A comparative character-sketch of the two great reform politicians, Andrzej Zamoyski and István Széchenyi, is a somewhat risky venture. Before outlining the similarities and common points that connect these two statesmen, and going into details of their respective careers, achievements and merits, we have to point out fundamental differences right at the beginning.

Firstly, they were active in different ages. Zamoyski (1717–1792), who was connected to the reform movement of the Enlightenment, was two generations older than Széchenyi (1791–1860). Széchenyi began his activity for the public good more than half a century later, in a different political, civil and cultural environment.

Another important difference is the place the two reformers assume in the consciousness of their present-day fellow-countrymen. Széchenyi, “the Greatest Hungarian”, is the symbol of the spirit of modernisation. He is very much present in the Hungarian national memory and in public awareness. Andrzej Zamoyski occupies a far more modest place in the Polish historical pantheon. Even though he is a widely respected figure among historians, his work and achievements are remembered only within a narrow intellectual circle. He did not become part of the national remembrance and no cult developed around his person. A typical anecdote about him, told to his friends by a prominent historian, Władysław Konopczyński, goes as follows. Konopczyński was about to present a paper in the Warsaw Scientific Society about Zamoyski, entitled The Tragedy of the Ex- Chancellor. Queried about the title, he was asked whether he would speak about Bismarck. “No, about Zamoyski”, he said. “About the great man, Jan?” “No, about Andrzej.” “Oh! The one who was a fellow-politician of Aleksander Wielopolski in the 1860s?”

The life of this great Polish reformer, a man of integrity and outstanding intellect, remains an ever exciting enigma. Although long thought by most scholars to be born a year earlier, Zamoyski was actually born in 1717. When he was nine, his parents sent him to school in Leipzig, following which he continued his studies in Paris and Göttingen, and probably as well in Rome and England. After polishing his intellect he boldly decided to join the army of the Electorate of Saxony, but continued to broaden his intellectual horizons in subsequent years, especially in the fields of law and economy. Thus at the beginning of the 1760s, “he entered the scene as a man of mature intellect and character”. By then he was already the owner of a huge estate, including the whole of the Inowrocław Voivodeship. Around 1760, increasingly aware of the need for reforms, he joined the politically enlightened group that had formed around the Czartoryski family. He began introducing reforms on his own estate, liberating his serfs by allowing them to redeem their statute-labour by money payment.

According to the surviving documents, unlike Széchenyi’s youth, Zamoyski’s life until early adulthood was characterised by calm, a lack of dramatic detours, passionate experimenting, rebellion or infatuation. That contrast may be down to their different temperaments, but could also be the result of inherent differences in the predominant cultural climate of their respective times, the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s. Zamoyski, a young aristocrat educated in the West and familiar with the enlightened circles of the Polish aristocratic republic, was greatly influenced by Enlightenment ideas. Széchenyi, who was educated in a similar environment but a few decades later, was shaped by both the spirit of the Enlightenment and the new intellectual trends of Romanticism, especially the cult of the individual. It is well known that the young Széchenyi was a fervent admirer of Byron.

It is also noteworthy that both Andrzej Zamoyski, the sedate youth and the Hamletising Széchenyi, entered the service of armies antagonistic to their own countries’ cause, around 1740 and in 1809, respectively. It did not prevent them, however, later becoming meritorious statesmen in the service of those same countries.

Zamoyski, unlike Széchenyi, did not dream about personal power but calmly proceeded along a path leading him to ever greater heights and took on ever greater responsibilities that went with them. Thus, in 1761, he became President of the Royal Court of Appeal with the support of the Czartoryski family. In this position he became known as an “honest and incorruptible man”. He stood up against the growing corruption at courts and combated the “vile money” flooding the country. Introducing himself at the Convocation Sejm of 1764, he distinguished himself by ably pointing out the shortcomings of the aristocratic republic and coming up with concrete proposals to reform the legal system. Shortly afterwards he submitted his ideas on how to improve the government and put the economy in order. He pointed out the need to establish a National Mint, to restrict the possessory rights of the Church, and to improve the conditions of serfs.

Zamoyski was appointed to one of the country’s highest state positions as early as 1764, becoming the Great Crown Chancellor of the Kingdom of Poland. After holding this post for three years – in the words of a prominent Polish historian, Jerzy Łojek –, “the most glorious moment” arrived for Zamoyski: “At the convention of the Sejm in the autumn of 1767, on the night from October the thirteenth to the fourteenth, four leaders of the avant-garde of the opposition were arrested and borne away by force by a foreign power (…). As the king did not wish to protest against this contravention of the law, Andrzej Zamoyski gave back his chancellor’s seal at a public hearing and resigned from his post (…). This elegant and spectacular political gesture became the basis of Zamoyski’s unprecedented political authority.” In 1773 the ex-chancellor – as he was now called – became one of the eight members of the Educational Committee, which was created in order to reform the entire Polish school system.

