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December 5, 2022

24 January 1859 – The founding of the modern Romanian national state

By Petre Otu

It is well known that the 19th Century represents an epoch of strong affirming of nations, of national states, so it was named “the century of nationalities.” Over a relatively short time interval, of several decades, the Greeks, Serbians, Italians, Germans, Bulgarians founded national states that gradually became important actors on the international stage, some of them – such as Germany – even with hegemonic aspirations.
Romanians, too, were among the peoples that succeeded in founding the state in its modern form, although not all of them were included in it, because of objective conditions.
A neo-Latin people, continuator and heir to the ‘Oriental Roman world,’ Romanians – like other peoples of the Ponto-Baltic isthmus, had a contorted history that made them live separated, from a political point of view, for several centuries.

Across these demarcation lines, traced mostly by the relations between the big powers of the era, Romanians had from the very beginning the conscience of their Latin origin and of their unity. The idea was expressed, with outstanding clarity, by the documents of those times, by chroniclers, the most important of them being Grigore Ureche (1590-1647), Miron Costin (1633-1691), Ion Neculce (1672-1745), by scholars of European importance like the most illustrious of them, Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723), by politicians etc. It was recognised, without any doubt, by many foreigners – political leaders, high prelates, scholars, travelers, militaries etc. who experienced, or took contact with the realities of the territory marked by the Carpathians and the Danube.
Uniting Romanians in a single state represented a permanent aspiration that took various formulas through the centuries. In the 15th-16th centuries, the princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, the two principalities outside the Carpathian Arch that were under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, fought on several occasions for supremacy in the Romanian space. But, according to Nicolae Iorga, the most important historian of the Romanian people, it was rather a clash over precedence, basically for unity, as the conscience of belonging to the same nation was strong. Michael the Brave, the ruler of Wallachia (1593-1601), reunited for a short time, under his scepter, the three countries – Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia. Little over a decade later, Gabriel Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1613-1629), unsuccessfully envisaged a ‘Kingdom of Dacia’ that would bring together Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia.
In the 18th Century, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, after the unsuccessful siege of Vienna (1683) stimulated the preoccupations aimed at finding solutions for the political union of the two principalities from south and east of the Carpathians – Wallachia and Moldavia. Worth mentioning, Transylvania was incorporated in the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 17th Century. During the 18th Century, in numerous petitions sent to the rulers from Vienna, Petersburg and Istanbul, the boyars claimed this right, but could not advance on this path any further. Their ideas gained formal recognition, to say so, through the project of Czarina Ekaterina II of Russia, on founding a ‘Kingdom of Dacia’ that would incorporate the Romanian territories.
In the first half of the 19th Century, against the background of the national resurrection on the European continent and of new “warm” episodes of the “Oriental issue” (taking over the Ottoman inheritance in Europe by the big Christian powers), the problem of uniting Wallachia and Moldavia became of intense actuality for the national public opinion, also becoming a matter of interest in the European balance of power. Internally, the goal of unity was strongly affirmed during the revolution of 1848-1849. The revolutionary programmes, the statements of politicians, mainly of revolutionists, the articles published by the press powerfully revealed the necessity of uniting the two Romanian principalities. Such an example is the document named ‘The wishes of the national party of Moldavia,’ drafted by Mihail Kogalniceanu in the capital of Bukovina, in August 1848, that defined the union of Wallachia and Moldavia as “the key stone in whose absence the whole national edifice would collapse.”
This primordial goal was superimposed to the international context, which eventually proved to be favourable. In the first half of the 19th Century, the Russian Empire, after winning a number of wars against the Ottoman Porte (1806-1812; 1828-1829) and due to the weakness of the Habsburgs, manifested – among others – during the revolution of 1848-1849, took a big advantage, which worried the British Empire and France, which supported the Ottoman Porte. The advance of Russian forces in South-East Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean was breaking the balance of power, seriously threatening the British and French interests.
