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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

The course of revolution in the history of the Romanians

Nicolae Bălcescu
Traduction de Mária Kovács

Texte intégral

1Title: Mersul revoluţiei în istoria Românilor (The course of revolution in the history of the Romanians)

2Originally published: In the journal România viitoare (Paris, 16 September 1850), vol. I.

3Language: Romanian

4The excerpts used are from Nicolae Bălcescu, Opere, vol I/2 (Scrieri istorice, politice şi economice), ed. by G. Zane (Bucharest: Fundaţia pentru literaturăşi artă ‘Regele Carol II,’ 1940), pp. 99–101, 103–108.

About the author

5Nicolae Bălcescu [1819, Bucharest – 1852, Palermo]: historian, publicist and politician. His family belonged to the petty nobility, and he studied at the prestigious St. Sava College. In 1840 he participated in a plot against the ruling prince of Wallachia, Alexandru II Ghica (r. 1834–1842), but was caught and sentenced to two years in prison. In 1843 Bălcescu, together with Ion Ghica (1817–1897) and Christian Tell (1808–1884), founded a revolutionary organization named Fraţia (Brotherhood). In 1844 he began publishing historical studies, and between 1845 and 1848, together with August Treboniu Laurian (1810–1881), he edited the journal Magazin istoric pentru Dacia (Historical Magazine for Dacia). In 1848, after having participated in the revolution in Paris, Bălcescu returned to Wallachia. He was one of the most active participants in the revolution that broke out in Bucharest in June 1848, and became minister and secretary of state of the provisional government. Bălcescu was part of a radical group of Romanian revolutionaries who advocated land reform, the introduction of universal suffrage and military resistance against the Ottoman troops. After the defeat of the revolution in Wallachia, Bălcescu went to Transylvania, hoping to facilitate a compromise between Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) and Avram Iancu (1824–1872), the leaders of the Hungarian and Transylvanian Romanian revolutions. In 1849, being in a very precarious state of health, he fled to Italy. He died alone in Palermo. In addition to his contribution to the development of Romanian historiography, Bălcescu was used by liberal movements that claimed the legacy of the revolution of 1848, and by nationalists who depicted him as a forerunner of the ‘union’ of Transylvania with Moldavia and Wallachia.

6Main works: Puterea armatăşi arta militară de la întemeierea principatului Valachiei pînă acum (Military power and military art from the foundation of the Principality of Wallachia up to now) (1844); Filosofie socială (Social philosophy) (1846); Drepturile românilor către Înalta Poartă (The rights of the Romanians presented to the Porte) (1848); Mersul revoluţiei în istoria Românilor (The course of revolution in the history of the Romanians) (1850); Istoria românilor subt MihaiVodă Viteazul (The History of the Romanians under Michael the Brave) (published posthumously by Al. Odobescu in 1878).


7The revolution of 1848 in Wallachia was better planned than the one in Moldavia. In June 1848 a committee of intellectuals, liberal boyars and sympathetic army commanders placed deputies in various towns so that the uprising might begin in several places at once. They issued a revolutionary proclamation, ‘Proclamation of Izlaz,’ which outlined their main political and social demands. These demands dealt with four issues: civil liberties; internal political changes; social and economic reforms; and independence from foreign rule. The revolution soon escalated in Bucharest, and Prince Gheorghe Bibescu (r. 1842–1848) was forced to accept a new constitution before fleeing to Transylvania. In the new situation the revolutionaries created a provisional government (guvern provizoriu) and adopted a new constitution. Its provisions included freedom of the press; equal civil rights before the law; the abolition of the feudal privileges of the boyars; internal legislative and administrative autonomy; a government responsible to a representative assembly; the widening of the franchise; and a solution to the peasant problem. The revolutionary regime asked for the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia but did not demand formal independence from the Ottoman Empire.

