Tadeusz Kościuszko – Bringing Freedom to Both Sides of the Atlantic
#language & literature
small, Tadeusz Kościuszko – Bringing Freedom to Both Sides of the Atlantic, Tadeusz Kościuszko as painted by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart. Kościuszko is shown wearing the Eagle of the Society of Cincinnati awarded to, schweikart_tadeusz_kosciuszko.jpg
No other historical figure has been so unanimously respected – and even worshipped – in Poland as Tadeusz Kościuszko. The impact of this storied engineer, military general, and statesman, however, spans much farther.
You'll find streets named after him in every Polish town and village, of course, from the Tatras to the Baltic. Monuments to him stand across Poland, but also in West Point, New York and Solothurn, Switzerland. Australia's highest mountain bears his name, as does a distinctive mound of earth just outside Kraków. Kościuszko’s portrait even made it on board Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.
Why is Kościuszko so beloved in Poland? What made his glory spread so widely? Last, but not least, how do you actually pronounce his name?
Son of Belarusian soil
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Tadeusz Kościuszko (Blr. Тадэвуш Касьцюшка) was born in February 1746 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, on the Merachoushchyna estate near Kosów (now Kosava, in present-day Belarus). He was the fourth child of Ludwik Tadeusz Kościuszko, a military officer, and his wife, Tekla. Kościuszko's paternal family was ethnically Lithuanian-Ruthenian, but it had been Polonised as early as the 16th century, and Kościuszko’s native language was Polish.
Although he came from a petty noble family, Tadeusz was very fond of playing with the local peasant children. His respect and empathy for the hard life of peasants likely originated in this period. He may also have been influenced by the ethnic and religious diversity of the commonwealth, which afforded a doctrine of religious tolerance.
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While still a boy, Kościuszko became an avid reader of Cornelius Nepos' Lives of Illustrious Men, his favourite being that of Timoleon of Corinth. This fourth-century Greek politician, who had disinterestedly liberated his country from tyrants, influenced Kościuszko’s character and later actions. For him, the fatherland became the ultimate good, for which he was willing to sacrifice everything.
In 1766, Kościuszko enrolled in the newly established Corps of Cadets in Warsaw, which was also the first state school in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After studying military and liberal-arts subjects for a year, he became one of its first alumni and remained there to teach. In 1768, he was recognized with the rank of captain.
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After two years of studies in Warsaw, Kościuszko went on a royal scholarship to Paris, France in 1768. There, he audited lectures and frequented the libraries of the Parisian military academies, where he learned engineering and fortification construction.
At the same time, Kościuszko pursued his interest in drawing and painting, and took private lessons in architecture. The French Enlightenment, especially the economic doctrines of Physiocracy, became a major influence on Kościuszko’s intellectual development during his five-year stay in pre-revolutionary France.
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On returning to Poland in 1774, Kościuszko had little chance of finding a post in the Polish Army, despite his burgeoning reputation, as he could not afford to buy an officer's commission. Instead, he took the position of tutor to the family of the magnate Józef Sosnowski – and fell in love with his daughter, Ludwika Sosnowska.
Their elopement was thwarted by the young woman's father, who found Kościuszko an ill-suited match for his daughter. ‘Turtledoves are not for common sparrows, and magnates' daughters are not for petty nobility’, Sosnowski reportedly said. This event has been linked with Kościuszko's discomfort with all forms of social division. In the aftermath of this lost love, Kościuszko decided to emigrate, but Ludwika remained the love of his life.
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In June 1776, Kościuszko arrived in America, where he decided to join the American Revolutionary War. He would spend the next eight years serving as an officer in the ranks of the American army. Kościuszko made his name as a brilliant engineer and builder of fortifications. He designed the blueprints for West Point, the key American military fortress. The plan for the Battle of Saratoga was his, and it became the turning point of the American Revolution. As Kościuszko made his impact on the newly established United States, it soon became his second homeland.
Kotcscho, or what's-his-name?
