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C H A P T E R X I I
A Talk with Kossuth
IN old Turin, where the rough Alps are flung against the sky around the cradle of Italian liberty, I found Louis Kossuth in the twilight of his life. The once emancipator of Hungary sat before a table in a large bare room with a rug around his legs to protect them from the winter draughts, and a black silk skullcap on his snowy head. Books and papers were scattered about him. A bedraggled bird fluttered restlessly in its wooden cage in a sunny corner. A furled and faded flag was the only note of color in the room.
Nearly a quarter of a century had passed since Victor Emanuel and Cavour had invited the unsuccessful Washington of Hungary to live in Italy. Here the man who uncrowned the Emperor of Austria and drove the mighty Metternich from power had sat year in and year out, speaking with few outside of his household, watching the driftings of nations, marking the rocks in the way, and reading and writing prodigiously.
He had lived to see all his idols shattered, all but that great republic across the Atlantic Ocean, which greeted him like a hero and honored his defeated flag when Europe closed its doors to him. But even in his exile, with the weight of eighty-eight years upon him, he still earned his own living by the pen, scorning all assistance, although offered even by the royal master of Italy.
A strongly built man with a broad forehead framed in curling white hair, earnest blue eyes, a firm mouth, and a hoary, untrimmed beard that almost touched his deep, full chest; yet there was a suggestion of old sorrows in his gentle face.
"You see a man without a country," he said, as he welcomed me and bade me be seated. "Yes, it is a fact; Louis Kossuth is an alien in his native land. Ten years ago a law was passed providing that any Hungarian who failed to appear before a representative of the Austrian crown and declare his allegiance within ten years, should lose his nationality. That time expired two weeks ago, but see!" -- he pointed to a heap of parchment scrolls on the uncarpeted floor -- "eighty-three cities of Hungary have already conferred honorary citizenship on me. So the American newspapers want to invade the sepulchre of the old man who was foolish enough to dream of liberty in the heart of monarchical Europe?" The blue eyes twinkled. "They want to know what I think of the German Emperor's international congress for the settlement of the question of capital and labor? Well, I don't think much of it."
The man whose army was once the hinge of Europe drew the rug about his knees and pushed his gold-rimmed spectacles up on his forehead, as he settled back in the well-worn easy-chair.
"The German Emperor's words are only words," he said. "But he is a young man, and he is no doubt sincere, for it has been the hereditary policy of the Hohenzollern princes to found their power upon the masses of the people, rather than upon an aristocracy. However, congresses of nations do not amount to much, and congresses of kings are not to be trusted. Kings take little interest in the affairs of the common people, except when they happen to coincide with their own plans.
"As for the present sovereigns of Europe, their personal interests are so antagonistic that it will be impossible for them to agree on the labor question, even if it were solvable. Monarchies, to exist in the present time, must extend themselves, and no king can set any limit on his power such as an international compact regulating the relation between capital and labor.
"Two ideas are advanced by the German Emperor. One is that the nominal hours of labor shall be fixed by law; the other is that workingmen shall participate in the arbitration of all labor questions. Already the principle of industrial arbitration is in partial operation, both in England and America. But the scheme for regulating the hours of labor throughout the world is no more practicable than a common system of popular education for all countries. Differences of temperament, of physique, and of capacity, added to differences of surroundings and climate, create a barrier that cannot be levelled."
The old leader shook his head and wagged his forefinger as Italians do when they dissent.
"It must be clear to a statesman who has eyes that the social-industrial question overshadows all others," he said. "The human race is sick of a malady that defies cure. The progress of civilization has given to the great mass of the people desires which were once confined to the few, and each workingman to-day regards as necessaries what his predecessors considered luxuries. That is a fact which the political doctors do not seem to be able to recognize. They ignore the multiplying tastes and appetites which make the standard of the basis of life a changeable thing.
"The so-called state socialism will not cure the sickness from which society is suffering. An equal division of property or of labor will be followed in time by an unequal possession of property and an unequal distribution of labor. The weak will always go down before the strong. It has always been so in my time, and it always will be so.
"Monarchy will not cure the malady. Monarchy is going down all over the world, and republicanism is going up. The monarchical principle is not extending itself, while the principle of republicanism is rapidly gaining ground. The bloodless change of Brazil into a republic shows that. History proves that when one system ceases to extend itself and an opposing system keeps on growing, the contracting system is bound to be displaced.
"But republicanism will not cure the malady either, for you have in America the nearest possible approach to a real republic, with an enfranchised democracy, free education, and popular institutions -- and the social-industrial sickness is there too, increasing with your wealth, with your education, and with your liberty. There seems to be no remedy."
Kossuth drew himself out of the chair and sat upon the table.
"Meanwhile," he said, with a smile, "the earth will continue to revolve, and some day the present population may be swept from its surface, and a new race, capable of a new civilization, may appear. A cataclysm offers the only hope of a solution."
"That is a black doctrine to come from a man who once preached the gospel of hope to Europe," I suggested.
"Yes; but I have lived a long time, and I know more now than I used to know. Time is a stern teacher, and a true one. This appeal for an international system of labor regulations" -- and the old man slipped back into his chair again -- "is simply the reassertion of the ancient doctrine that government must meddle in everything, help everything, and control everything. The idea is discredited by history and by the present condition of the working people. It will not do. There must be more scope for man; the individual must have room to develop. If the people cannot help themselves, governments are powerless to help them.
