Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Simeon Barnutiu(1808-1864)

SIMEON BARNUTIU (1808-1864), Teacher and political leader of the Romanians of Transylvania. The son of a village school teacher, he studied theology between 1826 and 1829 at the seminary in Blaj, the principal religious and cultural center of Romanian Greek Catholics in Transylvania. Choosing not to follow a career in the church, he remained at Blaj as a teacher of philosophy until 1845, when Bishop Ioan Lemeni, the head of the church, dismissed him after a long and bitter dispute. Barnutiu then studied law in Sibiu until the spring of 1848, when his energies became absorbed in the Romanian struggle for national ri ghts.

By education and in spirit Barnutiu was a typical representative of the Romanian generation of 1848 in Transylvania. His political thought reflected the romantic elan of the age, and at the same time his philosophical inclinations accorded pride of place to the rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment as the guide to social change. At the center of his preoccupations was the emancipation of the Romanians from subordination to the ruling nations of Transylvania, notably the Magyars, whose aristocracy had dominated political life in the principality for centuries. But his idea of nation differed from that of his predecessors in the eighteenth century. He no longer based demands for national rights upon historical precedents and imperial diplomas. Rather, natural law and the idea of inalienable human rights were for him more compelling arguments. He also shared the impatience of the generation of 1848 to transform ideas into beneficial institutions and, buoyed up by the doctrine of progress, he had no doubt that the educated had an infinite capacity to change society for the better.

Deeply influenced by the philosophy of Kant, Barnutiu saw in philosophy an instrument which, if properly applied, could transform society. The tasks of philosophy, as he conceived of them, were twofold: to cultivate reason and to investigate human nature in order to reveal to man what he was and should be--a rational, free being possessing inalienable rights. He insisted that every individual had the right to live and work and to develop his intellect and moral sense and thus to increase his happiness and prosperity. He assigned the same rights to aggregates of human beings, or nations, since men lived in groups, not in isolation from one another. Thus, philosophy provided Barnutiu with an explanation for and a justification of the burgeoning national movements in Central Europe.

Barnutiu's rationalism and idea of nation shaped his attitude toward the Romanian Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches. He acknowledged the indispensable role they had played in the past in defending the Romanian nation, but he had become convinced that they were now a threat to national unity, and he accused the leaders of both churches of caring more about narrow sectarian interests than the general welfare of the nation. He was especially critical of the way in which Bishop Lemeni had conducted the affairs of the Greek Catholic Church. In order to make the church more responsive to the national aspirations of the intellectuals he proposed to curtail the bishop's authority and to restore the diocesan synod, where laymen would have a strong voice, as the chief governing body of the church. He was particularly incensed by the failure of church authorities to modernize the curriculum of the schools of Blaj, and he demanded that less time be devoted to religion and related subjects and more to science and modern languages and that courses in agriculture and business be introduced, all to prepare students to take their places in the real world.

Barnutiu also became involved in one of the most divisive issues in Transylvania public life in the decade before the revolution of 1848: the efforts of Hungarian liberals to introduce Magyar as the language of public administration and of education throughout Transylvania. In 1842 the Transylvanian diet enacted a law embodying these aims and going so far as to mandate the use of Magyar in Romanian Greek Catholic and Orthodox schools. Barnutiu sprang to the defense of the Romanian language. Proclaiming language to be man's most precious possession, he condemned the law as an attempt not only to deprive the Romanians of their language but also to destroy their national being. Although the language law never came into force, the controversy had put Barnutiu on guard against Magyar liberalism.

When news of revolution in Vienna and Budapest in March 1848 reached Transylavania, many Romanian intellectuals embraced the liberal program proclaimed by Magyar intellectuals as signifying the opening of a new era in the history of the principality. In the enthusiasm of the moment they overlooked the fact that the Magyars also demanded the union of Transylvania with Hungary. Barnutiu, almost alone, sounded the alarm. In a letter to friends on March 24 he warned that the union threatened the very existence of the Romanian nation, for it would strengthen Magyar rule and thus, he implied, bring forth new language laws and other devices to assimilate the Romanians. He therefore appealed to all Romanians not to accept the union until the Romanian nation had achieved constitutional equality with the Magyars and had had the opportunity to express its will at a national congress.

