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The Peasant Prince

Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

by Alex Storozynski

Hardcover, 370 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $29.95 |


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The Peasant Prince
Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution
Alex Storozynski

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Book Summary

Follows the life of the Polish aristocrat who believed in freedom, fought in the American Revolution, and was appointed chief of the Engineering Corps of the Northern army.

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Excerpt: The Peasant Prince

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 sixteenth century, the magnates experimented with elections, creating a new system in which the nobility voted on the monarch.

The Polish lords chose a French prince, Henri de Valois, to be king, but they required him and future monarchs to sign the "Henrician Articles." These included a stipulation that the monarchy was not hereditary but elected, and that the king must call a session of the legislature, the Seym, every two years. The king could not declare war or collect taxes without approval of the Seym, and was bound by the Articles of Agreement, in which he promised to abide by his campaign promises.14

This libertarian system hailed its "Golden Freedoms," such as freedom of religion, which could not be taken away by the king. While most Poles were Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims were also free to build churches, synagogues, and mosques and worship as they pleased. Poland's kings provided sanctuary to Jews who were persecuted elsewhere and stopped priests who wanted to convert them to Christianity. As a result Jews flocked to Poland and formed the core of the merchant class. While Jews were not allowed to own land, they could lease it and own businesses. They ran the royal treasury and the mint and helped establish the banking system. Some early coins had names of Polish princes etched in Hebrew lettering or engraved names of Jewish minters, such as Abraham, son of Isaac Nagid.15 The Catholic magnates used the Jewish bankers and traders to compound their wealth and create an export system that turned Poland into the breadbasket of Europe. While this allowed Jewish culture to thrive, the lords also gave the Jews the unpopular tasks of collecting taxes, tariffs, and interest on loans, helping the magnates to camouflage their exploitation of the serfs.16

This multicultural society was protected by the Hussar Knights, master horsemen whose spooky armor gave them a supernatural appearance that struck fear into the hearts of their enemies and earned them the appellation "Winged Hussars." Attached to the back of their metal vests were wings made of wooden frames covered with eagle, crane, or ostrich feathers. They draped pelts of leopards, tigers, bears, or wolves over their chest plates, and wore steel and brass helmets. The Hussar cavalries stretched the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's borders from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The country had a small Muslim population of Asian Tatars, who initially arrived as invaders, starting in the fourteenth century. These nomadic horse men, descended from the Mongol army of Genghis Khan, drank horse milk mixed with blood and ate raw meat that they kept under their saddles to cushion their ride and tenderize their steaks. The Hussars defeated the Tatar warriors, and some of the vanquished were allowed to settle in Poland, where they freely practiced their Sunni religion.17

The Winged Hussars once again faced the Muslims in the late seventeenth century, when the Ottoman Empire swallowed Greece, the Balkans, Hungary, and much of Austria. The Turkish Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha and his army surrounded Vienna and were on the verge of capturing the Danube River, the commercial gateway to Europe. With the Muslims on their doorstep, the German-speaking kingdoms, Austria and Prussia, pleaded with King John Sobieski to send the hussars to repel the marauding army.

Sobieski's hussars led an army that routed the Turks in the Battle of Viennain 1683. He was hailed as the savior of Europe who rescued the Christians from Muslim invaders. But after Sobieski's death in 1696, Poland's influence began to dwindle. In the election for king after his demise, three candidates emerged: Sobieski's son Jacob, French prince François Louis, and Friedrich Augustus Wettin of Dresden. Augustus did not win the election but rushed to Poland and, with the support of Austria and Russia, declared himself king, establishing a Saxon dynasty.

Rather than challenge the status quo, the land magnates made perfidious deals and took bribes from foreign agents who meddled in Polish affairs. The result was bedlam, and the gluttonous oligarchs ushered in a period of de cadence with the slogan, "Under the Saxon king, eat, drink, and loosen your belt."18

While the Saxons carted Poland's treasury back to Dresden, the mutual distrust among the Polish nobles in the Seym led to the creation of a parliamentary procedure called the liberum veto. This unitary veto allowed a single representative to block any legislation unless there was unanimous consent. This pleased foreign powers who wanted to tie up the legislature with gridlock.19

In this era of chaos Kosciuszko's life would be influenced greatly by the exploits of a young Polish count who set out abroad in the 1750s in search of adventure. Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski, the son of a Krakow nobleman and a daughter of the Czartoryski Familia, spent years studying in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and London before arriving in St. Petersburg, where he became secretary to the British ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams. The charming count quoted Shakespeare and became a popular figure on the social circuit in the Russian capital.