Even the king, who saw the need to improve the aristocratic republic and was an enlightened man, held the ex-chancellor with his enviably unflinching character in high esteem. Knowing that he was a competent legist, the king entrusted him with the preparation of the new code in 1776, since it was clear that the old and outdated, malleable legal system was to blame for the weakness of the state. The new legal code took Zamoyski (and his colleagues) two years to prepare. In pursuance of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, he focused on rationalising social relations. He queried prerogatives based on ancestry and strived for justice and greater freedom for serfs (and commoners as well). He took the view that serfdom was contrary to both nature and the commandments of Christianity. In trying to improve the conditions of serfs in the draft code, Zamoyski was inspired not only by humanitarian principles, but his common sense too: he was convinced this would lead to the improvement of agriculture and in consequence to the “revival of cities”, in other words, he placed a high value on physiocratic ideas. Zamoyski also paid special attention to the institution of the Church, which was – in a certain regard – a state within the state at the time. He envisaged restrictions of the lands of the clergy and the dissolution of contemplative orders entirely dependent on the Vatican.

The work he did inspires admiration, even though – as the above-mentioned great historian, Władysław Konopczyński noted – “Zamoyski was not a radical, and even less a subverter”. While he laid a rational foundation for the functioning of the state, he was reluctant to rush into any democratisation process. He left the elements of feudal fragmentation intact and committed the solution of several issues to the benevolence and wisdom of the nobility. “He wishes the best for the bourgeoisie but keeps commoners away from the legislative power.” He wanted commoners to infiltrate the nobility instead, simply because he feared fast and radical change. He thought that would only lead to chaos – and ultimately to tyranny.

Zamoyski’s draft however was unacceptable for the privileged classes even in this form. Following the propaganda campaign in which the clergy, led by the nuncio Archetti, played an important part, it was rejected by the Sejm of 1780. According to some researchers, several of Zamoyski’s proposals were included in the Constitution of 3 May 1791, but real reform came only after 1830. It was a serious blow, but he soon regained his spirits, finding joy in family life and in the prospect of doing good whenever he could. He bequeathed his reform ideas and determination to improve the Republic to perhaps one of the greatest political writers of the Polish Enlightenment, Stanisław Staszic, the tutor of his sons, who came from a burgher family.


István Széchenyi’s participation in public life shows important similarities with that of Zamoyski (even though the ideas of the Polish reformer fell on less fertile ground). However, when comparing their respective careers, we find essential differences. “The Greatest Hungarian” was born in 1791, at a pivotal moment in the history of modern Europe. By that time the French Revolution had achieved its main goals. In other nations prominent representatives who wanted to accelerate history in the French way cast their watchful eyes on Paris. The Jacobin movement was taking shape under the influence of these events both in Hungary and Poland, although the élan of the Hungarian Jacobins was cut short when their leaders were publicly beheaded in 1795 at Vérmező (Blood Meadow) in Buda.

The star of Napoleon, rising from the chaos of the revolution, had already flashed a beam of light on the birth of Széchenyi, which accompanied him through his youth, too, as a soldier of the Habsburg army fighting against the Napoleonic French troops. The relationship of the Hungarian aristocracy with Vienna was undergoing upheaval at the time as the nobility brought issues concerning the fate of the nation to the Parliament, including the need to promote the mother tongue. Nevertheless, the leading Hungarian aristocrats, even though they emphasised their national identity, were more or less Germanised. They mostly lived in Vienna and showed up on their Hungarian estates only as guests. This was the case with István Széchenyi’s father Ferenc who was educated in the spirit of the Enlightenment. He visited England as a young man and – as his son would do after him – he diligently studied the secrets of England’s economic success. He donated his wonderful library to the nation, founding the collection of the Hungarian National Library bearing his name. For all that, he was by and large a Germanophone.

