small, Tadeusz Kościuszko's Last Will & Testament: An Unwritten Chapter in American History, arthur_szyk_polish-american_fraternity_series_tadeusz_kosciuszko_1938_london.jpg, Tadeusz Kościuszko, from the Polish-American Fraternity series by Arthur Szyk, 1938, photo: Wikimedia
In 1798, during his second stay in America, Tadeusz Kościuszko authored a document which, had its suggestions been followed, could have changed American history and possibly pave the way for a different abolition scenario. What exactly did it say?
Kościuszko wrote the document in May 1798 shortly before leaving America in a somewhat rushed and never fully explained way. The document, which is traditionally referred to as Kościuszko’s last will, stipulated that the proceeds of his American estate (the assets from his wartime pay for his service in the American Revolutionary War) were to be spent on freeing and educating African-American slaves.
The will appointed Kościuszko’s friend Thomas Jefferson, a republican politician and a man of democratic ideals like the Pole, as the sole executor of the will.
I beg Mr Jefferson that in case I should die without will or testament he should buy out of my money so many Negroes and free them, that the restart sum should be sufficient to give them education and provide for their maintenance.
The phrasing of the final version of the document (signed on May 5th, 1798) made it clear that the liberated slaves should either be those owned by Jefferson himself or ‘any others’. As was the case, the founding father of American Independence and author of the immortal words ‘All people are created equal’, owned over a hundred slaves at the time. As such, Kościuszko’s testament was opening a way for Jefferson to free his slaves, and, what’s more, be compensated for the obvious economic loss. So why did Jefferson, this American paragon of virtue, never take the chance?
Two decades of arguing
For the next twenty or so years Kościuszko and Jefferson, who in the meantime had served two terms as American president, wrote letters to each other in which the subject reappeared occasionally. Kościuszko was consistent and unwavering in his decision made almost two decades earlier, a fact attested to in a letter written to Jefferson in September 1817, a month before Kościuszko’s death. In it Kościuszko reminded his friend of the pledge and his American assets: ‘After my death you know their fixed destination.’
When Kościuszko died in Switzerland in October 1817, the situation seemed all set. But it was also complicated. Kościuszko’s will was beset with legal problems which made implementing it difficult. The other, more painful, problem was that Jefferson, who incarnated many American democratic virtues, was not so willing to free his slaves.
While he seemed to believe that slavery was morally wrong, he also considered the issue as less important than the sacred law of ownership and the constitutional right of every state to determine its future. Jefferson also perfectly understood that liberating his slaves would put him in a difficult position vis-a-vis with his own class, the rich Virginian plantation aristocracy.
In 1821, he officially refused his rights to be executor or even a beneficiary of the will. When he died on July 4th, 1826 (on the 50th anniversary of the USA’s independence), he left behind over a hundred slaves. In his own last will, he freed just five of them. The following year 130 African-American slaves from his estate were sold in an open slave auction.
An alternate history
Kościuszko’s will was commented on in the American press of the day. Particularly papers addressed to African Americans, like The North Star edited by Frederick Douglas, hailed Kościuszko as a champion of freedom and, along with Abraham Lincoln, one of the great heroes of the fight against racial inequality.
Quite early on, abolitionist activists began to see Kościuszko’s last will as a great missed opportunity of American history. Had Jefferson followed the request, ‘what an all-conquering influence must have attended his illustrious example,’ wrote abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1908, Israel Losey White described the will as ‘an unwritten chapter in American History’. He concluded:
It is possible that if its suggestions had been followed, there might have been no Civil War in the United States, and the race problem of today would not be so perplexing to economists.
Many historians since then have argued that carrying out Kościuszko’s last will by the former president of the US, being the great authority that he was, could have set a positive example for other slave owners, creating a model of a different path to abolition, one which would not have led to the American Civil War.
Alas, Kościuszko’s message to Jefferson and the American people went unheeded. History took another path: it would take over 30 years, and the bloodshed of the civil war, for African-American slaves to gain personal freedom.
Find more about Kościuszko’s anti-slavery legacy here.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 12 Oct 2017