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If you have problems with pronouncing or spelling Kościuszko's name, don't worry. President George Washington did too – he reportedly wrote Kościuszko's name 11 different ways. As for the pronunciation, anything close to ‘Kos-CHOOS-ko’ is fine, but for best results, you might want to consult our Guide to the Polish Alphabet.
You can also take the easy route – like Me-She-Kin-No-Quah, Chief Little Turtle of the Miami Indians, who visited Kościuszko in Philadelphia. He later told his tribe that he had made friends with a righteous white man, whom he called ‘Kotcscho’.
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In 1784, Kościuszko returned to Poland, but despite his experience and fame as a great general, he once again failed to get a commission in the Commonwealth's Army. He settled in the family manor in Siechnowicze (now Sehnovichi, Belarus). In 1789, however, he finally received a royal commission as a major general.
In 1791, the 3rd May Constitution was signed, which attempted to reform the country in the republican spirit of democracy. The next year, Kościuszko led the royal army to war in defence of the Constitution, but had to emigrate to France in the aftermath of losing the war. French Revolutionaries subsequently made him an honorary citizen of France.
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In March 1794, Kościuszko returned to Poland. He announced a rebellion on 24th March in Kraków. This would become the first in a long line of Polish national uprisings against the occupying powers of Austro-Hungary, Russia and Prussia from 1772.
In the midst of the insurrection, Kościuszko issued the so-called Uniwersał Połaniecki (Manifesto of Połaniec), which attempted to eliminate serfdom, reduced corvee work and promised that peasants would own the land they cultivated. The manifesto is considered the first legal act establishing Polish peasants as citizens. Peasants did join the national cause, enrolling in Kościuszko’s army.
One of the most famous battles of the insurrection – fought at Racławice, outside Kraków, in 1794 – was won thanks to a large-scale attack by the so-called scythemen (kosynierzy), or peasant soldiers armed with scythes. That same year, Piotr Aigner, a professor of architecture in Warsaw, wrote a brochure entitled Nauka o Pikach i Kosach (A Study of Pikes and Scythes), a manual designed to instruct peasants on how to turn their scythes into lethal weapons.
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Kościuszko also made sure that other social and ethnic groups joined the insurrection. For Jews, another disenfranchised group of Polish society, Kościuszko was ‘a messenger from God’. The cavalry unit formed by Berek Joselewicz during the insurgence is often considered the first exclusively Jewish military unit since ancient times. In Poland, they were called the Bearded Cavalry. Another group whose contribution was vital in the uprising's potential success was the burgeoning bourgeoisie.
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‘Poland is finished!’ This, one of the most famous quotations attributed to Kościuszko, is most likely false and contrived instead by Prussian propaganda. Kościuszko was supposed to have uttered the words – strangely, in Latin – in the final stage of the Battle of Maciejowice.
Kościuszko was taken captive, and the uprising eventually fell. Even though Kościuszko himself denied having said the phrase, it became part of his legend. A year later, in 1795, the Third Partition, indeed erased Poland from the map of Europe.
Did Kościuszko bring doom on Poland?
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While Kościuszko has been widely celebrated, he has also seen his fair share of criticism. One of the most brilliant minds of the early 19th century, Maurycy Mochnacki, claimed that Kościuszko had doomed Poland: ‘[H]e didn't want to transform the majority of the country into the nation out of consideration for the minority’, or the 10% of society comprised of the nobility.
By this, he meant that Kościuszko had privileged the national cause over the social. In fact, Kościuszko was opposed to radical revolutionary means from the start. As was said of him later, he never wanted to be a ‘Sulla’, or a tyrant, even with regard to his enemies.
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In August 1797, Kościuszko, now in exile after having been released from the Tsar's prison, arrived in the United States once again. Here, he authored a document that some historians suggest may have changed the course of American history.
Kościuszko’s last will and testament stipulated that the proceeds of his American estate – granted to him by Congress for his 8-year engagement in the Revolutionary War – be spent on freeing and educating African American slaves. This included those of his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was named as the will's executor.