One night as he twirled across the dance floor during a party, Poniatowski caught the eye of the German-born Grand Duchess Sophia Augusta Frederica.20 Sophia had been delivered to the royal court to marry the naive and immature heir to the Russian throne, Duke Peter III. Both remained virgins during the first years of the marriage, until the duchess erupted like a sexual volcano bursting through a chain of steamy affairs with paramours discreetly known as her "favorites in the royal court.

The Chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing spy sent by French king Louis XV to keep tabs on the Russian court, wrote: "The Grand Duchess is romantic, ardent, passionate; her eyes like those of a wild beast. Her brow is high; and, if I mistake not, there is a long and awful future on that brow. She is kind and affable, but when she comes near me, I draw back with a movement, which I cannot control. She frightens me."21

Another observation likened the grand duchess to a predator with a gaze that was "fixed and glassy, like that of a wild beast tracking down its prey."22

Hanbury-Williams noticed that Sophia lusted after his blond and hazel-eyed assistant and became a matchmaker to advance Great Britain's interests.

On a frigid December night in 1755, the Polish count left his apartment and was picked up by Lev Naryshkin, the gentleman of the royal bedchamber, who whisked Poniatowski through the snow on a sleigh to the side entrance of the Winter Palace, and escorted him past the guards for a secret rendezvous.23 The twenty-six-year-old duchess was tall and thin, with black hair, a porcelain complexion, and pinkish cheeks. She complained that the harsh Russian winters numbed her body and turned her face "blue as a plum."24 Yet underneath this delicate exterior was a red-hot sexual being.

Sophia's confidant Naryshkin would signal by meowing like a cat outside her bedroom door, waiting for her whispered reply when the coast was clear. The twenty-three-year-old Poniatowski was led into the royal chambers, shivering at the thought of exile in a frozen Russian prison if he was caught. Poniatowski recalled in his memoirs that the sight of Sophia in a simple white gown trimmed with lace and pink ribbons was so enticing as to "make one forget the very existence of Siberia."25

Poniatowski spent many nights dressed incognito, tiptoeing through the corridors of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace on his way to and from secret trysts with the grand duchess. Sophia wrote in her memoirs, "Count Poniatowski always put on a blonde wig and a cloak before leaving my room and when the sentries asked him: 'Who goes there?' he replied: 'The Grand Duke's musician.' "26

He visited Sophia's chambers so often that her dog betrayed their relationship to a visitor who noticed that the pet greeted Poniatowski. Poniatowski's friend, the Swedish count Horn, told him, "My friend, there is no worse traitor than a little Bolognese dog. The first thing I always did with the women I loved was give them one, and it was from these dogs that I always knew if there was someone more favored than I. The dog wanted to eat me, whom it did not know; where as it only rejoiced when it saw you again, surely this is not the first time it has seen you here."27

Poniatowski fell head over heels in love with Sophia, writing in his memoirs that her "eyes were bluest and merriest in the world, subjugating all who came within her orbit," she had "a mouth that seemed to beg to be kissed."28

The affair was one of the most political sexual liaisons in history. After a trip home Poniatowski returned to Russia as "ambassador" of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The count continued his dalliance with the grand duchess, and wrote, "Such was the mistress who would become the arbiter of my destiny."29

Poland's destiny was also determined between the sheets warmed by these political bedfellows. Eventually the dissolute duchess grew tired of Poniatowski, and he returned to Poland. She continued hiding her liaisons until Duke Peter became czar. The new monarch grew tired of his wife, but was assassinated in a coup staged by her supporters, who installed her as czarina. She became known as Catherine the Great and no longer lurked in the shadows with her love affairs.

