As the United States prepares to celebrate its Independence Day on July 4th, the names of revered patriots and defenders of liberty will be at the forefront of people’s minds. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin… Tadeusz Kościuszko? Kazimierz Pułaski? Here we remember these two extraordinary Poles who risked their lives under the banner of freedom, both in Poland and America.
Tadeusz Kościuszko: a “pure son of liberty”
As pure a son of liberty, as I have ever known…
Thomas Jefferson’s description of Tadeusz Kościuszko (Thaddeus Kosciusko) could not be more accurate, as the Polish military leader dedicated his life to the cause of freedom – leading struggles in both the United States and his Polish homeland.
Kościuszko was born in 1746 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (in what is today Merechevschina, Belarus). He attended the Royal Military Academy in Warsaw and went on to train in France. A gifted military strategist and passionate supporter of freedom, having heard about the American struggle for independence, Kościuszko decided to travel to the United States and do what he could to aid the Continental Army in their struggle. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1776 and was appointed Colonel of Engineers by the Continental Congress.
His expertise proved invaluable to the cause, as his fortifications greatly contributed to the American victory at Saratoga, New York. He was also responsible for the fortifications at West Point, which George Washington considered one of the most important military posts at the time. West Point is today home of the United States Military Academy – the formation of which Kościuszko was a great proponent – and honors its early defender with a memorial to Kościuszko on the campus. Upon his election to the office of President of the United States, Washington bestowed on Kościuszko the titled Brigadier General and awarded him the Cincinnati Order Medal.
Following his successful sojourn in America, Kościuszko returned to Poland with hopes of similarly leading his homeland against the growing power and control of its neighbors (Prussia, Russia, Habsburg Austria). Though his valiant efforts could not forestall the full partition of Poland, his is still remembered for bravely leading the so called “Kościuszko Uprising” against Russian powers in 1794. Imprisoned in St. Petersburg after the uprising, Kościuszko eventually was granted amnesty in 1796 – on the condition that he would never return to Poland.
Kościuszko’s heroism inspired not only Polish patriots, but also Polish fashion!
Kościuszko & Jefferson
Having regained his freedom, Kościuszko briefly returned to America in 1797. It was then that he formed a lasting friendship with Thomas Jefferson – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. Though Kościuszko’s stay in the United States lasted less than a year, his correspondence with Jefferson continued until his death in 1817.
When, in 1800, Jefferson was elected president, Kościuszko wrote advising his friend,
Do not forget in your post be always a virtuous Republican with justice and probity without pomp and ambition – in a word be Jefferson and my friend.
In these words, we see Kościuszko expound on the values he looked to serve throughout his life – justice, virtue, and humility.
The esteem in which Kościuszko held Jefferson was reciprocated by the American president, who wrote his Polish friend,
The tree which you had so zealously assisted in planting you cannot but delight in seeing watered and flourishing.
Jefferson recognized Kościuszko’s role in securing America’s independence and appealed to him to delight in the promise showed by the young nation.
A last will & testament to freedom
Even in death, Kościuszko was an advocate for freedom. His final act on American soil was to write a will, of which he named Jefferson executor, which stipulated his American assets be used to purchase the freedom and education of slaves.
I, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, being just on my departure from America, do hereby declare and direct that, should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States, I hereby authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing negroes from among his own or any others, and giving them liberty in my name; in giving them an education in trades…which may make them good neighbours, good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, and in their duties as citizens, teaching them to be defenders of their liberty and country, and of the good order of society, and in whatsoever may make them happy and useful. And I made the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this.
5th day of May 1798
One might consider the sly message left by the Polish patriot to his American friend – a consummate advocate for liberty, Kościuszko drafted a will that reveled and looked to combat the problem of slavery in America. Having risked his life fighting under the American banner of “freedom,” his final will and testament continued the struggle – advocating for freedom and prosperity of all.
Though he died in Switzerland, Kościuszko’s remains were returned to Poland, where he is now entombed in Wawel Cathedral in Kraków – alongside Polish kings and other national heroes.
Honored in his native land, Kościuszko also has not been forgotten in America. There are statues honoring the Revolutionary War hero across the United States – including those in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. His name has been given to streets, towns, and bridges throughout the country. Between Kosciuszko Island, Alaska and Kosciuszko Street in Brooklyn, New York, this Polish “son of liberty” is memorialized from coast to coast.
His name and memory also are celebrated by The Kosciuszko Foundation, an organization founded in 1925 to “promote educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Poland and to increase American understanding of Polish culture and history.” Clearly, Kościuszko’s legacy lives on and his life-long dedication to promoting liberty and understanding around the world perseveres.
Kazimierz Pułaski: “father of the American cavalry”
Kazimierz Pułaski (Casimir Pulaski) was born in 1745 in Warsaw. Like Kościuszko, he fought for the freedom of his homeland against the partitioning powers. And like his countryman, he found himself exiled for his efforts. In 1777, he was forced to leave Poland and eventually found himself in Paris. It was there that he became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who was at that time serving as the Ambassador to France. Impressed with Pułaski’s military knowledge and revolutionary spirit, Franklin wrote,
Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia…may be highly useful to our service.
Franklin encouraged him to go to America and lend his support to the fight for independence.
Pułaski decided to do just that; and upon his arrival in the United States, wrote to George Washington, declaring his intention to serve the Continental Army under his command.
I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.
Joining Washington’s forces at Brandywine, Pennsylvania, Pułaski proved himself to the American General, who saw to it that the Continental Congress granted Pułaski the esteemed rank of Brigadier General in the cavalry. It was here that Pułaski really throve, restricting the disorganized Continental cavalry into an efficient and disciplined force. After a number of successful campaigns, Pułaski valiantly led his forces against the British in the Battle of Savannah (Georgia). It was there that he sustained the grievous injuries from which he would die a few days later.
Pułaski days across America
Though he did not live to see the realization of the freedom for which he fought and died – neither in Poland, nor America – his memory endures as a symbol of the price of freedom and the deeply rooted bond between the United States and Poland.
Like Kościuszko, he is honored across the United States. Statues of the military hero stand in – among other cities – Savannah, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Milwaukee. Cities, townships, schools, and bridges in over 15 states bear his name.
Perhaps the greatest honor came in 2009, when President Barack Obama conferred honorary American citizenship on Pułaski (making him the 7th honorary citizen in American history) and declared October 11th General Pulaski Memorial Day. Obama proclaimed,
Each year on this day, Americans pause to remember a patriot and champion of liberty who fought valiantly for the freedom of our Nation. During our struggle for independence, General Casimir Pulaski displayed heroic leadership and ultimately sacrificed his life in service to our country. His commitment to liberty remains an inspiration to us today, 230 years later, and it serves as a reflection of the many contributions Polish Americans have made to our national identity.
Though Obama made Pulaski Day “official” in 2009, it was an event that has been celebrated across American much longer, with Pulaski Day festivals and parades taking place in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. These festivals celebrate not only the Polish (/American) hero, but Polish culture in the United States more generally.
Read more about Polish kiełbasa – a Pulaski Day favorite!
These men exemplify true revolutionary spirit and a commitment to liberty that was not confined to national interest. Theirs is a legacy not only of Polish-American cooperation, but of struggle and sacrifice in hopes of a better and more just future.