1746 - 1817

Tadeusz Kościuszko - a man of vision

Polish History Museum

Tadeusz Kościuszko was first and foremost the idealist - his political choices and activities were shaped by the ideas of his youth.

The purest son of liberty
At the time when the majority of European states were monarchies, he declared himself a republican. In those times, that meant, above all, obedience to the principles of constitutional rule and equality before the law. Moreover, Kościuszko distinguished himself with his ideological ardor. “He is the purest son of liberty I have ever known, and not just for the wealthy and high-born” – Thomas Jefferson, future third President of the US, wrote about Kościuszko in 1798.
Tadeusz Kościuszko was born in February 1746 in Mereczowszczyzna (today: Belarus) in a moderately wealthy noble family. In the First Polish Republic it guaranteed him full civic and political rights: economic, judicial and political privileges, and the right to elect the king, whose power has been limited. As a noblemen, in his times Kościuszko stood above 90% of the inhabitants of Poland.
The system
Because of the restricted powers of the king, the most important state organ was the Parliament, which consisted of the landed gentry. However, during the second half of the 18th century that political system became seriously deformed. The role of wealthy and influential landowners (magnates) increased and they began dominating political life. Their wealth, which came from the possession of immense estates, gave them considerable independence from central authority and an advantage over nobility dependent on the state. Aristocratic families fiercely argued with each other, paralyzed the Sejm, and diverted attempts to reform the political system. These circumstances facilitated the interference of increasingly powerful neighbors – Austria, Prussia and Russia – into the internal affairs of Poland.

The king

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski was elected the king of Poland in 1764 with Russian Empress Catherine II’s support. As a dedicated believer in the Enlightenment, the king pushed for reforms to strengthen the state. He tried to abolish liberum veto – a right of a single member of parliament to end the parliament session, nullifying all its decisions – to make the taxes more uniform and the army larger. His efforts were met with resistance both from some members of the gentry, who feared a loss of their social status, and Russia, who saw Poland as a protectorate and buffer zone between the empire and Austria and Prussia. At the time of Kościuszko’s youth, the political life of the country was dominated by two trends – the increasing impact of regional superpowers on Polish politics and an increasing awareness of the need to execute reforms that would enable Poland to defend its sovereignty.

Alongside with the governmental, economic and military issues, education was an important theme of the reforms. In 1765 Stanislaus Augustus established The Nobles’ Academy of the Corps of Cadets, also called the School of Chivalry. Its goal was to raise young noblemen as conscious citizens and future leaders, both military and political. The following fragment of a speech by prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski to the cadets captures this notion perfectly: “You should people this Fatherland of ours, left in the most wretched state, with the citizens caring for its fame, for increasing its external power and respect, for correcting its government of the worst possible kind. May you be led by this noble ambition of changing the face of your country”. Kościuszko’s life may be considered the fulfillment of this ideal.
Kościuszko left Poland in October 1769, going to Paris as the king’s stipendist. It happened during the Bar Confederation – an armed action of some nobles against Russian domination and the king’s submissiveness to Empress Catherine II, the movement that merged undeniable patriotism with the distaste in reforms. Several years of fighting with the Royal Army and Russian troops that supported them allowed the neighboring powers to openly interfere into internal affairs of Poland. The consequence was unprecedented looting and the First Partition of Poland in 1772 by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Emperor Catherine II became a guarantor of the fundamental principles of the state system, the objective of which was to hinder reforms in future.
Doves are not for sparrows... Kościuszko and Ludwika Sosnowska
Having returned from France, Kościuszko could expect a promotion to the rank of officer in the small Polish Army. He started working as a teacher in the house of Lord Józef Sosnowski. Soon, he and Sosnowski’s daughter, Ludwika, became bounded by strong love. Kościuszko asked for Ludwika’s hand in marriage, but the insolent magnate denied the request. The future Commander-in-Chief asked the king for support and after his refusal, allegedly on the advice of colleagues-officers, he planned to elope with Ludwika. The plan failed. According to other sources, Kościuszko followed the king’s advice and resigned the elopement.
With the unsuccessful courtship, Kościuszko acquired powerful enemies. The lack of vistas for a position in the Polish Army forced him to leave the country. Instead of enlisting with an army of one of the biggest European powers, Kościuszko decided to go to North America, which was engaged in an uprising against Great Britain for equal rights. Kościuszko arrived in America in 1776. Short of qualified officers, the young American army was on the defensive. Kościuszko was promoted to the rank of colonel. Soon he was given many tasks of great significance. First, he fortified Philadelphia, which at that time was the main political center of the colonists, and Ticonderoga. His fortifications of Saratoga and extension of the West Point were highly appreciated.
Kościuszko served in the American army till the victorious completion of the War of Independence. Prior to his return to Europe, he was promoted to brigadier general and Congress  passed a resolution acknowledging the‘ high sense of his long, faithful, and meritorious service’.  An exceptional distinction bestowed upon Kościuszko was accepting him, as one of just three foreigners, in the ranks of the Society of the Cincinnati, founded by the veterans of the War of Independence. The society has been named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman patrician, who was a dictator during the wartime, only to relinquish his power and to come back to plowing his farm after the victory.