8The social and economic reforms advocated by the revolutionary government antagonized the boyars who would not consent to the loss of their political power. Moreover, the international situation was not entirely favorable to the demands put forward by the revolutionaries, as the Great Powers were unwilling to approve complete independence for the Romanians. Eventually, after repeated debates in the ‘Divans,’ the boyars accepted the introduction of civil liberties. The franchise for elections to a national Constituent Assembly was expanded to include all free male Romanians aged 21 or over, who lived in towns (in other words, the peasants remained without the vote). Moreover, there was no income qualification. Voters would elect delegates to county assemblies, from whose ranks the actual assembly delegates would be elected. Thus, many Romanians would have had some kind of vote, but the two-tiered process guaranteed that only prominent notables would make it to the constituent assembly.

9Reform of the situation of the peasants was one of the most delicate issues facing the revolutionary government. A committee of boyars and peasants led by Nicolae Bălcescu was entrusted with elaborating a reform proposal. The committee agreed in principle that peasants should receive property titles in return for compensation given to landlords, but it could not agree on how much land should be given to the peasants. As the social and political problems mounted, conflicts of interests emerged within the revolutionary government. The situation worsened when the Ottoman government refused to endorse the revolutionary government and condemned the revolution. When a Romanian delegation submitted the new constitution to the sultan’s approval in August 1848, he refused to accept it. A Turkish army was already camped in Wallachia; it was joined in September by a Russian force, and units from both powers then marched into Bucharest and crushed the revolutionary resistance. A new regime of the Danubian principalities was instituted according to the convention of Balta-Liman (1849). Revolutionary reforms were annulled; the power of the boyars was reduced; and the princes were henceforth to be appointed by the sultan and then approved by Russia.

10Bălcescu was both an active revolutionary politician and an ideologue. With Mersul revoluţiei în istoria Românilor, a text he wrote in exile, he hoped to offer an apology of the Romanian revolution. His ambition was to create a genealogy of the idea of the revolution whose origins were to be found in the history of the Romanians. He was critical of the view that described the revolution in the Danubian Principalities and Transylvania as a mere reflection of the revolutions in Paris or Vienna. Instead, Bălcescu argued, the history of the Romanians testified to their revolutionary spirit and love of liberty. By viewing the revolutions in Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania as parts of the same phenomenon, he also depicted the history of the Romanians from these three countries as belonging to the same national tradition. Study of the idea of revolution was thus necessary to explaining the proper course of national evolution. Revolution nurtured the national spirit and determined, Bălcescu believed, the special mission Romanians had to accomplish in the world.

11Bălcescu’s discussion of Romanian national identity was based on the argument that the Romanians had enjoyed sovereignty in the past and had defended it heroically. The medieval princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, especially Michael the Brave (r. 1593–1601), were depicted as glorious defenders of the Romanian national tradition. Like other contemporary commentators, Bălcescu also analyzed the Phanariot period and the role it played in Romanian history. However, contrary to the prevailing opinion, Bălcescu offered a balanced view of the Phanariots’ contribution to the enlightening of the Romanian people, stressing both the negative and positive aspects of their rule.

12In Bălcescu’s account, historical periods and national events were united in a teleological scheme which sought to make the idea of revolution as understandable as possible. According to Bălcescu, the Romanians had passed through various stages of revolutionary activity which corresponded to the internal evolution of Romanian society. He thus named Tudor Vladimirescu’s revolt of 1821 a ‘democratic’ revolution, since it claimed equality and freedom for the Romanians. In 1848, the Romanians revolted for social rights, for economic independence and progress. It was thus a ‘social’ revolution. It was only after these two major conditions, social and economic rights, were achieved that the Romanians could prepare their ‘national’ revolution. Bălcescu did not deny the national element altogether. The revolution of 1848 was the perfect symbol of the idea of national unification. It represented the idea of national unity and self-reliance the Romanians needed to achieve if they were to be liberated from the domination of foreign powers. Bălcescu urged the Romanians to repeat what history had already shown was possible: the attainment of national unity and the consciousness of their national identity. Revolution was thus portrayed as both progressive and a return to the national traditions. It was the historical subject which defined the particular conditions of the Romanian lands: their glorious history, their constant struggle against the foreign oppressor, and their love of freedom—along with the universal aspiration for liberty, fraternity and brotherly love among nations.