Catherine continued the expansion of Russia begun years earlier by Ivan the Terrible. One month after ascending to the throne, she wrote to Poniatowski, "I am sending at once Count Keyserling as Ambassador to Poland to declare you king after the death of the present monarch."30

By the time the last Wettin king died in 1764, the Poles were fed up with foreign intervention. The oligarchs agreed to restore a Pole to the throne. The leading candidate was Poniatowski's maternal cousin, Prince Adam Casimir Czartoryski, a Renaissance man who studied eighteen languages and traveled throughout Europe conducting research in the sciences, literature, history, politics, military history, and the arts. But the prince was reluctant to wear the crown, preferring to occupy himself with intellectual pursuits. Eventually Kosciuszko would be caught up in the politics between Poniatowski and Prince Czartoryski.

In a twisted web of intrigue, Catherine conspired with the Polish aristocrats to prop her infatuated lover on the throne in Warsaw so that she could pull his strings from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. To ensure that the election went her way, Catherine sent sixty thousand troops into the woods surrounding the fields outside Warsaw, where the wealthy landowners gathered to choose their king. With Russian soldiers watching, the Poles elected Poniatowski king. He would rule as Stanislaw Augustus.

The czarina sent another of her "favorites," Prince Nikolai Repnin, to Warsaw as her ambassador to keep an eye on Stanislaw. But from his lofty perch the new king did not dance on the marionette strings as well as Catherine had hoped, especially after she made it clear that their love affair was over. Pining for the czarina, the jilted king went on a sex spree through the salons of Warsaw, making sure that his bed was never cold. The Polish capital became a lascivious party town under Stanislaw, and the promiscuous king lived out his fantasies, setting up chambers in his palace and nearby residences for various ladies of the nobility, actresses, and women of lesser prominence.31

The game of rotating bedfellows took a strange turn when Prince Czartoryski, busy with his own affairs, drove his wife, Princess Isabella, into the arms of the king. Using Catherine the Great's bedroom tactics, Stanislaw treated members of the opposite sex as pawns. He encouraged Princess Isabella to seduce Minister Repnin and to whisper pillow talk into his ear that would help persuade the czarina to allow Poland to change its laws and expand its military. The patriotic princess did it for her country.

The king was not the only Pole to go through a sexual awakening as the libertine era heated up Europe and French literature and tales of l'amour and erotic theater gained popularity in Warsaw.32 The elite held risqué costume balls and salacious carnivals in the Saxon Gardens near the royal castle that lured the legendary Venetian lothario Giacomo Casanova to carouse Warsaw's racy nightlife with the Polish king. In his memoirs Casanova wrote, "The carnival was a brilliant one. All Europe seemed to have assembled at Warsaw to see the happy being whom fortune had so unexpectedly raised to a throne."33

The infamous playboy had a grand time in Poland and took advantage of all the cold and brutal practices that feudal society had to offer. Impoverished serfs had to slave away in the fields, but they also suffered indignities for their families. The loathsome droit de seigneur, the lord's right to deflower virgins, was still common practice in Europe. Visiting one of the Czartoryski palaces, Casanova wrote, "A peasant girl who came into my room pleased me, and she ran away crying out one morning when I tried to do something with her."34

The caretaker came running to check on the commotion and told Casanova to go about it in "the straightforward way." When Casanova asked what he meant by "the straightforward way," the caretaker replied, "Talk to her father, who is here, and ask him amicably if he will sell you her maidenhead."

The go-between suggested a price of fifty florins, to which Casanova replied, "You are jesting. If she is a maiden, and gentle as a lamb, I will give him a hundred."

Casanova paid the peasant girl's father the fee, but the would-be sex slave was not willing to succumb to the oppression forced on her and "ran away like a thief."

In addition to satisfying the carnal desires of his court, Stanislaw invested in universities and invited foreign artists and scholars to Warsaw to stimulate a renaissance in Poland. Italian painters such as Marcello Bacciarelli and Canaletto's nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, filled canvases with scenes of Warsaw's castles and churches.

