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May 11, 2021

The Union of 1859 – historical significance, contemporary reverberations

The realisation of the Union of Principalities 158 years ago represented one of the essential stages of the process of modernising and westernising Romanian society, of achieving the modern state, ideas that were mainly found in the programmes and actions of the 1848 Revolution.

In mid-19th Century, in the path of the Daco-Romanian project lay difficulties which seemed insurmountable for some Romanian politicians, the two principalities being under Ottoman suzerainty and under the protectorate of the Russian Empire, the latter considering itself their true master too. Prince Bibescu had a view as sceptical as possible on it, telling a Transylvanian who had arrived in Bucharest: “The Ottoman Porte’s suzerainty was imposed by force of arms and could only be removed by force of arms. Russia’s protectorate is based on treaties recognised by the other European powers; Bessarabia was lost through treaties too; how do you want Russia to think giving it back to us? In what concerns Transylvania and Banat, I leave you to judge what power you would need to oppose it to the desperate resistance of the three nationalities accustomed for centuries to treat Romanians as their subjects and not as masters of the country. Make sure not to allow yourselves seduced by deceitful aspirations and fantasies.”

However, a great international event intervened, fundamentally changing the data of the problem – the Crimean War (1853-1856), whose origins, course and consequences have been accurately researched by specialists. Apart from the invoked pretext, the mid-19th Century conflict was a geopolitical one. Russia’s advance toward the Black Sea Straits and the Eastern Mediterranean worried the United Kingdom and France, which backed the Ottoman Empire which had become, more than a century earlier, the “Sick Man of Europe.”

Russia was defeated and its advance stopped, a fact consecrated through the Treaty of Paris signed on 30 March 1856. Its protectorate over the two principalities – de jure instituted in 1829 – ceased, being replaced by the guarantee of the seven great European powers. Moreover, the Russian Empire was removed from the Danube estuary, southern Bessarabia consisting of three counties (Cahul, Bograd and Ismail) – historical Bessarabia in fact – being offered to Moldavia. Simultaneously, the treaty proclaimed freedom of navigation on the Danube and created the European Commission of the Danube, entrusting it with the task of overseeing the international regime instituted at the river’s estuary. In this way, the fate of the future Romanian state was joined with the European idea which established freedom of navigation on the Danube.

During the Crimean War, the union of the two extra-Carpathian Romanian principalities – Moldavia and Wallachia – was one of the problems that dominated the continental scene. Such a result – impossible to imagine a decade before – was reached because of the great powers’ rivalry and of their specific interests, but also of the untiring activity of the Romanian expatriates. The defeat of the 1848-1849 revolution, as a result of the intervention of the Russian Empire, seconded by the Ottoman one, led to the exile of its leaders. Scattered through various European cities (Paris, Istanbul, Bursa, London, Brussels, Palermo etc.), the revolutionaries used the connections they had formed during their studies abroad, including their statute as members of some freemasonry lodges, to justify their action in their fatherland and to defend the cause of Romanian unity through memos, interventions, publications etc.

In this way, through intelligence and dedication, they were able to create, despite differences of opinion and even some contradictions within their ranks, a favourable current in international public opinion and to influence the decisions of some European chancelleries. Thus, the issue of Romanian unity ended up being doubled by a general, European interest.

But, naturally, it also became a domestic issue crucial for the destiny of the Romanian nation. Based on the decisions of the Paris Peace Congress, ad-hoc assemblies were convened in Iasi and Bucharest in September-December 1857, being consultative structures in which the representatives of all social categories were set to take part. They voted in favour of Moldavia and Wallachia uniting under the leadership of a prince from a European ruling family, simultaneously with the adoption of a wide programme of reforms.

However, in August 1858, the Paris Convention decided the creation of a confederation called ‘The United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia,’ having two rulers, two governments and two parliamentary assemblies, a solution that was far from the desires expressed by Romanians in the autumn of 1857. The battle moved to the domestic plane, where the practical configuration of the ideal of union was about to be decided. It must be said that, the disputes between various factions of the political class aside, in early 1859 Romanians showed solidarity, civic spirit and political intelligence.

Colonel Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected ruler in Moldavia on 5/17 January 1859. The Wallachian political forces which wanted the union managed to impose his election as ruler in Bucharest too, on 24 January/5 February 1859. Thus, Romanians bypassed the decisions adopted in Paris, presenting the European powers with a fait accompli, since the Paris Convention did not stipulate that the rulers must be different persons. It can be said, without fear of erring, that the double election of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, an outsider in the fights for the throne, was a “Romanian solution” to a “European problem.”

The union of the two principalities was welcomed with immense satisfaction by the Romanian public opinion on both sides of the Carpathians, deemed as a first and important step in the path of reunification of all Romanians. The ‘Dambovita’ gazette, edited by poet Dimitrie Bolintineanu, one of the staunchest unionists in Wallachia and close friend to the ‘Union’s ruler,’ wrote on January 28, four days after Cuza was appointed ruler in Wallachia too, that “in this choice Romanians were also guided by the thirst for liberty and nationality,” being “unique in the annals of the history of Romanians.”

In its turn, the Transylvanian Romanians’ gazette ‘Foaie pentru minte, inima si literatura,’ edited in Brasov by Gheorghe Baritiu, noted in its 25 February 1859 issue the Bucharesters’ enthusiasm on 22-24 January 1859, when Cuza was elected ruler south of the Carpathians too. “During the night, the article pointed out, the whole city is alive. People are walking in large groups. [Policemen] patrol and dare not attack anyone,” but order was maintained because people were demonstrating “without any disorders.”

Alexandru Ioan Cuza’s seven-year rule took place under the aegis of reforms started in all domains (administration, education, agriculture, armed forces, culture etc.). Although not all of them had the desired results over the short- or medium-term, they opened the path toward the modernisation and westernisation of Romanian society. The reforming overture was continued by Carol I of Hohenzollern in his long reign (1866-1914), so that Romania, independent from 9 May 1877 and a kingdom from 1881, became a respected actor on the international stage.

The ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, in which Romania took part alongside the Entente since mid-1916, brought about, at its end, the fulfilment of the maximal objective that the “forty-eighters generation” dreamed of – the unification of all Romanians within the borders of the same state. An exceptional historical cycle came full circle for the Romanian nation, which within a century (1821-1918) went from the Phanariote regime to the reunited unitary state.

In this framework, the “Little Union” of 1859, as it was so plastically called by the great savant Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu, has deep historical meaning for today’s generations. It shows that Romanians, leaving aside the differences and disputes that are natural up to a point, leaving aside the sinuosity of the international scene, can achieve remarkable deeds provided there is a project of scope, capable of galvanising their solidarity, of uniting them, of empowering them.

Its absence for today’s generations is being acutely felt, which explains, up to a point, the negative aspects of Romanian society. In my opinion, the drawing up of such a project is necessary although we are living in a post-modern world in which the national state seems to be losing its prerogatives of old. Why wouldn’t it be possible to define a national acquis too, one that would not contradict the acquis communautaire that Romania materialised after its EU accession? Of course, borne in mind would be not the achieving of unanimity – in fact impossible to impose – based on ideas unanimously rejected by the international community, but instead a convergence, a certain consensus around values and principles that would ensure community and national cohesion, the well-being, security and satisfaction of all.

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