Tadeusz Kościuszko, Thaddeus Stevens and the Abolition of Slavery in America (and Poland)
150 years ago slavery was abolished in America. The Polish contribution to this historical moment is in part tied to the will and legacy of Tadeusz Kościuszko, and much is also owed to Kościuszko’s namesake Thaddeus Stevens.
The former was a distinguished military hero from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while the latter, an impoverished lawyer from rural Vermont, who belonged to the most radical faction of the Republican Party. While these differences shed light on the very peculiar social situations of their countries, the lives of Kościuszko and Stevens offer interesting parallels proving how free thought and inspiration can travel across space and times. In the end the two upheld the same ideal: freedom for all.
Kościuszko Returns to America
The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in America, was passed on 31 January, 1865 after four years of ravaging Civil War, and many decades of painstaking political procedure. Although we take the 13th Amendment for granted today, events could very well have unfolded in completely different scenarios.
Interestingly, one of such alternative scenario involves Polish general Tadeusz Kościuszko. In 1797 Kościuszko, a hero of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and a recently released prisoner of Tsar (after the fall of the Kościuszko Insurgence 1794), visited America for the second time.
During his short stay, Kościuszko befriended Thomas Jefferson, whom he had met earlier in Paris. One of the Founding Fathers and principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), Jefferson was at the time Vice-president of the United States and an ardent opponent of slavery on moral grounds. However, despite being repelled by the slavery system, Jefferson owned slaves - a common occurrence among American politicians of the time.
The question of slavery must have been a recurrent topic of conversation between the two friends in Philadelphia and Monticello ‒ the latter being Jefferson’s country residence and primary plantation in Virginia, undoubtedly running on black labor.
In 1798, Kościuszko who probably saw the inconsistencies in his friend's approach to slavery, wrote a document which could have changed the path of American history and pave the way for a different abolishing of slavery. As some historians suggest, had it succeeded, the Civil War could have been avoided.
Kościuszko's Last Will
The document which is referred to as Kościuszko's Last Will stipulated that the proceeds of Kościuszko's American estate (which the American Congress granted the Polish general based on his 8-year engagement in the Revolutionary War) be spent on freeing and educating African-American slaves, including those of his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was also named as the will's executor.Kościuszko therefore offered Jefferson the perfect opportunity to take concrete steps towards the abolition of slavery.
Such an act coming from one of the founding fathers of American democracy, himself widely praised as a symbol of American fight for freedom, would have been a trailblazing gesture in the world of slave owners. At least, this had probably been Kościuszko’s intention.
This was in 1798. The same year Kościuszko sailed back to Europe, never to return to America. Two years later Jefferson became president of the United States.
The Future of the Will
Kościuszko died in 1817 in Switzerland. His death brought a wave of renewed interest in his achievements, with Keats and Coleridge writing odes to honor the Polish freedom fighter. For Jefferson, Kościuszko’s death meant that he would now have to address the issue of his friend's last will.
Eventually Jefferson refused the executorship of the will, claiming he was too old. The decision was undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that Kościuszko's will was beset by legal complications, including the discovery of later wills.
Thus perished an alternative scenario for the abolition of slavery in America.
Thomas Jefferson, singled out in American textbooks as a paragon of virtue, died in 1743, owning 177 Slaves. In his will, the author of the famous words “all men are created equal” freed five of them and let the remaining slaves to be later auctioned by his surviving family, a gesture to be remembered as the most miserable of spectacles.
The case of Kościuszko's American will was proceeded by the Supreme Court as late as 1852, and by then the value of the estate had decreased substantially. None of the resources that Kościuszko had earmarked for the manumission and education of African-Americans were ever used for that purpose.Because of Jefferson's unwillingness or ineptitude, nothing came out of Kościuszko's attempt at abolishing slavery in America. It took another 50 years for slavery to be effectively abolished by the 13th Amendment.
Abolition in America was achieved thanks to the efforts of many, but one man may have been more instrumental and more unrelenting than anyone else in reaching this historical milestone. Remarkably, the man who fulfilled this great promise was named in honor of Tadeusz Kościuszko. If names can be considered prophetic, this may be the ultimate proof.
Thaddeus Stevens was born in 1792 in Danville, Vermont, into a family of Baptists who had emigrated to Massachusetts in 1786. According to family legend, the boy was named after the Polish hero of the American Independence War. It must be noted that the name Thaddeus was never before or later particularly popular in America, nor was it popular anywhere else in the world at around that time, except for one place. The Eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today Belarus) where the apostle Jude Thaddeus followed a religious cult. This is exactly where Kościuszko was born over half century earlier.
Stevens was born with a club foot, which was seen as a judgement from God. This however didn't prevent him from pursuing a brilliant career in law, first at Gettysburg and then at Lancaster. There he joined the Whig Party and was elected to Congress for the first time in 1848.
One of Stevens’ early achievements concerned the field of public education. In 1834 he helped pass a state law to fund free public schools. Stevens, who believed that education had lifted him from poverty, urged the youth to:
“Build not your monuments of brass or marble. Make them of everlasting mind!”
But Stevens's career as a politician was marked first and foremost by his relentless and uncompromising opposition to slavery in America. In fact, in this regard Stevens was much more radical than any of his contemporaries, including Abraham Lincoln, the politician usually credited with realizing abolition during the Civil War.
Unlike Lincoln, who insisted that the Civil War was a war to restore the Union rather than a war to end slavery, Stevens believed the war should be changed into a “radical revolution” that would end slavery and crush the power of the Southern aristocracy: “Free every slave, slay every traitor, burn every rebel mansion if these things be necessary to preserve this temple of freedom”, proclaimed Stevens.