The king, longing to restore the glory of the Hussar Knights, established a military academy known as the Knights' School to educate and instill chivalry and patriotism in a new generation of officers. Stanislaw chose his cousin Prince Czartoryski to develop a curriculum and head the new military academy, which was the perfect job for the erudite Czartoryski. The king and the prince began a nationwide search for intelligent and patriotic cadets for their new academy.

When word spread that Poland had opened a new military academy, another colorful character to show up in Warsaw was British colonel Charles Lee. Lee was a restless British officer who lived in the American colonies where he fought in the French and Indian War, the American theater of the Seven Years' War. He was adopted by the Mohawk tribe and married the daughter of a Seneca chief and was dubbed Ounewaterika, meaning "boiling water," or "the spirit that never sleeps."35

Upon returning to London, Lee was denied his petition to become a general in the British army, so he sought greater experience by obtaining a post in the Polish army. The Poles were in no position to expand their military, so Lee agreed to serve as Stanislaw's aide-de-camp. Starting in 1764, he served for several years in the royal court in Warsaw. Lee was given a seat at the king's table and an apartment in Prince Czartoryski's palace. The English officer was so taken by Stanislaw that he wrote home asking that his prized possession, a sword once owned by Oliver Cromwell, be delivered to Warsaw so he could present it to the king as a gift.36

When Lee returned to London, King George III still deemed his foreign experience and social status insufficient to merit promotion in the British army. So before the outbreak of the American Revolution, the disappointed Lee again sailed for the colonies, where he enlisted in the Continental Army and was finally commissioned as a general.

Like Lee, King Stanislaw was also upset about the chain of command that forced his hand. Outwardly it appeared as though the king was in charge, but in reality he was trapped between Poland's wealthy land magnates, the Catholic Church, idealistic political reformers, and the Russian agent in Warsaw, Prince Repnin, who was calling the shots.

While the richest nobles were living it up in Warsaw, the rest of the nation was floundering. The Kosciuszkos were among those who struggled financially. Originally of Lithuanian-Ruthenian stock, their tongue-twisting name came from "Konstanty [Constantine] son of Teodora," and evolved into Kost-iuszko, the diminutive of "small bone." They spoke Polish and identi.ed with Poland's culture to earn acceptance by the nobility, becoming so patriotic that in 1509 the Polish monarch presented them with an official coat of arms, dubbing them the Roch clan and later granting them the villages of Mereczowszczyzna and iechnowicze.37

Ludwig Kosciuszko had the ceremonial rank of colonel and the title "Sword-bearer of Brest."38 But by the mid-eighteenth century the Hussar Knights were merely a memory of Poland's former glory, and much like the historical war reenactments of modern times, on holidays the Polish nobles would dust off the Hussar armor and weapons in museums and dress up and parade around.39 These reenactors and their woebegone celebrations of the nation's military heritage stirred the imagination of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who dreamed of joining the military.

After his father's death the family's financial difficulties forced Kosciuszko to leave the Piarist school and his studies of ancient Greece, to return to the family estate for homeschooling.

Kosciuszko's mother, Tekla Ratomska, ran the homestead after the death of her husband. She managed the work of the peasants on the Kosciuszko estate, which was spread out across several hamlets, and had to ensure the peasants made optimal use of the numerous plows and farming tools to get the most out of the plantation's fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, wheat fields, bakery, brewery, malt house, grain silos, dairy, cheese-making cribs, chicken coops, pigsties, and barns stocked with horses and cows.40

As her elder son would receive the largest inheritance, Tekla made sure her younger son kept up his studies with an uncle and a priest who was a friend of the family. Kosciuszko excelled in geometry and in drawing, and his artistic talents were noticed early on by the priests in his school.

Kosciuszko was eighteen when Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski became king of Poland. He lived far from the excitement of the Polish capital, but got the chance of a lifetime when he learned that Prince Czartoryski was looking for talented recruits for the Royal Knight School. The priests and local noblemen recommended Kosciuszko, and Prince Czartoryski arranged for a scholarship to send him to Warsaw, where he enrolled in the military academy's inaugural class.

