The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

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9780312625948: The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian born in 1746, was one of the most important figures of the modern world. Fleeing his homeland after a death sentence was placed on his head (when he dared court a woman above his station), he came to America one month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, literally showing up on Benjamin Franklin's doorstep in Philadelphia with little more than a revolutionary spirit and a genius for engineering. Entering the fray as a volunteer in the war effort, he quickly proved his capabilities and became the most talented engineer of the Continental Army. Kosciuszko went on to construct the fortifications for Philadelphia, devise battle plans that were integral to the American victory at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga, and designed the plans for Fortress West Point―the same plans that were stolen by Benedict Arnold. Then, seeking new challenges, Kosciuszko asked for a transfer to the Southern Army, where he oversaw a ring of African-American spies.

A lifelong champion of the common man and woman, he was ahead of his time in advocating tolerance and standing up for the rights of slaves, Native Americans, women, serfs, and Jews. Following the end of the war, Kosciuszko returned to Poland and was a leading figure in that nation's Constitutional movement. He became Commander in Chief of the Polish Army and valiantly led a defense against a Russian invasion, and in 1794 he led what was dubbed the Kosciuszko Uprising―a revolt of Polish-Lithuanian forces against the Russian occupiers. Captured during the revolt, he was ultimately pardoned by Russia's Paul I and lived the remainder of his life as an international celebrity and a vocal proponent for human rights. Thomas Jefferson, with whom Kosciuszko had an ongoing correspondence on the immorality of slaveholding, called him "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known." A lifelong bachelor with a knack for getting involved in doomed relationships, Kosciuszko navigated the tricky worlds of royal intrigue and romance while staying true to his ultimate passion―the pursuit of freedom for all. This definitive and exhaustively researched biography fills a long-standing gap in historical literature with its account of a dashing and inspiring revolutionary figure.

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About the Author:

ALEX STOROZYNSKI is president and executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation. Also a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, he was an editorial board member at the New York Daily News, the founding editor of amNew York, and a former city editor and contributing editor to the The New York Sun. He lives in West Orange, New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Broken Hearts and Greek Role Models

The horse buggy raced over a bumpy dirt road as the two passengers were jostled from side to side. It was a chilly autumn night, clouds hiding most of the stars, while the moonlight peeked through the dimness to expose a village in the distance. The couple wanted to find a priest who would marry them.1

Before the wagon reached town several horse men galloped up and latched on to the steeds, dragging them to a stop at the side of the road. Twenty-nine-year-old Capt. Thaddeus Kosciuszko leaped to the ground from his seat at the reins and drew his sword, ready to fight. The talented alumnus of the king’s royal military academy could have fought off the first two or three of Lord Sosnowski’s rural guards.2

On the passenger side was Sosnowski’s daughter Louise, who wanted to elope with the captain after her father arranged for her to marry Prince Lubomirski to forge a dynasty between two clans of rich land magnates. While her lover was also part of the landed gentry, his family estate was small and struggling, in part because the Kosciuszkos were much easier on the serfs who farmed their land. Feudalism served these children of the nobility well, but the idealistic pair opposed the bondage of peasants. Lord Sosnowski denied Kosciuszko’s request for Louise’s hand, saying, “Pigeons are not meant for sparrows and the daughters of magnates are not meant for the sons of the common gentry.”3

As Kosciuszko held his sword between himself and Sosnowski’s guards, he looked past its long blade and saw that the lord was among them. Rather than engage in a clash that could harm Louise’s father before her eyes, he stood down. When he slid the saber back into its sheath, the sentries attacked and knocked him unconscious.4 They dragged Louise, kicking and screaming, back to the estate. When he came to several hours later, he found a white handkerchief that Louise had dropped in the scuffle. He stood up, stuffed the piece of linen into his pocket, and began the long walk home.5

Such was the legend of Kosciuszko’s failed elopement with the love of his life. While historians question the circumstances of just how far the escape plan actually went, three men who knew Kosciuszko, from three different countries, wrote similar accounts of his attempt to run off with Louise.6

It was one of the first days of fall 1775, and the hats of peasants would have been visible through tall stalks of golden grains as their scythes swished back and forth through tall spires of grain swaying and bending over from the weight of the blond hulls that were ready to harvest. The blades made a rustling sound as they sliced through the slender shoots that tumbled to the ground. All around, vast flelds of wheat, rye, and hops stretched as far as the eye could see across the flat pole, or prairie lands, from which Poland gets its name.