"Much of the poverty of Europe is due to the expense involved in large standing armies. They will not disappear until the monarchs, with their personal ambitions, disappear. Europe is slowly approaching the verge of a vast conflict; it is inevitable. Nothing can avert it. The only cause for surprise is that war has not already begun.
"Now see how this curse of overgrown armies came upon Europe." Kossuth pressed his thumbs together as though he held the problem between them. "When Poland in her dying agony called to the world for help, those who espoused her cause were laughed at as idealists and sentimentalists. What did the world care about the liberties of the Poles? What did it matter whether the little kingdom was divided up among the great powers or not? Well, let us see what that injustice and that indifference to the rights of a weak nation have brought to Europe; let us trace the punishment from the crime. The importation of negro slaves into America finally resulted in a great civil war in which nearly half a million men died, and imposed a gigantic war debt on the United States, the interest of which must be paid by many generations. As Emerson says, 'the dice of God are always loaded.' The downfall of Poland gave the Czar a window overlooking Europe. Russia turned her eyes toward Constantinople. The Czar became ambitious in European affairs. The Russian movement toward Constantinople and the Mediterranean Sea threatened to upset the balance of power in Europe. It was seen when the Czar invaded the Sultan's dominions that Russian pan-slavism would soon stretch around Austria an arm strong enough to crush that heterogeneous and naturally weak empire. The Germans dreaded such an event, for that would bring the Russian power on two frontiers of their territory. And so the Triple Alliance was formed; Italy joining Austria and Germany because of her fear of France. All hope of relieving Europe of the curse of militarism disappeared. Armies grew greater each year. France allied herself to Russia. Each combination of nations watched the other with jealous hatred. More expensive weapons were invented. The war taxes multiplied. Today the situation of the people who have to pay for all this is almost intolerable.
"But if we had succeeded in maintaining the independence of Hungary" -- the venerable face was radiant with the thought -- "our first act would have been to go to the assistance of Poland and reëstablish her government. That would have been followed by a Danube alliance of small states, united only for common defence, each preserving its separate independence. This would have given Europe a buffer between her frontiers and Russia. It would have settled the Eastern question.
"Hungary was crushed because she got no outside help. Washington at Valley Forge acknowledged that he was hors de combat, and France went to his rescue. Where would Wellington have been but for the support of Teutonic arms? But Hungary will yet be free. The Hungarians have preserved their nationality for a thousand years. They deserve liberty, and some day, somehow, they will get it.
"I look around me here in Italy and feel that she is safe. The Italians deserve a great and happy future. They have been true, so long and through so many bitter trials, to the principle of Italian unification. When the thread of patriotic conspiracy fell from one man's hands on the scaffold, there was always another to take it up. The Vatican casts a shadow on the throne of Italy, but it is a small shadow. Had the College of Cardinals been adroit enough to have elected to St. Peter's chair a member of the Royal House of Italy -- King Humbert's brother, for instance -- they might have changed the situation. But the Papal kingdom is a thing of the past, and no one understands that better than the present Pope. As a great writer has said, 'The temporal sovereignty of the Pope is the dead body of the Holy Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.'
"England is a waning power. She is living on the capital accumulated in the past, and is rapidly using it up. Canada and Australia are sure to be separated from the mother country, and not a drop of blood will be shed to retain them. There will always remain ties of language and similarities of institutions that will encourage intercommerce and be mutually profitable. The two colonies have ceased to be a source of strength to England from a material standpoint. India is her great treasure-house. Had Lord Beaconsfield lived and carried out his plan of using Indian troops in Europe, England would be to-day a mighty force.
"Your country is the one power that is steadily gaining strength. Your greatest danger is your wealth. When nations become very rich they lose their energy and gradually drift away from their moral ideals. But if the experiment of self-government does not succeed in the United States, it cannot be successful anywhere. The American republic started under conditions never equalled in history. It had an intelligent, hardy, virtuous citizenship, loyal and homogeneous. It had an almost virgin continent, abounding in natural wealth. It had the experience of other nations for a guide. It was not embarrassed by an aristocracy, or by pretenders to a throne, or by an ancient system of vested rights. It was protected from European invasion by three thousand miles of salt water. That was the beginning, but what will the end be? When your men grow rich, and you have a leisure class, will they be satisfied with the plain ways of a democratic republic? Yet, God forbid that harm should come to the United States, the hope of mankind in the future!"
When I rose to go, Kossuth went to the door with me, walking slowly and with some effort. He drew the rug about his legs, and shivered when the wintry air touched him. As he stood there with bowed head and trembling limbs, he was a picture of noble old age.
"I suppose," he said, "that when you were instructed to interview me, you were surprised to know that Kossuth was still alive? Well, I ought to have died years ago, when my work was finished. I am ashamed to be using the air that belongs to more useful creatures."
He said this with an air of profound sadness.
"Your work finished?" I said. "It will never be finished while men live." And I quoted Smollett's lines: --
"Ah!" sighed the old man, "I am tired of the storms. If I could choose my place in nature, I would choose to be the dew, falling noiselessly, trampled on by man and beast, unnoticed and unappreciated, but still silently blessing and fructifying the earth."
I repeated these words to Count Tolstoy, in Russia, a few months later. He was silent for a moment; then he said, --
"I would much prefer to be a man, and love men."
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