Although the family spoke mostly German at home, István Széchenyi, at his father’s express request, learned Hungarian too as a child. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Imperial and Royal Army and took part in the anti-Napoleonic campaigns. This was a completely different education. After the fall of Napoleon, he also felt like a shipwrecked man cast ashore. He saw the ruses of the ancient feudal world returning and rebuilding the old order. He saw the heavenly self- enjoyment and indulgences of his fellow aristocrats; he was present at the joyful dancing till dawn at the Vienna Congress, that gave birth to the Holy Alliance. He let himself be carried away by the whirls of merry-making, philandering, ephemeral love affairs, but, crucially, he found himself more and more often seized by an overpowering anxiety. What was it that this long war was about? He was tormented by questions: who is he after all, and what kind of causes should he serve? For some time he was adrift between different prospects, plans and dreams, not able to find his place in life. He wanted to be a great man: a writer, a scientist, a statesman, a soldier perhaps, but he was aware of the shortcomings of his training and education. In this state of spiritual trepidation, he discovered Romantic poetry, and in particular Byron. Inspired by his readings, he set about to dramatise his life. Emotionally he was passionate, eccentric and selfish, but he could be a cold-headed, calculating player as well. An incident – as if fate would have it – made him realise the importance of travelling, even though he had widely travelled around Western Europe. His journeys in England brought about fruitful consequences. He went there for the first time in 1815 when he mixed with the highest circles, but he also took great pleasure in studying the functioning of the British Parliament and deepened his knowledge of the secrets of Britain’s economic achievements. He could not help but see the gulf between the organisation of a modern civil society and the ancient feudal structures of Central European societies, especially those of the Habsburg Empire. Differences were all the more striking as the end of the war era marked the end of the economic boom and the beginning of a long-lasting social and economic crisis. When Széchenyi realised this, he set the most important goal: to close the gap between developed Western countries and his backward, poor country. All the time he appeared unaware that he was stirring up a wasps’ nest and releasing giant forces that would threaten both his position and that of his social class.

Thus while our Hamlet turns into Fortinbras, traces of his Hamlet-ego remain. Széchenyi returned from his first trip to England with the conviction that there were three things worth studying in that country: the constitution, horse-breeding and machines, and tried to adapt the best of these into his native country. He began by introducing reforms at his own estate – just like Andrzej Zamoyski had done before him.

In 1825 he ventured on a spectacular act that would bring him both fame and wide respect. At the Diet of Pozsony (today’s Bratislava in Slovakia) which marked the beginning of the Hungarian Reform Era, he offered a year’s income of his estate for the purposes of establishing a learned society. The main task of the institution that would later become the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was specified as the promotion of the national spirit and the development of the Hungarian language. A few days later he met the arch Conservative Chancellor Metternich who suggested he should not lose his common sense when acting for the good of the public, and warned him that in causes such as those raised by Széchenyi and his friends, only the King had the right of initiative. Széchenyi responded to these concerns in a special note in quite a restrained way. László Németh wrote with a certain irony that the Greatest Hungarian had the sense and the nerve to shift between patriotism and loyalty to the Viennese Court. It is difficult to question either of these fundamental traits of his character. They were all part of his personality. Széchenyi neither saw, nor wanted to see any contradiction in it.

Meanwhile he continued addressing wide-ranging issues of the life of the nation and the country, while diligently working every day. The idea of harmonious development was regularly in his mind, filling him with energy as he pictured an apocalyptic vision of the death of the nation, of its assimilation by or absorption into foreign peoples. On the one hand he bred thoroughbreds, founded public institutions, built bridges and mills, improved river-ways, and reformed laws; on the other hand he persistently called for the improvement of education in the mother tongue, without which he urged the nation would not survive. This became the leitmotiv of his work entitled Hunnia. His advice is all the more dramatic as it is given in an imperfectly mastered language, which he desperately tries to snatch back from anti-national, impersonal forces.

Széchenyi’s inexhaustible inventiveness and energy are amazing, especially if we match them to his diary entries in which he voices constant doubts, enervation and spleen, and complains about his health all the time. He is there at every initiative, furthering every reform movement, winning over discontented spirits, and proving he is right in his writings. In the 1830s we find him at the centre of Hungarian public life. He is its be-all and end-all. But he comes closer and closer to the wall he cannot break through, a fact already evident at the beginning of this great decade. It is there in Széchenyi’s work entitled Credit, too, a treatise on ethics, economics and finance published in 1830.

From the point of view of the realisation of reforms this is a fundamental work. It was inspired by the author’s own experience, not the works of foreign economists. In it Széchenyi criticises the almighty statute of aviticity, or the prohibition of alienating the property rights of noble families. From this negative principle he draws ever further-reaching conclusions. Everyone should have the right to sell and buy estates; everyone should be equal before the law; everyone should be taxable, and industrial production should be free from feudal structures, and so on. In Világ (World/Light), published a year later, these ideas gradually become integrated into the programme of the creation of a civil society, while the third part of Széchenyi’s vision is outlined in Stádium. Although this latter work could not be published in the Habsburg Empire (it was printed in England), it quickly became popular in Hungary. Széchenyi, while further developing his own bold, revolutionary ideas, kept clear of certain fundamental questions, and avoided properly examining problems like, “by whom are these ideas to be realised?” For him, the answer was clear: by the landed classes. Nor did he address questions like, “[h]ow should Hungarians relate to Vienna? How should they solve the problem of the nationalities?” (He had always been committed to tolerance and acknowledged that all nationalities had the right to identity, to use their mother tongue, and to cultivate their own culture.) And finally, he also avoided the question of how feudalism should be eradicated (there were nine million peasants in Hungary at the time). Over the years, these questions which were omitted, marginalised or subconsciously falsified by Széchenyi, became ever more burning issues.

