Tadeusz Kościuszko - a man of vision

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

Polish History Museum

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.

Tadeusz Kościuszko by Josi, ChristiaanOriginal Source: Gabinet Rycin, Biblioteka Naukowa PAU i PAN w Krakowie

'The purest son of liberty'

At the time when many Europeans lived under absolute monarchies, Kosciuszko declared himself a Republican - which meant, above all, an allegiance to constitutional rule and the equality of all men before the law. Kościuszko distinguished himself with his ideological ardor. In 1798, an admiring Thomas Jefferson, who would become the third American President, wrote of Kościuszko: “He is the purest son of liberty I have ever known, and not just for the wealthy and high-born.”

Kościuszko family Manor in Mereczowszczyzna by Louis-Pierre-Alphonse Bichebois, Victor AdamOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie


Tadeusz Kościuszko was born in 1746 to a noble family of moderate wealth in a part of Eastern Poland that is now Belarus. As a member of the landed gentry of the First Polish Republic (about ten percent of the population known as the szlachta), he enjoyed exceptional rights and privileges known as “The Golden Freedoms.”  Among them were the right to vote in the selection of Polish kings, the right to own land and to travel freely and freedom from arbitrary arrest. Kosciuszko lived under a liberal social order that was far more enlightened than that of Poland’s neighbors.

Polish Parliament (1600/1694)Original Source: Biblioteka Narodowa - Polona

The system

Restrictions on the powers of Polish kings made the Sejm (Parliament), whose members came from the landed gentry, the country’s most powerful political institution.  However, during the second half of the 18th century, the powers of a citizen-led Sejm underwent sharp decline as wealthy and influential landowners (so-called magnates) began to dominate political life. Their wealth, derived from ownership of immense estates, enabled them to defy central authority and erode the influence of the lesser nobility. Fierce disputes between aristocratic families soon paralyzed the Sejm and led to failed attempts at political reform. The vacuum this stalemate caused prompted Poland’s powerful neighbors – Austria, Prussia and Russia – to meddle more and more in the country’s internal affairs.  It was a short step from there to the first partition in which Poland would be divided into three parts and ruled by these powerful, authoritarian neighbors.

King Stanisław August Poniatowski, Marcello Bacciarelli, 1768, Original Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
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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.

The Kazimierz Palace by Zygmunt VogelOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie


Under King Poniatowski, educational reform took its place beside political, economic and military reforms as major priorities of the Polish state. In 1765, the King established The Nobles’ Academy of the Corps of Cadets, also known as the School of Chivalry.  Its goal was to develop young noblemen as good citizens as well as future political and military leaders.  One of the Corps first graduates was Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The country’s aspirations for its Corps of Cadets were inspiringly stated in a speech to the Cadets by Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, who said: “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.”.  In many ways, Tadeusz Kościuszko lived his life in ways that fulfilled this ideal.

Kazimierz Pułaski at Częstochowa by Józef ChełmońskiOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bar Confederation

In 1768, a group of lesser nobles (szlachta) formed the Bar Confederation to fight for and restore Polish sovereignty.  It left young Kosciuszko with a difficult choice: whether to join the Bar Confederation (which his brother did), or to follow his sponsors — the King, who had granted him a royal scholarship, and the Czartoryski family, which helped him get into Cadet school.  He decided to leave Poland late in 1769 to study art and architecture in Paris.  A fierce conflict raged in Poland involving an estimated 100,000 lesser nobles, backed by a few of magnates.  They fought countless engagements with forces loyal to the King and the Russians.  At the Battle of Lanckorona on 21 May 1771, the Bar Confederation suffered a decisive defeat after which its combatants either fled abroad or were deported to Siberia by the Russians.  The plundering of Poland proceeded thereafter with the partitioning of the country by Russia, Prussia and Austria.  During his Paris years, Kosciuszko became an avid student of military engineering.

 [P.K.1]Can I have more detailed information about him? Plus, I’d write “his brother”

 [P.K.2]or to follow?

Kosciuszko and Ludwika Sosnowska by Zygmunt AjdukiewiczOriginal Source: Biblioteka Narodowa

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.

West Point fortifications by Pierre DidotOriginal Source: Map Center at the Boston Public Library


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.

George Washington awards Kościuszko with the Order of the Cincinnati by Michał StachowiczOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie


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.

Farmer with a scythe, Jan Piotr Norblin, Original Source: Biblioteka Narodowa w Warszawie
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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.

Tadeusz Kościuszko in the uniform of a major general by N.N.Original Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

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 Passing of the Constitution of the Third of May by Kazimierz WojniakowskiOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

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 orderOriginal Source: Zamek Królewski w Warszawie

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.

Portrait of Izabela Czartoryska, Kazimierz Wojniakowski, Original Source: Muzeum Czartoryskich w Krakowie
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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 oath of Tadeusz Kościuszko in the Old Town Market in Kraków (1796) by Michał StachowiczOriginal Source: Zamek Królewski w Warszawie

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.’

Kościuszko and scythemen by Wojciech KossakOriginal Source: Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie

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.

Prayer before the Battle of Racławice by Józef ChełmońskiOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu

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.

Kościuszko and his horse fall during the Battle of Maciejowice by Jan Bogumił PlerschOriginal Source: Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie

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.

Paul I. Emperor of all the Russias, condescending to visit Kosciuszko (1801) by Thomas GaugainOriginal Source: Biblioteka Narodowa w Warszawie - Polona


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.

Kościuszko’s house in PhiladelphiaOriginal Source: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial


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.

General Henryk Dąbrowski’s (founder of Polish Legions in Italy) entry into Rome,, January Suchodolski, Original Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
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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.

Tsar Alexander IOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

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.

Agrippa Hull, orderly of Tadeusz Kościuszko, N.N., Original Source: Stockbridge Library
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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’.

Enthusiastic welcome of Polish and American general Kościuszko arriving at Philadelphia in 1797, Frank Raily, Original Source: The Kosciuszko Foundation
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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’.

Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko with a saber gifted by the Whigs, Richard Cosway, Original Source: Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie
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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.

Banner of the 1. Regiment of Kraków GrenadiersOriginal Source: Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie

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.

Kosciuszko Mound and the chapel of St. Bronisława, 1905/1926, Original Source: Biblioteka Narodowa w Warszawie - Polona
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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.

Tadeusz Kościuszko rescues Poland from a grave in which she is being pushed to by traitors by Michał StachowiczOriginal Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

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’.

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.
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