“The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed,” he said. “Without this, the government can never be—as it has never been—a true Republic.”
This was too much even for some of the most radical abolitionist politicians, but Stevens wanted to go even fartherSome of his most hard-fought battles occurred after Lincoln's death, when he became leader of the opposition against president Andrew Johnson. His failed attempt at impeaching the president was one of the last great challenges of his career.
Partly because of this failure, the fight for the civil rights of African-Americans continued well into the second half of the 20th century, when active voting rights were granted to the African-American population and segregation eventually ended.
Being born in 1792, Stevens was obviously named in honor of Kosciuszko as a hero of American Revolutionary War (and not Kościuszko-the abolitionist). Still during his life he must have heard about his Polish namesake's social ideals - not only his last will but also what he did in Poland - all of this come surpisingly close to what Stevens himself believed in most deeply.
Serfdom - Polish Slavery?
In his approach to slavery, human dignity and race equality, Thaddeus Stevens may have been much more radical than any of his contemporaries, his Polish namesake included. A look at the historical situation of social relations in Poland and Kościuszko's stance in this field may shed light on the (phantasmatic) relation between the two. It also offers interesting parallels between the two countries.
While Poland technically didn't have a slavery system, the economic prosperity of the country's upper ten percent, the szlachta or nobility, was to a large extent based on the quasi-enslavement of the peasantry. Serfdom, which evolved from the Middle Ages and in its essence was a continuation of feudal relations into modern times, meant that a peasant was supposed to labour on his lanlord's land for a given number of hours per week.
By the 18th century this number could have, in extreme cases, increased to make the peasant labor eight days a week . This meant that the male head of the family worked full-time for the lord, leaving his wife and children working on the peasant's own land, and even then they had to help him occasionally. .In practice, a large number of Poland's population lived as quasi-slaves.
Considering that other social groups, like the Jews or the grassroots bourgeoisie, were also denied political rights, the situation in Poland may have been even more complicated than the situation in America. The extra layer of complicity was added by the political situation, as at that time Poland's existence was threatened by the three super-powers.
This is the country to which Kościuszko, the hero of the revolutionary War in America, returned in 1783.
It is in those precise circumstances that peasants’ rights were first addressed in the Constitution of 3rd May, 1791 - the ground-breaking document considered the first democratic constitution in Europe. Very soon the constitution with its republican reforms became a bone of contention, the war that broke out the following year eventually nullified its content.
Was Kościuszko an Abolitionist?
At around the same time, Kościuszko faced the question of serf labor privately. In 1792 he bequeathed his part of the family estate in Siechnowicze to his sister Anna, however under the condition that the peasants would labor only two days per week (as part of their serfdom obligations) – he also made sure that serf labor for women peasants would be eliminated.
In the letter to his sister, he added that, 'had it been some other country, where the government was in power to secure my will, I would have made them free'.
“But in this country [i.e. Poland] one needs to do what one can safely do, in order to ease the humanity and remember that in nature we are all equal, the only difference being virtue, wealth and information".
The latter part of the passage shows Kościuszko as a radical egalitarian, an aspect on which he definitely differed from his friend Thomas Jefferson who believed that African-American were inferior in talents to the white race. “Subject - this word should be cursed among all the enlghtened nations,' Kościuszko wrote on a different occassion.
In fact, the closest Poland came to abolishing serfdom was three years later during the Kościuszko Insurgence of 1794. Kościuszko, who in many respects modeled the Insurrection on the American Revolutionary War, deeply believed that in order for the Insurgence to be successful one had to engage groups formerly ignored in the creation of a national identity, like the peasantry.
'I will not fight for the sake of szlachta alone, I want freedom for the whole nation, and only for such freedom am I willing to risk my life,' he declared in what is one of his most famous quotes nowadays.
Kościuszko must have well remembered how the slaves who joined the Revolutionary forces in the US, were often opposing their masters. He believed that the military contribution of peasants could be vital in the fight for the national cause. This was proven already by the battle of Racławice, won thanks to the brave assault of a peasant unit of scythemen.
Kościuszko made also sure that every social and ethnic group joined the insurrection: the cavalry unit formed by Berek Joselewicz during the Insurgence was probably the first exclusively Jewish military unit since ancient times.
This way the uprising was becoming not only the Poland's first national but also civil insurgence.
The Abolition of Serfdom in Poland
In May 1794, in the midst of the Insurgence, Kościuszko issued what came to be known as the Proclamation of Połaniec (Uniwersał połaniecki). The document granted limited personal freedom to peasants, reduced serfdom and guaranteed ownership of the land cultivated by peasants. It also gave peasants the right to state assistance against the abuses of the Polish nobility. Unfortunately the Insurgence was crushed, and the declarations of the Połaniec Manifesto were nullified. In the upcoming year, Poland was dealt a final blow – the third partition erased the country from the map of Europe for the next 123 years.
Kościuszko's last word in regard to the peasant question in Poland came in 1817, the year of his death. In his last will he made sure that the serfs in his family village of Siechnowicze were free after his death. The wish Tsar Alexander, obviously, disallowed.
Serfdom was eventually abolished in Poland by the administration of partitioning countries. A series of decrees abolished serfdom in Prussia in 1807, Austria in 1848, and Russia in 1861. The abolition of serfdom in the Congress Kingdom of Poland came only in 1864, coinciding with the abolition of slavery in America. It was also the result of a military conflict - the January Uprising.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 26 August 2015