The manor

This is exactly what Kościuszko did upon coming back to Poland in 1784. His achievements and military experience did not guarantee him a place in the Polish army that consisted of not more than ten or so thousand soldiers. Perhaps another obstacle was his radical republican beliefs. Or perhaps the conflict with the influential magnate was still remembered. For five years Kościuszko did not serve in the army. Like the mythical Cincinnatus, he settled in a village and ran a small farm inherited after his father. The farm did not produce too much profit. Some claimed Kościuszko lacked management skills whereas others pointed at the humanitarian principles cultivated by the general. The future Commander-in-Chief reduced the number of days in a week during which his serfs had to work for the manor. He also released women from that obligation and forbade corporal punishment of insubordinate serfs.

The Polish general
After a dozen or so years following the First Partition of Poland, a new generation of gentry appeared in public life. They were more open to the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Western European state organization model. They were also open to introduce reforms that would strengthen the state and assist in regaining independence. In 1788, the proceedings of the Sejm (later to be called The Great) started. In one of its first resolutions, the Sejm enlarged the army to 100,000 soldiers. The execution of the military enlargement required hiring new officers. Since experienced officers were scarce, Kościuszko was offered a position as a general.
The Constitution
On May 3, 1791, the Sejm adopted the Government Act. The Act introduced Europe’s first, and the world’s second constitution. It abolished the principles of the old political system guaranteed by Catherine II. It evoked strong resistance by part of the nobility and some magnates associated with Russia. They formed the Targowica Confederation with the intent of overthrowing the Constitution. Worse still, Confederates turned to Russia for help. In May 1792, the army of Catherine II invaded Poland.
Virtuti Militari
The Polish army, commanded by the king’s nephew, Prince Józef Poniatowski, yielded to the overwhelming forces of the enemy. Nevertheless, Poles achieved success. Kościuszko, as a division Commander, fought bravely, i.e. during the fierce battles of Zieleńce and Dubienka. Russian commander Mikhail Kachowski had the following memories of the latter encounter: ‘The enemy soldier was fiercely persistent, skillful and persevering. Having had a month of dealing with the Polish army, I faced the opponent in great order for the first time, with a fierce determination to resist and stubbornly defend in the back, which explains the high losses in our troops.’ For his merits Kościuszko was awarded the Virtuti Militari order, the highest Polish military decoration. However neither him nor any of the 526 recipients of that order could not turn the tide of war.

The loss in 1972 caused not only the fall of Polish reforms but also lead to another Partition made by Prussia and Russia. To mark his protest against fight discontinuation, Kościuszko left for Saxony and, afterward, France. In the name of Polish emigrants supporting the Constitution of May 3, he negotiated with authorities of the French Revolution in Paris on support for an uprising planned in Poland. He did not however receive any binding declaration. Having come back to Saxony, he met representatives of the conspiracy formed in the country. Meanwhile in Poland ground for Kościuszko’s future actions was being prepared by the aristocratic Czartoryski family.

