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September 28, 2022

Decisive Moments in Romania’s History: “The Small Union” of 24 January 1859

By Dr. Ion I. Jinga


I believe that the knowledge of the past facilitates the understanding of the present and helps anticipate the future. As a teenager, one of the books that fascinated me was “Decisive Moments in History” (1927), by Stefan Zweig, a widely translated and most popular writer in the world in the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed, there are decisive moments in the evolution of nations, which mark their destiny and remain a landmark for the generations to come. 24 January 1859 is one such crucial moment in Romania’s history. If Romanians have always been very proud of the Union of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova achieved on 24 January 1859, it is undoubtedly due to the sense of “ownership” that they assumed in its making, and to the great spirit of solidarity that made the union possible 162 years ago.

After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, the Romanian revolutionaries in exile became “diplomats of the Union” and defended the national aspirations of their people, in the complex geopolitical calculations and diplomatic compromises of the Great Powers.

Then, in July 1853 Russian troops invaded the Romanian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova (the Danube Principalities), both of which were at that time under the Ottoman Empire’s suzerainty, but not part of it. In October 1853 the Ottomans responded by declaring war on Russia, and in November the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish naval force in the Battle of Sinop (Turkey). This was the beginning of the Crimean War. In March 1854 France, along with Britain, declared war on Russia due to its refusal to withdraw from the Romanian principalities. The war ended in February 1856 with the defeat of Russia.

Romanians made use of this moment to begin an active campaign for the union of the Danube Principalities. The movement enjoyed the support of France, not least because many Romanian revolutionaries had taken refuge there after 1848 and lobbied Emperor Napoleon III to press for unification. Austria and Turkey opposed the unification effort, while Britain was neutral. In March 1856, the Paris Congress found a compromise among the Great Powers: the two principalities were to be allowed to take the name of “The United Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia”, but were to maintain separate rulers, governments and legislative assemblies.

But this solution did not match the determination of the Romanian unionists. After the Elective Assembly of Moldova unanimously chose, on 5th January 1859, Colonel Alexandru Ioan Cuza, the candidate of the National Party, as Ruling Prince, on January 24th the Elective Assembly of Wallachia voted, again unanimously, for the same person, thus creating de facto the United Romanian Principalities. The Great Powers yielded to a fait accompli and accepted unification.

Then, in January 1862, the first single Government and Parliament of Romania became operational in Bucharest. In his inaugural speech to Parliament, Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza solemnly declared: “A new day is starting today for Romania, as it is finally entering the path that will lead to the fulfillment of its destiny”.

The union of the two Romanian principalities would not have been possible without France’s support, Emperor Napoleon III being one of Romania’s greatest allies. Therefore, it was not surprising that the French political system inspired Romanian lawmakers in their efforts to consolidate the newly formed state, and Romanians continue to pay homage to the last French emperor for his support in 1859. During my term as ambassador to the Court of St James’s, I was invited to attend ceremonies organized at St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, Hampshire, where Napoleon III rests in an impressive mausoleum (I have the privilege to count among my French friends members of the Bonaparte family).

The unification of Walachia and Moldova marked an essential step towards the accomplishment of one the most important political goals of Romanians: the union of all historical provinces where they were the majority. Sometimes mentioned by historians as “The Small Union”, this political act was the result of a long process of national consciousness consolidation, whose first spark was kindled by the union of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldova in 1600, under the reign of Prince Michael the Brave, and culminated with “The Great Union” of 1st December 1918.

The Union of 1859 has also been the beginning of an extraordinary process of modernization and reforms undertaken by Alexandru Ioan Cuza, from the remake of the justice and fiscal systems, to an agrarian reform which gave land to 400,000 peasant families. A law on the adoption of the metric system of measurements and weights, and a Civil Code modeled after the French one were passed. A new administrative organization was introduced, establishing communes and counties. County tribunals, appeal courts and the Court of Cassation were also created during Prince Cuza’s rule.

In 1864, the electoral law expanded the base of voters, and ensured a wider participation from among the peasantry and the middle-class. The University of Iași was established in 1860, and the University of Bucharest in 1864. A “public instruction” law was passed, stipulating that primary school education is compulsory and free, and introducing a unique curriculum, for both urban and rural schools.

Alexandru Ioan Cuza was forced to abdicate in 1866 and the path of development continued under King Carol I. In the first year of his reign, Romania adopted one of the most modern constitutions in Europe. Then, on 9 May 1877, in the wake of a new Russian-Turkish war, the parliament in Bucharest declared the independence of Romania, and the country joined the war against Turkey. After several Romanian victories won south of the Danube, the European powers recognized Romania’s independence within the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. At the end of the First World War, Romania became a key actor in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Great Union of 1918 when, based on the principle of peoples’ right to self-determination, proclaimed by the US President Woodrow Wilson, the inhabitants of the other historical Romanian provinces – Bessarabia, Bukovina, Banat, Crișana, Maramureș and Transylvania – also decided, through their freely expressed will, to unite with Romania, was the coronation of this journey.

Thus, “The Small Union” of 24 January 1859 represents more than just a stage in the process of fulfilling the Romanians’ dream of national unity: it laid the foundations of the Romanian modern state and stands, therefore, as one of those decisive moments which mark a nation’s destiny.


*Ambassador Jinga is Romania’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York

**The opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.



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