Széchenyi, István, Count

(Vienna, September 21st, 1791 – Döbling, April 8th, 1860)

Széchenyi, István

"The quantity of scientific people
is the real power of the nation."

(Széchenyi: Credit, 1830)

He was born as the fifth child into the old, aristocratic and wealthy Széchenyi family. His father, Count Ferenc Széchenyi obtained imperishable merits with the establishment of the Hungarian National Museum Web link and the National Széchenyi Library. Web link His mother, Countess Júlia Festetich was the elder sister of György Festetich who founded the first Hungarian school of economics, the Georgicon. Web link

The young Széchenyi's childhood was split between Nagycenk and Vienna. He was a private student in Nagycenk and he had his exams in Pest, Sopron, and Szombathely in front of teachers such as Miklós Révai and Sándor Madách, father of the dramatist Imre Madách.

In April 1809 he joined the noble uprising against Napoleon with his two brothers. After the unsuccessful battle of Győr (June 14), unlike his brothers, he chose the professional military career and reached the rank of lieutenant. He participated in the battle of the nations as a courier in Leipzig (Lipcse) in 1813. He gained several badges of honour for the merits in the before-mentioned battle and for his services shown in the battles in Italy after Napoleon's return. However, he became neglected because of his memorials in which he criticized the army, and his nomination for becoming a major was rejected several times.

These were the reasons why he asked for vacation very often, travelled a lot, visited Turkey, Eastern and Western Europe with his friend, Baron Miklós Wesselényi.

His travel to England in 1815 made the biggest influence on him. That was the time, when he realized his native land's backwardness. As a result of the travelling and being neglected in the army, he turned his attention towards politics and public life. The “Hungarian Civilizator” found the pattern that his native land should follow in the English attitude and civic behaviour. Under civilization he meant urbanization and infrastructure meaning railways and shipping on one hand, and civil union meaning culturally trained civilians without noble boundaries on the other hand. For him civilization and the need that more people have to achieve middle-class status were entwined with the program for raising the nation.

He first became noticed in the reformer diet in 1825, when he donated a year's income of his lands to the Hungarian Learned Society, which developed into the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Web link The Hungarian Learned Society started its operations in February 1831, he became vice-president there.

Besides his theoretical reformer activities he started his significant practical economic activities as well.

In 1825 he established the First Horse Breeder Society, and nationalized horse racing.

In June 1827 he introduced horse racing in Pest based on the English pattern, and in 1828 he wrote his book titled On Horses (Lovakrul), the native standard work of the craft.

In June 10, 1827 he founded the Casino in Pest operating under his administration, the predecessor of the National Casino.

His book Credit (Hitel) appeared in 1830 had epoch-making importance. In it he scourged the aristocracy, though with an intention to enlighten, as he believed that aristocracy was the key to establish the changes needed. The book was a great success with four editions, although his ideas were attacked the heaviest by the aristocracy itself. However, more and more members of the lower noble who favoured reforms started to support Széchenyi's ideas. He published his book Light (Világ) in 1831, as a response to József Dessewffy's aggressive writing “The anatomy of Credit” (“A Hitel című munka taglalatja”), where he wrote enthusiastically about bondsmen. Mournfully, the provincial agrarian riot that took place at that time made his book timely. This was the time when Széchenyi realized that he has to make his program clear for everybody. His literary work is also important in terms of the history of economic theories.

Not only did Széchenyi understand Hungary's need for economic advancement, but also the tenseness arising from social problems. His program was against the husbandry based on villain services; instead, he built his economic ideas on lease work, with farmers becoming independent lessees and with the emancipation of serfs. However, besides the emancipation of serfs the capitalization of the agriculture was also essential, which required money. At that time banks did not give credit, as nobles were not allowed to sell the land or put it up to auction. This rule was based on the law of entailment, issued by Louis the Great I, in 1351, which became the barrier for all progressive intentions in the nineteenth century. It was clear that the law of entailment had to be repealed in order to establish national security.

This was the reason why he published his book Stage (Stádium) in 1833 in Leipzig (Lipcse), where he summarized his objectives in twelve points. By that time some people already thought that his ideas were moderate and restrained compared to the more radical ideas of Kossuth. In his debate with Lajos Kossuth (the polemic “People of the East”) he became isolated within the reform activity. He summarized his politics in Political program fragments (Politikai programtöredékek), which did not make a significant impression on the reform activity compared to his big rival, Lajos Kossuth.

He founded a bridge society in 1832 for a bridge tender, and then he examined the suspension bridges in England.

He was also interested in the case of the Hungarian National Theatre. He published his work On Hungarian Theatre (Magyar játékszínrül) the same year, in which he urged on building the Hungarian Theatre of Pest, which he dreamed to be located by the bank of the Danube. However, the theatre only opened two years later in August, 1837 in a temporary building and was soon called the National Theatre.

In 1833 he became the royal commissioner responsible for the regulation of the lower Danube, and for opening the Iron Gate to steam shipping. He was also managing the construction of the passage on the lower Danube. The engineering work was directed by Pál Vásárhelyi. Not only the channel and the cliff, but also the coastal route needed regulation. The 120 kilometre long passage that was hollowed into cliff was finished under his guidance and carries Széchenyi's name.