13The liberal tradition of the late nineteenth century often made use of Bălcescu’s ideas about the relationship between revolution and democracy. Moreover, those who viewed the history of the Romanian nation-state from a teleological perspective repeatedly invoked his definition of the national revolution, which was based on the democratic and the social achievements of 1821 and 1848, respectively. This interpretation thus viewed the Union of Transylvania with Romania in 1918 as the national revolution prophesied by Bălcescu. During the communist era Bălcescu was included in the gallery of national heroes and ‘teachers’ of the nation. Ultimately, he was reduced to a nationalist visionary whose only contribution was the idea of Romanian unity as described in his book on Michael the Brave. However, there were also attempts at a critical reception of his ideas. He was catalogued as a social and political philosopher attuned to the political idealism of the time, yet original in his efforts to integrate the Romanian idea of revolution into the general European thinking about revolutionary change.


The course of revolution in the history of the Romanians

15The Romanian revolution of 1848 was not a disorderly, ephemeral phenomenon, with no past and future, with no other cause but the accidental will of a minority or a general European movement. The general revolution constituted the opportunity for, not the cause of, the Romanian Revolution. Its cause goes back centuries.

16It was fomented by eighteen centuries of toil, suffering and effort by the Romanian people upon itself. It was a phase, a natural, necessary, foreseen historical evolution of the providential movement that takes the Romanian nation, together with all of mankind, on the infinite path of progressive, regular development, towards the highest goal that God hides from us and where He awaits us.

17Let us open up History—the confession book of centuries—and enlightened by its philosophy, we will see that for eighteen centuries the Romanian nation has not been merely existing, fixed on the spot, but it has been moving forward, changing and fighting ceaselessly for the triumph of good over evil, of spirit over matter, of rights over force, for the accomplishment, both within and through all of mankind, of justice and brotherhood, those two essential pillars of absolute and perfect order, of God’s order.

18We will see the Romanian nation barely emerging from the storm of the barbarians’ attacks—who had been haunting it for centuries and transforming it, together with the entire world—seeking to achieve its complete unity and organize itself after the principle of equality. However, the rulers, representatives of the principle of authority, gradually seized absolute power and made the monarchic principle the dominant one. [As] representatives of the state, [they] redeemed the country from anarchy and its enemies from outside, tried to preserve the Romanians in their rights as a strong independent nation, gave them dignity and power to carry out their mission in the world—to defend Christianity and the emerging civilization—but [at the same time, they] suppressed heavily freedom inside [the country]. […]

19The nation is degraded through serfdom and poverty, just as the boyars are through wealth and oppression. The country is weakened, and the Turks use the opportunity to run it down and deprive the people of their rights. The en-tire society is then built on a chain of classes and individuals, each with its own privilege. A large and monstrous superstructure of tyrants, laid one on top of the other, and all relying on the people, on the hard-working peasant. Who will crush this tyranny? Who will destroy this class of the self-elected, who have come out of the people, enslaved their brothers and parents, and mocked mankind? Look, the conquerors of the people are coming. They are slaves themselves and so that the punishment [of the people] and [its] shame become greater, [the conquerors] are foreign slaves.

20The coming to power of the Phanariots coincided with the rise of urban life in Western Europe. To the Romanians’ misfortune, though, these city-dwellers were corrupt, foreign and inimical. They had an easy time cheating the people, luring them with talk about freedom and revenge on the boyars that had been harassing them, and after a century of struggle the boyars fell crushed, and the state turned into a Phanariot one.

  • 1 Constantin Mavrocordat (Constantinos Mavrocordatos) was the Phanariot prince of Wallachia and Mold (...)