The cosmopolitan Czartoryski used his foreign contacts to recruit talented scholars to teach at the academy, such as the famous barrister from Oxford, John Lind, the French military tactician Le Roy de Bosroger, and Prus sian military experts Friedrich Gunther, and Antoni Leopold Oelsnitz. Oelsnitz lectured on the ancient treatise of Roman warfare written by Flavius Vegetius Renatus during the waning days of the Roman Empire. It was a manual for military training, logistics, and supply lines.

And while two centuries earlier the Catholic Church had denounced as heresy the heliocentric theory developed in Poland by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, Czartoryski pushed for more scientific research by purchasing a "planetary machine" in Britain that showed how the planets orbit around the sun.41

Kosciuszko was so eager to get a jump on his studies that before going to bed he tied a string to his hand, leaving the other end out in the hallway. He asked the night watchman to tug on it to wake him at 3:00 a.m. during his rounds to stoke the furnaces.42 In addition to learning about fort construction and topography, his classes included practical geography for mapmaking, trigonometry, drawing, and engineering.

The ambitious student dedicated his mind and body to becoming a Sobieski-type Hussar Knight. He aggressively practiced swordsmanship with his classmates, sometimes even drawing blood. Although he was one of the most physical students at the academy, rather than bullying the weaker students, he became one of the most popular cadets because he was unpretentious and likable. He studied with equal gusto. One lesson was about Swedish king Charles XII, the savvy tactician whose success fighting the Russian troops of Peter the Great made him a popular role model for the officer corps. Kosciuszko's physical endurance and identification with the Scandinavian leader earned him the nickname "the Swede" among the cadets.43

When a pompous governor from one of the provinces insulted a cadet at a reception in Warsaw, it was "the Swede" who was chosen by his school chums to visit the royal castle and restore their honor by informing the king of the slight. Kosciuszko was so persuasive that the king ordered the arrogant official to apologize to his cadets. King Stanislaw was impressed with Kosciuszko and invited him to visit the castle periodically to provide progress reports about the new school.

After Kosciuszko's visit to the royal palace, the king had a greater interest in the academy. These future military leaders had their intellectual, spiritual, and physical needs catered to at the academy, and in the libertine atmosphere of the era of Stanislaw Augustus, this included allowing them to fulfill their erotic desires. Prostitution was rampant in the capital, and with the blatant sexuality exhibited in the arts, the cadets had a good time, often attending the same bawdy banquets as the noble class.44

While the king's public persona was that of a playboy who was loyal to Catherine the Great, behind the scenes he was trying to build an infrastructure to challenge Russia's dominance. But with the czarina's ambassador-provocateur, Prince Repnin, breathing down his neck, Stanislaw had to show discretion.

Several of the noble families did not see the patriotic side of Stanislaw, however, viewing him as a mere puppet of the Russian czarina. On February 29, 1768, they met in southern Poland in a town called Bar, where they established a confederate government. The Bar confederates were led by Joseph Pulaski, a nobleman whose son, Casimir, led a cavalry in several successful skirmishes against the Russians, taking control of several Polish provinces in the South.

French king Louis XV sent a spy, Charles François Dumouriez, to Poland to help the Bar confederates, and Austria allowed the rebels use of its territory. King Stanislaw was sympathetic with issues raised by the confederates and onsidered making peace, or even joining them, until Dumouriez denounced him as a tyrant and a traitor.45

A civil war erupted, and Poles were forced to take sides. Kosciuszko had worked his way up to lieutenant and was employed at the academy as an instructor, which led to a promotion to captain of the artillery because of his mathematical skills and ability to project accurately the range and line of fire for cannons.

When fighting broke out Kosciuszko had the difficult choice of joining Pulaski's confederates, who wanted to overthrow the king and drive out the Russians, or supporting his patrons, the monarch and the Czartoryski family, who favored a gradual strategy of shaking off Russian domination. In either scenario he would fight his own countrymen in a lost cause. Believing that the king had Poland's best interests at heart, Kosciuszko and his friend Capt. Joseph Orlowski avoided the cross fire between Poles by taking advantage of a scholarship for advanced studies in Paris.

In the autumn of 1769 Kosciuszko and Orlowski arrived in Paris, where they checked in to the Hotel Luxembourg and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Their real goal was to acquire military expertise, but as foreigners they could not officially attend the école Militaire or the military engineering academy at Mézières, so they tracked down professors from the military schools to tutor them privately.