Gradually, his followers, admirers and friends (among them Baron Miklós Wesselényi) deserted him because they thought bolder radicalism was necessary. Széchenyi stubbornly defended his position and engaged in debate with everyone – for that he was often likened to a fighting lion. His passionate arguments, extraordinary achievements and prestige did not get him anywhere however: the situation gradually overwhelmed him and he became marginalised. His thundering voice could still be heard but it was the young and poor Lajos Kossuth, a member of the lesser nobility, who became the apple of the nation’s eye. Kossuth reacted to everything with lightning speed, was a fascinating speaker and was unrestricted in his actions. He was also aware of what he owed to Széchenyi; he knew he was an heir to his life-work. In 1840, he called him the “Greatest Hungarian”. Széchenyi reacted with reserve but the nation accepted Kossuth’s judgement.

The train of events passed very quickly in 1848; news of the Galician uprising and the February Revolution caused much stir. The revolution that broke out in Vienna on the 13 March forecast the revolutionary outcome of the following days in Hungary. Conservatives were overcome. Even Széchenyi reconciled himself with Kossuth and accepted a portfolio in the first Hungarian Cabinet of Count Lajos Batthyány. As we know, after some time Vienna and the conservatives fought back and the Viennese Court – shrewdly manipulating the nationalities and asking the Tsarist Army for help – reached its goal. Hungary’s independence was crushed in the summer of 1849 followed by oppressive years of terror, known as the Bach era.

In the meantime Széchenyi was tormented by dark thoughts in the Döbling asylum near Vienna, maniacally accusing himself of being responsible for initiating this whole historical drama. He wished to see no-one, neither his wife, nor his children; he grew a stubbly beard, became slovenly, and was overpowered by the oppressive weight of his imagined terrible sins, which caused him hellish anguish. To that state was reduced the Greatest Hungarian of the age. Overwhelmed by its own everyday struggles, the nation forgot him, until one day Széchenyi gave a sudden sign of life. For a moment, his thoughts became shining clear and he regained the balance of his mind. He received visitors again, made plans for helping the nation, and even tried – being impenitent! – to move towards a compromise with the Court. But in the end he discarded this dream and wrote and published in England an acerbic satire about the Austrian government and its rule in Hungary. After the revelation of his authorship he was kept under strict home surveillance, from which he escaped by a pistol shot, on the night from April the seventh to the eighth, in 1860.


Széchenyi’s life story raises rending questions which became particularly pertinent in Polish history as well, although in a different context and chronology: the dilemma of “to fight or not to fight?” emerging during the November Uprising of 1830–31, the withdrawing into trivial daily affairs after the repression of the January Uprising of 1863–64, or the question of reforms and loyalty to a dividing foreign power, to name but a few. We can also see heroes in our nineteenth- century history struggling in similar dramatic situations (for instance Zygmunt Krasiński), but we cannot find a phenomenon equal to István Széchenyi’s genius in that period. If we must, we can see fragments of Széchenyi’s personality reflected in Aleksander Wielopolski, who was represented as the Hamlet of his age by the painter Jacek Malczewski. But before the repression of the January Uprising of 1863, his prestige was nothing like the one Széchenyi enjoyed in Hungary. I am almost certain that due to his reforming zeal and oeuvre, Andrzej Zamoyski, who was two generations his senior, comes closest in significance to Széchenyi.


What was it that connected the two men? Both came from renowned aristocratic families and were wealthy magnates convinced of the need to reform the political and legal system and to democratise the social relations of their countries. They were great patriots, ready to make the greatest sacrifice for the good of the country and the public.

Nevertheless, both of them were primarily led by rational motives in their respective reform activities, in accordance with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Social justice, man’s inherent right to freedom, etc., are all rooted in it. The will to adapt these ideals to everyday life came from the conviction that they were the fuels of society and provided the moral foundation of a harmonious social system.

It is typical that both men were aware of the importance of practical measures, such as the development of the bank and credit system, industry, transport infrastructure, and means of transportation. At the same time, it is also typical and instructive that Zamoyski’s life-work, i.e. his Code, was rejected by the Sejm of 1780, which declared it subversive and anticlerical, whereas Széchenyi was able to see and enjoy the fruits of his reform activity. The society of the aristocratic republic was not yet ready for radical change. More than a decade later, certain elements of Andrzej Zamoyski’s draft were incorporated into the Constitution of 3 May, but they were not truly applied until after 1830, in Széchenyi’s time.

It is a peculiar paradox that Zamoyski could die a satisfied man because the parliament of 1790 accepted the progressive Constitution of 3 May, while Széchenyi, despite his epochal achievements, departed from this life with a sense of despair and unfulfillment, anguished over the fate of his nation.

Translation by Orsolya Németh

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