As consequences, the two big powers, supported by the Ottoman Empire, Sardinia and Prussia – the last two fighting for the unity of Italians and Germans – started the Crimean War (1853-1856), the first European conflict after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. The operations were launched in Dobrogea, but moved to the Crimean Peninsula, hence the name of the war. Russia was defeated and, in the Peace Treaty of Paris (1856) was compelled to give to Moldavia three counties from southern Basarabia (Cahul, Bolgrad and Ismail). It was thus pushed back from the mouths of the Danube, while the western, Anglo-French commerce could go on unhindered. Maintaining the sustainability of the commercial way on the Lower Danube imposed, as a medium-term solution, uniting the two principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, and forming a buffer-state between the two empires.
With his known deep-thinking and clarity, the big diplomat Grigore Gafencu described the relations of causal determination between the Crimean War, the statute of the Danube and the appearance of Romania as a modern state on the map of Europe. “The Crimean War was meant to establish an order and a limit in the East. The Paris Treaty set this limit on the Lower Danube. The Danube, a European river, had to belong entirely to Europe; (…) The Danube Principalities had to enjoy the guarantee of Europe, same as the Danube. These conditions justified and assured the founding of Romania, united and free. The new state, which was to be born, had as basis an act that established a balance. Its destiny depended on this balance, same as this balance depended on its existence.”
The Romanian principalities were thus taken off the influence of the Russo-Ottoman condominium, informally in effect since 1774, and placed under the guarantee of the seven big European powers, while also remaining under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. The peace conclave of Paris decided that the masses should be consulted via special assemblies (ad –hoc) over the idea of the union. The battle moved at home, where the unionist camp enjoyed wide popular support. The decisions of the two assemblies were unanimous in favour of complete unity, autonomy, foreign prince from a European ruling family, and a radical reform of the Romanian society.
The rivalries between big powers prevented the materialising of the unionist project in the form demanded by the ad-hoc assemblies. The Convention of Paris (1858) offered a truncated unity, with two princes, two legislatives, two governments, a solution that was far from what the ad-hoc assemblies had requested. But, like the Italians did not resign themselves to being just a “geographic expression,” Romanians were unwilling to allow their country being just a “diplomatic expression.” Subtly supported by France, they resorted to the solution of choosing the same person on the throne of both principalities. The double election of Cuza, a real outsider in the race for the throne, on 5 and 24 January, first in Iasi and then in Bucharest, was a Romanian solution to a European problem.
The success achieved through the double election of Alexandru Ioan Cuza signifies the laying of the bases of the modern Romanian state. His 7-year reign that ended on 11 February 1866 is characterised by a vast programme of reforms in all fields of activity. Although not all were viable on a short term, they had the big merit of placing Romania on the orbit of modernisation. The internal reforms eroded his popularity, which was also sapped by his mistakes, like the acceptance of a camarilla. Plus, his relations with Napoleon the 3rd gradually froze, so his removal became a target of both the radical-liberals (the “reds” as they were called back then) and the conservatives. This led to the forming of the “monstrous coalition” that ousted him from power in the night of 10/11 February 1866.
Alexandru Ioan Cuza was aware of the plot, but refused to take measures, in order not to endanger the union, preferring to go in exile until his death, in 1873. His toppling was a logical act and bringing a foreign prince, as requested by the ad-hoc assemblies, a necessity. Carol of Hohenzollern (1866-1914), chosen by the Romanian nation, proved to be a strong leader who continued and amplified the modernisation programme of the Romanian society.
Alexandru Ioan Cuza is remembered by history not through his human errors, but through his grand achievements. Renouncing the throne at a difficult moment and his refusal to return in power with support from Paris, in the context of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) represent an example of patriotism. In a speech delivered at the Romanian Athenaeum on 2 April 1920, one century from the birth of the founder of modern Romania, Nicolae Iorga appreciated that Prince Cuza was “a man worthy of his legend, and the legend that surrounds him is worthy of him.”
One can strongly affirm that the founding of the modern Romanian state, in 1859, was possible due to a complex of factors, such as: the favourable international situation; the laborious, intelligent activity of a suite of leaders coming from the ranks of 1848 revolutionists for the materialisation of a national project – the union and founding of the state; the patriotism of people living east and south of the Carpathians.
The event that took place 155 years ago proves, in the perspective of the long duration of history, a moment of national concord, which laid the bases of the modern Romanian national state and placed it on the road of modernisation and affirmation in the world.

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