Birthplace: Söjtör, Hungary
Location of death: Budapest, Hungary
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest, Hungary
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Architected Austria-Hungary union
Hungarian statesman, born at Söjtör in the county of Zala, on the 17th of October 1803. He came of an ancient and distinguished noble family, and was educated for the law at Nagy-Kanizsá, Pápá, Raab and Pest, and practiced first as an advocate and ultimately as a notary. His first case was the defense of a notorious robber and murderer. His reputation in his own county was quickly established, and when in 1833 his elder brother Antal, also a man of extraordinary force of character, was obliged by ill-health to relinquish his seat in the Hungarian parliament, the electors chose Ferenc in his stead. He took an active part in the proceedings of the diet at Pressburg and made the acquaintance of Ödon Beöthy and the other Liberal leaders. No man owed less to external advantages. He was to all appearance a simple country squire. His true greatness was never exhibited in debate. It was in friendly talk, generally with a pipe in his mouth and an anecdote on the tip of his tongue, that he exercised his extraordinary influence over his fellows. Convinced from the first of his disinterestedness and sincerity, and impressed by his penetrating shrewdness and his instinctive faculty of always seizing the main point and sticking to it, his hearers soon felt an absolute confidence in the deputy from Zala county. Perhaps there is not another instance in history in which a man who was neither a soldier, nor a diplomat, nor a writer, who appealed to no passion but patriotism, and who avoided power with almost oriental indolence instead of seeking it, became, in the course of a long life, the leader of a great party by sheer force of intellect and moral superiority.
During the diet of 1839-40 Deák succeeded in bringing about an understanding between a reactionary government, sadly in want of money, and a Liberal opposition determined that the nation should have its political privileges respected. "Let us put all jealousy on one side and allow him the pre-eminence", wrote Széchenyi of Deák (April 30th, 1840). Deák would not go to the diet of 1843-44, though he had received a mandate, because his election was the occasion of bloodshed in the struggle between the Clericals who would have ousted him and the Liberals who brought him in. In 1848, however, he accepted the post of minister of justice offered to him by Louis Batthyány. He never ceased to urge moderation in those stormy days, holding rather with Eötvös and Batthyány than with Kossuth, and he went more than once to Vienna to endeavor to effect a compromise between the Radicals and the court. But when the ill-will of the Vienna government became patent, and the sentiments of the king doubtful, he resigned together with Batthyány, but without ceasing to be a member of the diet. He it was who drew up the resolution of the Lower House in reply to the rescript of the Austrian ministry demanding the repeal of the Hungarian constitution. It was he who urged the Hungarian cabinet not to depart a hairs-breadth from their legitimate position. He was one of the parliamentary deputation which waited in vain upon Prince Windischgrätz in his camp. He then retired to his estate at Kehida. After the war of independence he was tried by court-martial, but acquitted.
During the years of repression he lived in complete retirement. He rejected Schmerling's proposal that he should take part in the project of judicial reform, but on the other hand he held completely aloof from the widespread, secret revolutionary movements. After 1854 he spent the greater part of his time at Pest, and his little room at the "Queen of England" inn became the meeting-place for those patriots who in those dark days looked to the wisdom of Deák for guidance. He used every opportunity of stimulating the moral strength of the nation and keeping its hopes alive. He invited the nation to contribute to the support of the orphans of Vörösmarty when that great poet died. He drew up the petition of the academy to the government, in which he defended the maintenance of this asylum of the national language against Austrian intervention. He trusted that, as had so often happened in the course of Hungarian history, the weakness and blindness of the court would help Hungary back to her constitutional rights. Armed resistance he considered dangerous, but he was an immutable defender of the continuity of the Hungarian constitution on the basis of the reforms of 1848. His principles alienated him from the Kossuth faction, which looked for salvation to a second war with Austria, engineered from abroad; but he was equally opposed to the attitude of resignation taken up by the followers of Széchenyi, who, according to Deák, always regarded the world from a purely provincial point of view.