The Commander
In March 1794, an announcement was made to downsize the Polish army. If it had happened, the chances of the planned insurrection occurring would have significantly decreased. The news of a riot by a cavalry brigade opposing army reductions made Kościuszko come back to Poland. On March 24, in the Kraków market square, the Act of Uprising was read out. Kościuszko became the Commander-in-Chief, the highest and the only commander of the Insurrection. An echo of his republican convictions resounded in his oath: ‘I swear in the face of God to the whole Polish Nation, that I shall not use the power entrusted to me for anyone's personal oppression, but only for the defence of the integrity of the borders, for retaking the sovereignty of the Nation, and for strengthening the universal freedom.’
The power
As the Commander-in-Chief, Kościuszko was the highest and the only commander of the Insurrection, yet he tried to keep political moderation. He encouraged peasants to join the Insurrection. He advocated penalizing traitorous supporters of Russia but was against the terror of the French Revolution. As an experienced commander, he also led the Polish forces in the victorious battle of Racławice as well as in the later battles, conducted with the varying degree of luck.
The victory
The Battle of Racławice - a victory that boosted the morale of the insurgents - was a violent and bloody confrontation. A great role was played by peasant recruits, armed with war scythes, who boldly captured Russian guns. During the fight, peasant Wojciech Bartos stood out. He was recognized for his bravery and promoted to the rank of Standard-Bearer in the Regiment of Kraków Grenadiers. Under a new surname, as Bartosz Głowacki, he fought in the Battle of Szczekociny, where he was mortally wounded.
The loss
After initial victories he was defeated in the Battle of Szczekociny (June 6). In July and August, he successfully defended Warsaw but on October 10 was defeated again in the Battle of Maciejowice. Several weeks later, the Uprising was crushed. In 1795, Russia, Prussia and Austria completed the Third Partition of Poland. The country disappeared from the political map of Europe for 123 years.
The lost Battle of Maciejowice (October 10, 1794) led to the defeat of the Kosciuszko Uprising. The Polish Corps was broken down. The Commander-in-Chief was wounded several times and taken captive. He was imprisoned in St. Petersburg. In spite of his poor condition he was interrogated. The situation changed when Paul I succeeded the throne. Several days after assuming power, the new Tsar visited Kościuszko, expressed compassion and promised to release him soon. To that end, the Emperor demonstrated his aversion to his late mother and made a gesture for his Polish subjects to gain their sympathy and loyalty.
However there was a price for Kościuszko’s freedom – he was expected to swear an oath of allegiance to the Tsar of Russia. His hesitation ended with a clear suggestion that the freedom of thousands of Polish prisoners of war depended on that decision. Kościuszko’s sensitivity to the suffering of others made him yield and swear the oath. Kościuszko did not however accept significant property offered to him. He only took the money to cover the costs of his trip to America. After two years of captivity, in 1796, Kościuszko was permitted to leave the Imperium. Through Sweden and England he travelled to the United States. In Philadelphia he was cordially welcomed by the public and American political elites. For nearly a year he was recovering, travelling and meeting old companions from the American Revolution. In 1798, he came back to Europe and settled near Paris.


After two years of captivity, in 1796, Kościuszko was permitted to leave the Imperium. Through Sweden and England he travelled to the United States. In Philadelphia he was cordially welcomed by the public and American political elites. For nearly a year he was recovering, travelling and meeting old companions from the American Revolution. In 1798, he came back to Europe and settled near Paris. Kościuszko did not believe in the good intentions of Napoleon Bonaparte vis-a-vis Poles and denied unconditional support for him.

Shattered hopes

After the defeat of the French Emperor in 1814, he supported Tsar Alexander I’s attempts to establish the Kingdom of Poland dependent on Russia. The decision of the Congress of Vienna on Poland disappointed Kościuszko. He stepped back into the domestic environment and spent the last years of his life in Solothurn, Switzerland. He died on October 15, 1817.

