Zelensky’s Visit, “Kossuth Mania,” and America’s Altered Foreign Policy Debate

Lajos Kossuth on Broadway.
Lajos Kossuth on Broadway. New York Public Library Digital Collection. Public domain.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to Congress Wednesday night saw the leader receive a standing ovation roughly once every ninety seconds. The enthusiasm brought to mind a similar episode 171 years ago: a visit by Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth had led Hungary during its brief independence from Austria in 1848. After his defeat and exile in Turkey, an American warship brought him to the United States. “Kossuth mania” swept the nation as the leader toured America, raising money for Hungarian independence and calling for the United States to intervene, by force if necessary, on Hungary’s behalf. To this day, there are towns, counties, and streets in America named for him. 

Yet Kossuth’s trip to the United States was ultimately a failure. He did not secure U.S. intervention. He didn’t raise much money. His delegation lived lavishly at taxpayer expense in fine hotels, angering the Senate. Yet the main challenge he faced was that U.S. attitudes about foreign policy, especially among political elites, were fundamentally different. George Washington’s Farewell Address and its urging to avoid entanglements in Europe was still the touchstone.

Even so, the debates about foreign policy were more similar to today’s than you might suspect. Examine this account of Kossuth’s remarks in New York and Washington and President Millard Fillmore’s message to Congress the following year, which ended with a reply to Kossuth and his supporters.

  • Then as now, proponents of interventions abroad held that America’s early foreign policy was born of weakness more than wisdom, and that a stronger nation should throw its weight around.
  • Then as now, they argued that new technologies had shrunk the world (for Kossuth et al., it was the steam engine), reducing America’s ability to remain aloof from crises abroad.
  • Then as now, they argued that a danger to any freedom anywhere was a danger to all freedom everywhere. A few years later, the Northern victory in the U.S. Civil War freed millions; Hungary’s experience had little to do with this, just as the growth of Hungary’s rights in 1867 had little to do with the U.S. Civil War.
  • Then as now, foreign supplicants promise the moon (for Kossuth, it was that there would be more European revolutions in a few months, and that with ten million dollars he could reconquer Hungary, for he would only need to fight one battle to kick out the Austrians).
  • Then as now, enthusiasm for foreign causes can lead us to overlook those causes’ flaws. Kossuth was an anti-Catholic, leading to a cool reception from Irish Americans, and the Hungarian independence faced opposition from many ethnic minorities in Hungary.
  • Then as now, we are tempted also to overlook the ugly compromises that any cause must make to succeed – compromises that should at least put an asterisk on our assessment of the cause’s nobility. For example, in New York, Kossuth refused to meet with an African American delegation, since he knew he needed to avoid worrying the slaveholding South if he wished to win American support.
  • Then as now, military realities are an unpleasant intrusion on grand designs. It is hardly clear that even an all-out U.S. operation in Hungary’s support would have done much.
  • Then as now, foreign leaders will appeal to American ideals while acting in ways that advance their own interests, at times harming the United States. The naval captain and the diplomats involved in Kossuth’s journey to America repeatedly had to rein him in after he stirred up trouble in foreign ports where the ship stopped. Kossuth had little incentive to respect the American ship’s neutrality, indeed, his whole trip aimed to end American neutrality.

The debate between Fillmore and Kossuth et al. should stand as a reminder that early American foreign policy does hold lessons for today. There is nothing new under the sun. Early U.S. leaders confronted many of the same questions we confront. They answered those questions differently.

Make no mistake: Kossuth and Zelensky are heroes to their nations. And there are differences between Kossuth and Zelensky – the latter has not failed and is not a revolutionary. Yet both Kossuth and Zelensky came to America to advance their nations’ causes, not our own, a fact we would be fools to ignore. John Quincy Adams, who died weeks before the Hungarian Revolution began, was wise in urging America to be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society.

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