In April 14, 1834 the first steam ship got through the Iron Gate.

In 1835 as further activity he established a winter dock in Old Buda to help steam shipping on the Danube. He founded the first large scale industrial works of Pest, the Dockyard of Old Buda.

He married Countess Crescencia Seilern in 1836. They had three children, one of them Júlia died at the age of three months. The elder son, Béla travelled to Eastern countries several times. The younger son, Ödön died as a Turkish pasha; he received the title from the sultan for organizing the fire brigade. The establishment of the Fireman Society of Pest is also linked to his name.

In 1837 Széchenyi founded the Chain Bridge Joint Stock Company, for the construction of the first bridge on the Danube that connects Buda and Pest. The construction of the first permanent bridge of Pest-Buda, the Chain Bridge is also linked to his name. The project plans were created by W. T. Clark, the famous English bridge engineer, and Adam Clark was charged with the execution.

Széchenyi was the first one suggesting the merge of Pest and Buda, under the name of Budapest Web link and to raise it to capital rank. He was heavily working on creating Budapest, the capital of the Hungarian nation out of the sister cities of Pest and Buda. His dream was only fulfilled after his death, but the creator of the idea was István Széchenyi.

In 1938 he wrote his book A few words about horse racing (Néhány szó a lóverseny körül) in Hungarian and later in German as well.

In May 31, 1839 he founded the Steam Mill Company of Pest that constructed József Roller Mill. It was the first steam mill in Pest that first milled on September 15, 1841.

The first stake of the Chain Bridge was knocked down on September 21, 1839, on the 48th birthday of Széchenyi. The foundation stone was only placed on August 24, 1842, but unfortunately Széchenyi could not live to see the ceremonial opening of the bridge.

In the 1830s he urged breeding silkworms. He imported mulberry trees from Italy so that he could also start breeding silkworms in his own land in Nagycenk.

As part of his initiatives about credit life, in 1840 he contributed to the establishment of the First Hungarian Savings Bank Society. Also, he published his book On Silk (Selyemrül).

In 1841 he established the Boating Society of Pest with his sport-loving friends. He was also concerned with establishing more sport facilities.

In 1842 he became chairman of the Horse Society of Pest which was the successor of the Hungarian Society of Economy. He was also creating plans about constructing the Tunnel under Buda Castle Hill. The plans were ready in 1846, but the construction only started later, in 1853 and the Tunnel was opened to the public on April 30, 1857.

In August 1845 he became chairman of the National Transport Committee. He initiated the development of the national transport and the construction of railroads. He recommended that the lines should reach the centre of the country if possible. He initiated the establishment of the Railway Company between Sopron and Wiener Neustadt (Bécsújhely).

In April 1846 he published his book Steam Shipping on Lake Balaton (Balatoni gőzhajózás). With the help of experts he worked hard on the implementation of steam shipping on Lake Balaton.

In August 1846 he initiated the works on the regulation of the flood-prone River Tisza. The construction of the canal between the Danube and the River Tisza started, and as a result a shipping canal was opened in 1848.

Kisfaludy, the first steamship on Lake Balaton took off on September 21, 1846, on the 55th the birthday of the Count.

On May 30, 1847 a walking square named after Széchenyi was opened in Pest.

After the flood in 1838 in Pest he fought for the construction of the lower embankment of the Danube. He urged building the Parliament in Pest, the Technical University and the Statistical Office. He was planning to establish a Hungarian Pantheon as well.

He became Minister of Transportation and Public Works in Batthyány's Cabinet that was established after the revolution of March 15, 1848. He filled his position between April 7, 1848 and September 5, 1848. This was the time when he wrote Suggestion on regulating the Hungarian Transportation (Javaslat a magyar közlekedési ügy rendezésérül), in which he summarizes his ideas on railroad and road networks.

Széchenyi, who wanted to make his native land wealthy and independent through pacific reforms, had more and more conflicts with Kossuth, who believed in the triumph of the revolution. The conflicts between Vienna and the independent Hungarian Cabinet resulted in the war of independence that slowly strained his nervous system; therefore he gave up his ministerial position.

On September 5, 1848 he moved to an asylum in Döbling, following his doctor's, Pál Almási Balogh's advice. Széchenyi soon regained his intellectual creative force in Döbling and started to follow the national and European political events and relations with great interest. In the second half of the 1850s he heavily participated in politics, had strong relationship with the Hungarian political life, especially with the people of the political literature. He also published tremendous amount of literary work, one with outstanding significance called Ein Blick auf den anonymen_Rückblick (published in London, in 1859) that openly and heavily criticized the Bach era. His work was published anonymously, but everybody recognized that it was written by Széchenyi, both the representatives of the Hungarian resistance and progression, and the imperial police. He was shattered by the continuous police harassments and house searches. The persecutions only ended when he died. He was found “sitting in his armchair, with a bullet in his skull” on the night between April 7 and 8, 1860. As a result of his lifetime work on reforming the country, Kossuth described him as “the greatest Hungarian” and Zsigmond Kemény as “the most faithful Hungarian”.