21A century of oppression and robbery, of corruption and degradation, of weakness and decline of nationality begins for the Romanians; an epoch of expiation, which the people have to endure under the laws of God and the spirit. But one of the conditions of human development is that progress not only breeds progress, but often from evil comes good. Thus, the Phanariots, without their knowledge or intention, accomplish a providential mission and foster progress. They revolutionize the Romanian countries completely; the political constitution of the Middle Ages with their privileges and tyranny is crushed. It is true that Mavrocordat’s1 constitution, which supersedes it, is not better; its goal is rather fiscal. But it regulates certain branches of the state; it does away with the liberties of the boyars and concentrates power in the hands of the Phanariots, who in a short time crush the old military and feudal aristocracy of the country completely. The boyars die dreadful deaths, they are exiled to foreign countries forever, or are ruined and enter the class of peasants, from which they emerged to torture and exploit their brothers. A class of bureaucrats, called ‘ciocoi’ by the people, with no background or roots in the country, corrupt and degraded, rises beside the Phanariots in lieu of the fallen boyars. At the same time, serfdom is also done away with, and peasants are declared free by rights, but are not yet in fact, for they are not granted liberty by being given land, and thus remain a proletariat. Eventually, national feeling, which had declined so much in the seventeenth century, is fed through persecution and gains new force; and when the evil reaches its acme, when the people, stripped of all it possessed, has no more to give, when the Phanariots’ mission of crushing the old order has been accomplished, a new athlete, who has seemed to be sleeping, awakens and makes his appearance in the arena. The people has risen, great, powerful and frightening, and has swept the Phanariots out of the country.

22This awakening of the people had been prepared in part by the work that came out of the mountains of learned Transylvania, an old refuge of Romanian nationality. For at that time our brothers across the Carpathians, needing to rid themselves of the domination of an aristocracy much more dreaded because it was of foreign nature, stepped out quickly on the path of progress through the works of the erudite and through insurrection, that legitimate re-sort of tortured peoples. […]

23The national and patriotic spirit gained more power after the revolution of 1821 and through the stabilization of a more national government than in the past, and while the party of ‘ciocoi’ with the new party of the Phanariots, reestablished after 1830, disputed their supremacy and rivalled each other in their zeal and flattery towards Russia, a young national party emerged and set as its mission to pursue the program of the revolution of 1821 and to achieve in all respects the wishes and needs of the people, fighting ‘ciocoism’ and Phanariotism, and raising ‘Romanianism’ to power. As in 1821, the revolutionary party wanted to save the people through the people, and therefore it was a revolutionary party. It was not numerous, but it was young and fiery, and it knew that the truth and the future were on its side, and many people, in the bottom of their hearts, felt and thought like this party, and when its flag was raised, it would be surrounded by a lot of prozelytes. Impatient to get to work, [the revolutionary party] was tempted in 1840 to prelude a movement, but the time was not ripe yet, and it achieved nothing but scratching a few more names on the list of the martyrs of Romanian liberty. Since then it has confined its activities to the secret and open propaganda of ideas in literary writings, and has sought to prepare the future revolution and formulate its synthesis. The ideas and interests of the people had changed and the long-waited revolution could not limit itself to the platform of 1821. Now, it was not enough to want the state to become Romanian, for the issue of the people’s poverty also had to be resolved; property, the basis of society, of public wealth and happiness had to be given a new organization. Crushing the regulation [i.e., the ‘Organic Regulations’] that monopolized the state, the ownership of land and capital in the hands of the ‘ciocoi,’ it was all absolutely necessary to proclaim the democratization of the state by equality of rights, of the land, by giving it to the peasants, and of capital, by credit institutions organized by the state; hence the need to accomplish a democratic and social revolution. Such was the program of the revolution of 1848. […]

24The people changes from slave to serf, then proletar, then possessor and now it throws away the last form of exploitation and becomes proprietor. And each one of these successive transformations was a form of progress as compared to the previous state, and all in all has led to progress.

25The revolution of 1848 tried to restore the Romanians to their rights as humans and citizens, without seeking to reset them in their rights as a nation. To this end, it was confined to asking Turkey to abide by the old capitulation also recognized and reinforced through the Treaty of Adrianopole and the ‘Hatt-i Şerif’ of 1834. [The revolution] also demanded that Russia should abide by the treaties that recognize the administrative autonomy and independence of the country, and the non-violation of land, and [she should] limit herself to her role as guarantor, without interfering in the country’s domestic affairs and abusing her protective role. The revolution of 1848 was, therefore, not against Turkey or Russia, since it was confined to asking abidance by the treaties, without demanding new rights. […]

26These conditions of power that we need cannot be found elsewhere but in the solidarity of all Romanians, in their unity in one nation; a unification that is meant for them through their nationality, through the same language, religion, customs, feelings, geographic position, through their past, and eventually through the need to preserve themselves and be redeemed.