Freedom for everyone

Kościuszko many times appealed for the abolition of serfdom and granting ownership of land to the peasants that worked on it. Republicanism was also his attitude toward life. His principles did not allow him to accept the land and serfs offered by Tsar Paul I, and made him use a part of the property granted to him by the United States for buying out and educating a certain number of slaves: ‘should I make no other testamentory disposition of my property in the United States I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes […] and giving them Liberty in my name, in giving them en education in trades or othervise and in having them instructed […] in their duties as citisens teeching them to be defenders of their Liberty and Country and of the good order of Society’.


Not engaging directly in political activity after 1794, Kościuszko remained the spiritual leader of Poles striving to regain their state. The European supporters of national sovereignty, equality and liberty saw him as an unquestioned hero of two continents. With his captivity in St. Petersburg, he became a martyr of freedom. The new feature in his image evoked strong emotions also outside Poland. Kościuszko himself fuelled these emotions, saying things like ‘I am the only true Pole in Europe, all the others have been rendered by circumstances the subjects of different powers’.


On his way from Russia to America, Kościuszko experienced spontaneous expressions of sympathy of outstanding British intellectuals and politicians. In the Philadelphia Harbor, cheering crowds unharnessed horses from his cart and pulled it to the city. Welcome letters were sent by George Washington and President John Adams. Six years later, when Kosciuszko returned to Europe, the Director that governed France welcomed him with honors as an admirable defender of liberty. The respect paid to him came also from the belief that Kościuszko was a nearly ideal republican, a flawless public and private man.

The symbol
Kościuszko – a soldier of freedom, one of the Tsar’s prisoners, and at the same time a humble man sensitive to all forms of inequality and oppression – was an ideal candidate to become the hero of his epoch. His republican outlook on life seamlessly blended with the American patriotism. For Poles, Kościuszko was the embodiment of the fight for freedom as well as the political and social emancipation of peasants – issues that became increasingly important throughout the XIXth century. For all political groups, he was also a powerful symbol for the modern nation shaped at that time. Even today, Kościuszko is recognized as one of the most meritorious figures in the history of Poland.


Kościuszko’s popularity as a hero and martyr for the struggle for independence reached far beyond Poland. The political circumstances and the ideological climate of the eighteenth century contributed to that effect. Rhetoric of independence and egalitarianism was on the rise within the plebeian class as well as the nobility and aristocracy, who cultivated the idea of freedom. It was no coincidence that during his lifetime Kościuszko was honored by the French Legislative Assembly and the British elite. For the same reasons, he was admired by British poets of very different backgrounds – aristocrat George Byron and John Keats, the son of stableman. Polish traveler Edmund Strzelecki named a mountain in Australia after Kościuszko. In 1818, the coffin with the embalmed body of the Commander was brought to Kraków and placed in the St. Leonadr Crypt of the Wawel castle. He was also commemorated by the Kościuszko Mound, erected in Kraków the years 1820-1823, and by numerous monuments.

His name is Poland
The fame of Kościuszko ‘will last until freedom reigns over the earth,’  William Henry Harrison said to Congress after Tadeusz Kościuszko’s death in 1817. The future President of the United States was right. – a hero of the American War of Independence and the Commander-in-Chief of the 1794 Polish Insurrection – has become one of the most recognizable Poles in the history of Europe and the United States. Years later, Polish historian Szymon Askenazy, explained the phenomenon of Kościuszko: ‘After all, he was not a military or political genius. (...) So many times he was wrong about things and people. And yet, it was him, a powerless poor old man, that Napoleon and Alexander, the greatest powers of the world, argued about. He is one of the immortal heroes of humanity. Why? Because his name is Poland’.
The exhibition brings us closer to this great Pole, citizen of France, America and Europe, and to this man of ideas and action who dedicated his entire life to the service of freedom.
Credits: Story

Exhibition scenario: Wojciech Kalwat
Translation into English: Embassy of United States of America
Adapted to digital exhibition format by Pawel Koziol
Images and photographs obtained from the following sources: National Museum Warsaw, National Library, National Museum Kraków, Norman B. Laventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, Royal Castle Warsaw, The Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Polish Army Museum, Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, Stockbridge Library, The Kosciuszko Foundation,

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google