struggles between the nation and her ruler. The contest finally ended with Joseph’s defeat. He retracted on his death-bed all his arbitrary measures, and conceded to the people the tardy restoration of their ancient constitution. The conflict, however, had left deep traces in the minds of his Hungarian subjects. It roused them from the dormant state into which they had been lulled by the gentle and maternal absolutism of Maria Theresa. Thus Joseph’s schemes not only failed, but, in their effects, they were destined to bring about the triumph of ideas, fraught with important consequences, such as he had hardly anticipated. The nation, waking from her lethargy, gave more prominence than ever to the idea of nationality, an idea which, as time advanced, increased in potency and intensity.
Yet this ruler, who on ascending the throne disregarded all constitutional obligations and waged a relentless war against the Hungarian nationality, must be, nevertheless, ranked among the noblest characters of his century. Thoroughly imbued with the enlightened views of the eighteenth century, and those new ideas which had triumphed in the War of Independence across the ocean, he was ever in pursuit of generous and exalted aims. He sincerely desired the welfare of the people, and in engaging in this fruitless conflict he was by no means actuated by sinister intentions or by a despotic disposition. To introduce reforms, called for by the spirit of the age, into the Church, the schools, and every department of his Government, was the lofty task he had imposed upon himself. A champion of the oppressed, he freed the human conscience from its medieval fetters, granted equal rights to the persecuted creeds, protected the enslaved peasantry against their arbitrary masters, and enlarged the liberty of the press. He endeavored to establish order and honesty in every branch of the public service, being mindful at the same time of all the agencies affecting the prosperity of the people. In a word, his remarkable genius embraced every province of human action where progress, reforms, and ameliorations were desirable.
Unhappily for his own peace of mind and for the destinies of the nation he was called upon to rule, he committed a fatal error in the selection of the methods for accomplishing his humane and philanthropic objects. He desired to render Hungary happy, yet he excluded the nation from the direction of her own affairs. He wished to enact salutary laws, yet he reigned as an absolute monarch, unwilling to call the Diet to his aid in the great work of reformation, ignoring and disdaining the constitution and laws of the country. He was impolitic enough to attack a constitution which, thanks to the devotion of the people, had withstood the shock of seven centuries. He was unwise enough to suppose that the people, in whose hearts the love of their ancient constitution had taken deep root, for the defense of which rivers of blood had been shed, could be prevailed upon to relinquish it to satisfy a theory of royalty.
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* Picture from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor#/media/File:Joseph_Hickel_(attr)_Joseph_II_als_Mitregent_seiner_Mutter.jpg