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Throughout his life, Kościuszko stood up for the rights of many social and ethnic groups. He became friends with Agrippa Hull, for example, a black man who served as his aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. Kościuszko's regard for Hull was considered unusual at the time. Several years later, during the Insurgence in Poland, Kościuszko was joined by another African American, Jean Lapierre, who also became his aide-de-camp.
Alex Storożyński, the author of Peasant Prince, an American biography of Kościuszko, states that Kościuszko stood up not only for the rights of peasants, Jews and African-Americans, but also Native Americans. He recalls how Me-She-Kin-No-Quah, or Chief Little Turtle of the Miami Indian tribe – whom Kościuszko met in Philadelphia – gave the Polish general a tomahawk and a peace pipe as a sign of appreciation. Kościuszko in turn offered the chief two pistols, telling him to ‘shoot dead the first man who comes to subjugate you’.
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In 1798, Kościuszko returned to Europe. Led on by false promises of the French government, Kościuszko believed that Poland had finally found an ally. He met with Napoleon twice in 1799, but the two failed to reach an agreement.
Kościuszko disliked Napoleon for his dictatorial aspirations and called him the ‘undertaker of the [French] Republic’. Eventually, Napoleon’s rise to power dashed Kosciuszko’s hopes of a unified and free Poland. Kościuszko began to distance himself from politics.
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Kościuszko died in Solothurn, Switzerland on 15th October 1817, at the age of 71. His embalmed body was deposited in a crypt at the Solothurn church, only to be transferred to Kraków the following year. Eventually, it was placed in a crypt in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral, among a pantheon of Polish kings and national heroes.
Shortly before his death, Kościuszko wrote up his last will and testament related to his Polish estate. In it, he stated that the serfs of the village of Siechnowicze were to be freed after his death – a wish that Tsar Alexander disallowed.
A new saint for Poles
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To Poles, Kościuszko soon became a saint-like figure. Portraits of him adorned the drawing-rooms in many Polish houses, and business in the trade of his relics began to flourish. Adam Mickiewicz's Romantic epic Pan Tadeusz (1834) was titled in Kościuszko’s honour.
For several generations in Partitioned Poland, children were named Tadeusz, a manifestation of their parents' patriotism. The name made it even to America, where Thaddeus Stevens, the most radical American abolitionist politician, was named after Kościuszko, as a hero of American Revolutionary War.
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Kościuszko also appears in Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869-70). His portrait hangs in the cabinet of Captain Nemo on board the Nautilius, among others of historical figures who sacrificed their lives to a humanitarian causes. These include Greece's Botzaris, Ireland's O'Connell, Italy's Manino, and the American Presidents George Washington and Abramham Lincoln, as well as John Brown.
In the decades that followed his death, physical monuments were also erected to honour Kosciuszko, in places ranging from America to Australia. One of the more astonishing representations was built in Kraków, within a few years of Kościuszko's death. There, in 1822, a huge, 34-metre-high artificial mound of earth was built by a joint effort from various members of society, which was considered a patriotic activity.
In 1840, the Kościuszko Mound inspired Paul Strzelecki, the Polish patriot and Australian explorer, to name the highest mountain in Australia Mount Kościuszko. His justification was the mountain's perceived resemblance to the Kraków landmark.
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Well-established in Polish and American history textbooks, Kościuszko waits for his rightful recognition in Belarus. Today, he is celebrated as a national hero there only among circles of the independent Belarusian opposition. Its members commemorate Kościuszko's birthday annually at his family manor in Merachoushchyna.
‘There will be a time when Kościuszko will be officially recognised as our national hero. The fact that we're gathering here every year is proof of our returning to Europe, to the European ideals which the insurgents of Kosciuszko had fought for’, said Uladzimir Arlou, a poet and historian, at the 2011 gathering.
In Warsaw, the monument of Kościuszko remains the meeting point for Belarusian pro-democratic opposition in Poland, where celebrations of the annual Freedom Day are held.
For more about Kościuszko, see: Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 28 Aug 2015; edited by LD, Jan 2019
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