[By Glynnis Stevenson]
On March 24, 1794, General Thaddeus Kosciuszko marched into the city square in Cracow, Poland to denounce the Second Partition of Poland by Prussia and Austria. An adoring crowd watched as Kosciuszko, hero of the American Revolution, declared himself Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Insurrection. In the name of “Liberty, Integrity, and
Independence” (Haiman 1946), Kosciuszko swore to free his fellow Poles from the tyranny of outside forces. Two months later, Kosciuszko released one of the most revolutionary political documents in Polish history. His “Act of Insurrection” is in the same vein as the American “Declaration of Independence” or the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man”. Both the Polish “Act of Insurrection” and the American “Declaration of Independence” sought to not only explain the injustices of tyranny, but also to awaken their respective nations to the possibility of revolution. Kosciuszko’s document was infused with his passion for the philosophy of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. This passion went beyond words; Kosciuszko lived out his beliefs on the battlefield. His devotion to freedom could not secure a Polish victory and he saw Russia, Austria, and Prussia tear Poland apart less than a year after his uprising began. But Kosciuszko is remembered for his unwavering commitment to his ideals, however idealistic they were. The memory of Thaddeus Kosciuszko is that of a myth or a symbol rather than of a man.
General Kosciuszko was already a legend at the age of fifty-one. After his uprising in Poland failed to save his nation from partition, Kosciuszko found solace in returning to the United States. Many of the founding fathers had only heard rumors of the brilliant military tactician’s bravery during the Revolution, but on his second voyage across the Atlantic, he was welcomed warmly into the homes of the elite. Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence had had a profound influence on Kosciuszko’s Act of Insurrection, quickly became close friends with the Pole. Jefferson frequently visited Kosciuszko’s home in Philadelphia to discuss politics and philosophy. When Jefferson was nominated for the Presidency of the United States, Kosciuszko made him promise to “not forget in your post be always the virtuous Republican with justice and probity without pomp and ambition in a word be Jefferson and my friend” (Alexander 1968). Republican ideals, though they had failed to take root in Poland, were always of the utmost importance to Kosciuszko. He sought neither fame nor riches and implored his powerful friends to do the same. After the War of 1812 broke out, Kosciuszko wrote to Jefferson: “Your land is rich, large, and populous; your inhabitants are good, active, and courageous. But do not be too ambitious to acquire all of Canada” (Alexander 1968). Jefferson was also regarded highly for his republican ideals, but Kosciuszko stayed true to his convictions even if it lessened his role on the world stage. Kosciuszko served as an unofficial Polish ambassador to Napoleonic France for a time, but he deeply distrusted the French tyrant. When Napoleon would not meet Kosciuszko’s demands for a free Poland with a British-style parliamentary system, Kosciuszko denounced Napoleon’s Grand Duchy of Warsaw and retreated from public life for a time. It is Kosciuszko’s steadfast commitment to his ideals without any hint of ambition that astounds the modern imagination. His ideals often came to naught; after his insurrection failed, he went into self-imposed exile, returning to public life only rarely. But it is these ideals that allow history to remember Kosciuszko as a victorious warrior rather than as a failed idealist.
The Kosciuszko Uprising was, in modern terms, a dismal failure. Though led by a man who was both a great military engineer and eternally optimistic, an army of peasant farmers was no match for the trained Russian army. Kosciuszko believed that a nation of farmers could take on a much mightier adversary. American success in gaining independence from Great Britain gave hope to Poles armed with scythes, axes, and pikes. Empress Catherine the Great of Russia had both more manpower and technically superior weaponry at her disposal. Yet Kosciuszko managed to defeat the Russian forces at the Battle of Racławice on April 4, 1794. This victory had very little strategic importance; Kosciuszko’s forces were too weak to push the Russian army out of Poland. But this miraculous victory over a far stronger opponent only added to the myth surrounding Kosciuszko. Thousands more men joined Kosciuszko’s forces in Volhynia and Lublin, ready to be sent to fight in Russia.
Following the victory at Racławice, Kosciuszko issued a doctrine, the Proclamation of Połaniec, that abolished serfdom in Poland and provided help for the newly-freed men and women so they would not be abused by the state. This doctrine was boycotted by the nobility and never put into action, but Kosciuszko’s good intentions attracted many peasants to join the revolutionary army. But good intentions and the promise of new recruits could not remedy the dire strategic situation of the Polish revolutionaries. The Prussian army met up with Catherine the Great’s troops in mid May of 1794. For the next six months, Kosciuszko’s peasant army was defeated in every major battle. When Russian and Prussian forces captured Warsaw in November 1794, the uprising was crushed.
The revolutionaries watched Russia, Prussia, and Austria divide Poland amongst themselves in what is now called the Third Partition of Poland. Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation for the next 123 years. But the Polish spirit was not crushed. The legacy of Kosciuszko’s Act of Insurrection and Proclamation of Połaniec gave hope to a future independent Poland with civil liberties for all Poles, including serfs. Life in the Russian partition was especially harsh. Polish nobles who had supported Kosciuszko were stripped of their estates, which were then given to court favorites and Russian generals in Saint Petersburg. Thousands of serfs who had worked on these confiscated estates were transported to Russia. Peasants who mentioned Kosciuszko and his dreams of abolishing serfdom earned themselves lashes. Yet, it is none of these tragedies that Kosciuszko’s Uprising is remembered for. It is the ideals that Kosciuszko fought for that have merited so many Kosciuszko memorials the world over. It’s the belief that Polish pikes and scythes could defeat Russian guns or that just declaring serfdom abolished makes it true that has made Kosciuszko an international symbol of liberation. He is famous not for what he accomplished, but for the dreams of liberty and equality that he fought so hard to defend.
- Edward P. Alexander, “Jefferson and Kociuszko: Friends of Liberty and of Man,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 92, no. 1 (1968): 87-95, 97-103.
- Miecislaus Haiman, “American Influences on Kosciuszko’s Act of Insurrection,” Polish American Studies, 3, no. 1/2 (1946): 1-4.
- Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution, (New York City: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009).