The war of 1859 convinced the Austrian government, at last, of the necessity of a reconciliation with Hungary; but the ensuing negotiations were conducted not through Deák, but through the Magyar Conservatives. In 1860 Deák rejected the October diploma, which was simply a cast-back to the Maria Theresa system of 1747; but, at the request of the government, he went to Vienna to set forth the national demands. On this occasion he insisted on the reestablishment of the constitution in its integrity as a sine qua non. Meanwhile, it became more and more evident that the Conservative party had no standing in the country. The majority of the deputies returned to the diet of 1861 were in favor of asserting their rights by a resolution of the House, instead of petitioning for them by an address to the crown; hence arose the two parties of the Addressers and the Resolutioners. The Patent of the 20th of February 1861 increased the uneasiness and suspicion of the nation; but Deák, now one of the deputies for Pest, was in favor of an address rather than of a resolution, and his great speech on the subject (May 13th, 1861) converted the majority hostile to an address into a majority for it. The object of the Addressers was to make the responsibility for a rupture rest on the Austrian government. Nevertheless, the court found the address so voted inadmissible; whereupon, on Deák's motion, the Hungarian diet drew up a second address vigorously defending the rights of the nation, and solemnly protesting against the usurpations of the Austrian government. The speech which Deák made on this occasion was his finest effort. Henceforth all Europe identified his name with the cause of Hungary. The Magyar Conservatives hereupon entered into negotiations with Deák, and the Austrian government, more than ever convinced of the necessity of a reconciliation, was ready to take the first step, if Hungary would take the second and third. Deák now proposed that the sovereign himself should break away from counsellors who had sought to oppress Hungary, and should restore the constitution as a personal act. The worthy response to this loyal invitation was the dismissal of the Schmerling administration, the suspension of the February constitution and the summoning of the coronation diet. Of that diet Deák was the indispensable leader. Under his direction the Addressers and the Resolutioners coalesced, and he was entrusted with the difficult and delicate negotiations with the crown, which aimed at effecting a compromise between the Pragmatic Sanction of 1719, which established the indivisibility of the Habsburg monarchy, and the March decrees of 1848. The committee of which he was president had completed its work, when the war of 1866 broke out and all again became uncertain.
After Königgrätz the extreme parties in Hungary hoped to extort still more favorable terms from the emperor; but Deák remained true to himself and to the constitutional principle. On the 18th of July he went to Vienna, to urge the necessity of forming a responsible Magyar ministry without delay. He offered the post of premier to Count Julius Andrássy, but would not himself take any part in the administration. The diet was resummoned on the 17th of November 1866 and, chiefly through the efforts of Deák, the responsible ministry was formed (February 17th, 1867). There was still one fierce parliamentary struggle, in which Deák defended the Composition (Ausgleich) of 1867, both against the Kossuthites and against the Left-center, which had detached itself from his own party under the leadership of Kálmán Tisza. He, a simple citizen, from pure patriotism, thus mediated between the crown and the people, as the Hungarian palatines were wont to do in years gone by, and it was the wish of the diet that Deák should exercise the functions of a palatine at the solemn ceremony of the coronation. This honor he refused, as he had refused every other reward and distinction. "It was beyond the king's power to give him anything but a clasp of the hand." His real recompense was the assurance of the prosperity and the tranquillity of his country in the future, and the reconciliation of the nation and its sovereign. The consciousness of these great services even reconciled him to the loss of much of his popularity; for there can be no doubt that a large part of the Hungarian nation regarded the Composition of 1867 as a sort of surrender and blamed Deák as the author of it. The Composition was the culminating point of Deák's political activity; but as a party leader he still exercised considerable influence. He died at midnight of the 28th-29th of July 1876, after long and painful sufferings. His funeral was celebrated with royal pomp on the 3rd of February, and representatives from every part of Hungary followed the "Sage of Hungary" to the grave. A mausoleum was erected by national subscription, and in 1887 a statue, overlooking the Danube, was erected to his memory.
Brother: Antal Deák (Hungarian parliamentarian)
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