Following a month of feverish activity Romanian intellectuals held a preliminary national congress at Blaj on April 30 and invited Barnutiu, whose influence was at its height, to deliver the principal address. Before some 6,000 persons, the majority peasants, he declared that the time had come for the Romanian nation to recover its ancient rights and to sweep away serfdom, which had held it in bondage for centuries. His audience responded enthusiastically, but Barnutiu quickly sobered them. admonished them not to behave like revolutionaries who resorted to violence to achieve their goals and thereby showed themselves unworthy of liberty. Rather, he urged them to respect their labor and tax obligations to landlords until serfdom had been abolished by constitutional means. He thus expressed another salient trait of the forty-eighters: a humanitarian commitment to improve the lot of the common people balanced by an abiding faith in the efficacy of just laws and good institutions to right social wrongs.

On May 14, on the eve of the grand national congress at Blaj, Barnutiu was again called upon to set priorities. This time he spoke to the intellectuals, and his main preoccupation was the union of Transylvania with Hungary. He flatly rejected it on the grounds that it would relegate the Romanians to the status of mere "appendages" of a greater Hungary and would thus in time assure their destruction as a nation. He made a crucial distinction between two kinds of liberty. It was not enough, he argued, to assure the freedom of individuals, as the Magyar liberals proposed; the nation, too, had to be guaranteed its freedom against attempts by other nations to assert their dominance. He was convinced that individual freedom could have meaning only within an equally free collectivity, and he entrusted to his colleagues the solemn duty to assure the existence of the Romanian nation.

On the following day a huge assembly of perhaps 40,000 persons approved a sixteen-point program which embodied the principles which Barnutiu had enunciated in the preceding months and which set the Romanian nation irrevocably on the road to self- determination. Barnutiu, along with Bishop Andrei Saguna of the Orthodox Church, dominated the congress. He was the hero of the intellectuals who had organized it, for he gave the clearest expression to their aspirations. Had it not been for him and his supporters, the program adopted by the congress would undoubtedly have been limited to a declaration of loyalty to the House of Habsburg and a few general exhortations to reform. Barnutiu played a role as the spirit of the Romanian national movement similar to that of Joseph Mazzini in Italy.

During the next year Barnutiu engaged in intense political activity. He was vice-president of the national committee elected by the congress at Blaj and entrusted with organizing the Romanian nation, and then in September he presided over another national congress at Blaj, which reaffirmed opposition to the union and undertook to form an autonomous civil administration for Romanian-inhabited areas. He also became president of a new national committee which, in effect, assumed the attributes of a provisional government. But the fate of the committee and of the Romanian cause in general depended not upon the committee itself but upon the changing fortunes of the battlefield. When in March 1849 Hungarian revolutionary armies captured Sibiu, where the committee had its headquarters, Barnutiu and other members were forced to take refuge in neighboring Muntenia. A few months later, when the Hungarian revolution collapsed, Austrian authorities embarked upon a program of centralization which denied to the Romanians the collective liberty which Barnutiu had made the supreme goal of the national movement.

Barnutiu spent the remaining years of his life outside Transylvania. He studied law in Vienna and Pavia between 1850 ad 1854 and then travelled to Iasi, in Moldova, where for the next decade he taught philosophy and law at the Academy, the predecessor of the University of Iasi. Here, too, his ideas on liberty and nation made a lasting impression on colleagues and students .

Keith Hitchins and Apostol Stan


G. Bogdan-Duica, Viata si ideile lui Simion Barnutiu Bucuresti, 1924.

Petre Pandrea, Filosofia politico-juridica a lui Simion Barnutiu Bucuresti, 1935.

Radu Pantazi, Simion Barnutiu. Opera si gindirea Bucuresti, 1967.

George Em. Marica, Studii de istorie si sociologia culturii romane ardelene din secolul al XIX-lea I Cluj-Napoca, 1977.

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

JGC revised this file ( on September 3, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1999, 2004 James Chastain.