Tadeusz Kościuszko was first and foremost the idealist - his political choices and activities were shaped by the ideas of his youth.
Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski was elected King of Poland in 1764 with the support of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who came to dominate him and to crush an independent Poland. Even so, Poniatowski was a fervent believer in the Enlightenment and pushed for reforms to strengthen his government. He sought to abolish the disastrous 'liberum veto', a policy that enabled a single member of parliament to end its sessions and thereby nullify decisions already made, including measures to enlarge the army and make taxation more equitable. In pushing to end this self-destructive policy, the King met stiff resistance from Russia, which viewed Poland as a protectorate and as buffer zone to prevent Prussian and Austrian territorial encroachments in the West. Fearing loss of social status, the lesser nobility also opposed abolition of the liberum veto. As a young man, Kościuszko was acutely aware of two great threats to Polish independence: first, that her Great Power neighbors might swallow the country whole, and second, that Poland would fail to enact reforms to revitalize its sovereignty before Russia, Prussia and Austria could intervene.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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,