Kosciuszko learned the war strategies of Marshal Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, Europe's foremost authority on building and besieging forts. He studied architecture with Jean-Rodolphe Perronet, the civil engineer who had built the most beautiful bridges, roads, and buildings in Paris.46 When not in class Kosciuszko spent time in cafés swilling coffee and soaking up the political ideas that were brewing before the French Revolution.47 He read Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose idea of a social contract between government and the people especially influenced him.

But the biggest impact on his life was that of a new philosophy called physiocracy, developed by the economist François Quesnay. Physiocrats held that land was the only true source of wealth, and agriculture the key to prosperity. They believed that only those who owned or leased land should be taxed. They opposed forced labor for serfs and argued that peasants should be able to migrate to find work. They advocated a natural law under which government took a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to economics. They opposed taxes on farmers and their harvest and argued that free markets would bring individual liberty and economic security. Physiocracy had major implications for Poland because it would essentially end feudalism.48

While becoming more cosmopolitan, Kosciuszko never forgot that his real mission was to soak up as much engineering knowledge as the French could offer. "As it pertains to soldiering, as your highness has advised," Kosciuszko wrote to Prince Czartoryski from Paris, he was studying French "construction of bridges, flood gates, roads, dams, canals, etc."49

After his schooling in Paris, Kosciuszko traveled to Holland to learn how the Dutch built dikes so he could help solve the water management issues of the swamps and marshlands in Poland. He also visited En gland, Switzerland, Saxony, and the ruins of ancient Rome before heading home. This added perspective convinced him that his political idealism was well founded. Many years later he said of his early travels, "Throughout my five years in foreign lands I studied in order to become proficient in economics and military matters, for which things I had a native passion, so as to discover what was necessary to attain durable government and the due happiness of all."50

During Kosciuszko's absence from Poland one of the Bar confederates hatched an ill-advised plot to kidnap King Stanislaw and force him to join the fight against Russia. At first Pulaski opposed the plan but changed his mind once he was assured that the king would not be harmed. The rebels hijacked the king's carriage and took him into custody. But before they could move him to a safe place, Stanislaw escaped.

Rumors spread that Pulaski had tried to assassinate the king, and he was convicted in absentia of regicide. A Polish court ruled that the crime was so heinous that if Pulaski was caught, his head was to be chopped off and his body quartered, burned, and the ashes thrown to the winds.

Russia and its Polish puppets crushed the Bar Rebellion, but news of the botched kidnapping sent shivers down the spine of monarchs across Europe. Poland's neighbors took advantage of its internal strife. On February 19, 1772, meeting in Vienna— the city Sobieski's knights had rescued from the Ottoman Empire— Russia, Prussia, and Austria each signed a pact to carve out a piece of the commonwealth's territory for themselves. In August the armies of these nations attacked the Commonwealth from all sides, and each annexed a piece of its land. Poland, weakened by civil war, was in no position to resist. It was the first of three partitions in which Poland would be attacked by its neighbors.

Stanislaw reached out for help to Britain's King George III, who replied, "Misfortunes have reached the point where redress can be had from the hand of the Almighty alone, and I see no other intervention that can afford a remedy."51 A similar call for help to France's King Louis XV was completely ignored, as the French aristocrats ironically refused to help what they called "a country of nobles."52

By the time Kosciuszko returned to Poland in 1774, his two sisters had married and his brother, Joseph, had squandered the inheritance from their parents and mortgaged much of the estate. Frustrated that his knowledge from abroad could not be put to ser vice for his country because officer commissions in the shrinking army had to be purchased, Kosciuszko searched for another career, migrating between the homes of his sisters and his uncle. On occasion he traveled to Warsaw to see his friends. One evening he joined his fellow graduates and the students of the Knights' School, who were invited to a formal ball in honor of the king given by Count Zamoyski. It was there that Kosciuszko met the love of his life.

Excerpted from THE PEASANT PRINCE by Alex Storozynski
Copyright © 2009 by Alex Storozynski
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin's Press

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