The greedy land barons of the eighteenth century got rich off the brawn and sweat of the peasants who toiled in these fertile plains. These lords established a plutocracy to elect a king, and dictated the terms of government to him and to the rest of society.

European serfdom was not as vicious as American slavery, but peasants were bought and sold with the land they tilled. Troublesome serfs were whipped and hanged if they tried to revolt. British colonies exploited slaves for tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar, and cotton, while Poland capitalized on serf labor to drive the grain trade. These vassals slogged away in the fields and lived in abject poverty, while the land magnates who abused them grew fat off the land. The peasants were subject to the whims of landowners such as Lord Sosnowski, who could beat them for infractions.7

This was the world into which Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born on February 12, 1746.8 He grew up on a midsize estate where 31 peasant families worked the land that belonged to his family. His father, Ludwig Kosciuszko, was well off but not wealthy.9

Their comfortable wooden manor house had fireplaces and a tile stove where Kosciuszko’s mother, Tekla, would serve a typical Sunday dinner (prepared by the servants) of pork chops and peas, chicken soup, or borscht and kielbasa, accompanied by a mead-honey wine and, on special occasions, coffee. The elder Kosciuszko was easier on his farmhands than most landlords and taught his sons, Joseph and Thaddeus, and his daughters, Anna and Catherine, that treating the peasants fairly and providing them with a greater share of the fruits of their labor would make them more productive.10 Ludwig was a loving husband, father, and landlord who believed that all people were entitled to hope and happiness.

Thaddeus, the youngest child, was idealistic and took his father’s philosophy to heart. He played with peasant children, sometimes leading them to his favorite perch, a huge boulder where he would squat and observe the world around him.11 When he turned nine he was sent to the Catholic Piarist Fathers College at Lubieszow, near Pinsk.

There he followed a new syllabus set up by Father Stanislaw Konarski, the Piarist leader of a cadre of reformist priests who were revolutionizing Poland’s school system. They instituted a curriculum that included lessons about British philosopher John Locke’s theory of a social contract, in which the people of a nation consent to be governed in exchange for social order.12 The Poles had already experimented with their own form of democracy, but Father Konarski’s educational reforms were laying the groundwork for a political enlightenment in Poland.

Consumed by the Piarist teachings, Kosciuszko was fascinated by the ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire. The works of Tacitus, Plutarch, and Aristides engrossed him and he was riveted by a biography of Timoleon, the Greek statesman and general who freed his fellow Corinthians and the Sicilians from the tyranny of Carthage. Kosciuszko explained his hero worship saying, “He overthrew tyrants, set up republics and never demanded any power for himself.”13

The quixotic student drew parallels between Timoleon’s Greece and Poland’s subjugation by czarist Russia, whose army was growing more assertive in controlling Polish affairs. He saw in Timoleon a lesson in freeing his own people from Russian domination. Kosciuszko realized early on that Europe’s unjust class structure and agrarian economy allowed the rich to get richer by exploiting the peasants. To him the notion of happiness meant self-determination.

The modest Kosciuszko estate was in the Brest region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a confederation of two nations that united in the fifteenth century to defend themselves from foreign invaders, such as the German Roman Catholic order of the Teutonic Knights. In recent years it had been a kingdom in decline because of foreign meddling in legislative affairs.

While the Kosciuszkos were part of the well-heeled top ten percent of society known as the szlachta, there was also the top one percent, the upper echelon of land magnates made up of wealthy families that employed small armies to protect their dynasties. There were clans such as the Czartoryskis, known as Familia, “the Family,” who had close ties with the Russians; the Potockis, who were allied with Saxony; and the Radziwills, who had long-standing connections to Lithuania.

The decentralized government and divisive alliances of the aristocrats destabilized Poland, creating a tumult in the Commonwealth. When the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty died without an heir in the late si

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