27If nationality is the soul of a people, if as long as it preserves this distinguishing sign of its individuality—this spirit of life—it is invested with the unalienable right to live in freedom, then national unity is the guarantee of its liberty; it is its necessary body so that the soul does not disappear and it does not become numb, but on the contrary it can grow and develop.

28National unity has been the dear dream of our brave leaders, of all our great men who embodied the individuality and thinking of the people to show it to the world. For it, these men lived, worked, suffered and died. […]

  • 2 Mircea the Old, Prince of Wallachia (r. 1386–1418); Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia (r. 1457 (...)

29It is time now, when nationality and political existence are denied to us, when we see that especially since 1848 the words unity and nationality have been uttered by all Europeans, the feeling has been in everyone’s heart, all the people have been armed, shed blood, so much blood in these last two years, blood that will be flowing until the map of Europe is redrawn; the states based on conquest, on violating the rights of nations are crushed, the nations are reunited in liberty and the sacred alliance of people is accomplished. […] It is time, I say, that the Romanian nation raised the flag of its unity, the flag of the past greatness and bravery of our parents, the flag of Mircea, Stephen and Michael,2 the flag of life and redemption. […] ‘Pan-Romanianism’ must be today our common goal. Through it we complete our revolutionary synthesis.

30The revolution of 1821 asked for justice, and wanted all Romanians to be free and equal, the state to be Romanian. It was a democratic revolution.

31The revolution of 1848 wanted the Romanians not only to be free, but also to have the right to property, without which liberty and equality are lies. To this end, it added the word ‘brotherhood,’ that major condition for social progress. It was a social revolution.

32The next revolution cannot be confined to asking the Romanians to be free, equal, owners of land and capital, and brothers associated to achieve the jointly desired progress. It will not possibly be limited to seeking liberty from within, which is impossible to achieve without having freedom from outside, freedom from foreign domination, but it will ask for national unity and liberty. Its slogan will be: justice, brotherhood, unity. It will be a national revolution.

33This is the way the Romanian revolution will pursue its course in the future. And only when the sacred war will free the nation from the oppression of foreigners and reunify it in liberty and unity, will the congress of people, the Constituent Assembly, be able to achieve in peace all the political and social reforms needed and to establish the dominance of democracy, the rule of the people by the people.

34To create a nation! A nation of brothers, of free citizens, this is, O Romanians, the sacred and great deed that God has trusted us with. In vain will you kneel and pray at the gates of emperors or at the doors of their ministers; they will give you nothing, for they cannot and do not wish to. Be ready, then, to take what you wish, because the emperors, the lords and the boyars of the land will not give [anything away] except what peoples seize for themselves. Be ready, then, to fight like men, for through fight and sacrifice, through the blood you shed, the people gains awareness of rights and responsibilities. The day of victory, the day of justice is coming, when the people will rise to sweep away the remaining tyrants from the face of the earth. Then you will rise and start the national fight, the fight of redemption. Then you will not be on your own facing the enemy, but all the peoples of Europe will rush to help you and will stand beside you, for now all have felt that they have the same enemy, and that together, united, they must fight against it. You will have the fortune and glory to face it first, to be the vanguard of civilization against barbarity, as in the Middle Ages, but then the laurels that you gain will grow in your hand and shade the universe. […] Bravery and faith, Romanian brothers! God in heaven and mankind on earth are working for us!


1 Constantin Mavrocordat (Constantinos Mavrocordatos) was the Phanariot prince of Wallachia and Moldavia, ruling for a number of times from the 1730s to the 1760s, who introduced a number of enlightened reforms, including a decree on the liberation of serfs.

2 Mircea the Old, Prince of Wallachia (r. 1386–1418); Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia (r. 1457–1504); Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia (r. 1593–1601) the most important Romanian rulers of the late medieval period.


Mária Kovács (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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