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Dec 1, 2023

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Time Now


Poland’s Early Kings – Part 12

A series focusing on the Poland of old, when warring tribes were common and kings were really tested by the mettle in their swords, the strength in their words, the philosophy of their politics, and the honor in their hearts…..


The first two years of the reign of Stanislaus Augustus were marked by introduction of a broad program of reform: fiscal conditions were restored to health, a survey of the Crown estates was carried out and the tax-collection system improved.

Stanislaus Augustus established the so-called king’s conferences with his ministers which gave origin to the future Cabinet of Ministers. The king was fortunate in his choice of his closest collaborators: Andrzej Zamoyski, chief initiator of the program of reform, became Lord Chancellor of the Crown; Franciszek Bohomolec and Ignacy Krasicki were appointed editors and publishers of the socio-political periodical Monitor, the propaganda organ of the Reform Party. In 1765, the king founded the Knights’ School to train enlightened officers and officials, future collaborators in the program of reform.

But in 1767, the king’s efforts at reform encountered opposition from the magnates and a large section of the gentry. The problem of Polish religious dissenters was the direct cause of the conflict and of the ensuing civil war which broke out in 1768 and provided a pretext for Russia and Prussia interfering in Polish internal affairs in defence of the political rights of religious dissenters. In actual fact, the question of dissenters served to disguise Russian determination to retain the liberum veto in force in Poland and prevent the Royal Party from continuing the program of reform.

The wave of protest against granting equal rights to religious dissenters and against Russia’s violation of Polish sovereignty (the kidnapping of Polish senators in 1767 and the presence of Russian troops in Poland) brought about the formation of a confederation at Bar in Polodia in 1768, directed against the king of Russia.

The tragedy of the period between 1768 and 1772 was due to the fact that the Bar confederates, patriotic defenders of Polish independence, struck at the reform party, which was the only party that could have saved Polish sovereignty and assured the country’s independence.

Raids conducted by the Bar confederates lasted four years and spread to the whole country. Unfortunately, the confederates were incapable of forming a large military force, and their small raiding parties could not offer effective resistance to regular Russian troops. Czestochowa, the last stronghold of the confederates, surrendered in 1772. The defence of Jasna Gora at Czestochowa was directed by a talented young commander, Casimir Pulaski, who had won fame in the fighting in Lithuania, Podlasie, the Ukraine and Great Poland. Following the suppression of the Confederation, Pulaski with many others left the country and reached North America in 1777, where he commanded a cavalry brigade in the American War of Independence and died a hero’s death at Savannah in 1779.

Meanwhile, Frederick II of the Great of Prussia, fearing that victorious Russia might seize the whole of Poland, suggested himself as mediator in the increasingly acute conflict between Russia and Austria. Even before the suppression of the Bar Confederation, he proposed that both Russia and Austria should satisfy their needs of expansion at Poland’s expense. Following a year of protracted negotiations, the three absolute monarchies concluded the First Treaty of Partition in August 1772, the month in which Czestochowa, the last confederate stronghold, surrendered. Prussia obtained Pomerania and part of Great Poland, Russia took Byelorussia, and Austria the southern part of Poland from the Silesian border along the Vistula to the confluence of the San and Vistula, east to the Bug, up the Bug then south-east to the Zbruch and down the Zbruch to the Dniester River. Altogether, in the first partition Poland lost an area of 211,000 sq. km. with a population of 5.5 million.

This disaster did not leave enlightened Polish citizens, aware of the sources of Poland’s weakness, either helpless or resigned. On the contrary, it mobilized patriots of the Reform Party to redouble their efforts aimed at a fundamental reform of the system.

The Great French Revolution broke out in 1789. In its first stage, the Revolution abolished the king’s absolute powers and the feudal privileges of the gentry, and established the equality of all citizens under the law.

The formation of the Commission for National Education in 1773 was one of the most important acts of the Reform Party. The Commission was the first Ministry of Education to be formed in Europe. The property of the Jesuit Order, abolished by the pope, provided the state with the necessary funds for the education reform. The Commission established a uniform system of education, supervised the work of primary parish school inspectors, reorganized secondary education, carried out a general reform of higher education, above all of the Cracow Academy, and the methods governing education of lay school teachers, introduced a modern program of education, and provided new, reformed school textbooks. The Elementary Schoolbooks Society was specially formed to deal with this last problem.

A session of the Seym was opened in Warsaw on October 6, 1788. This Seym, which went down in Polish history as the Great Seym, lasted not the usual six weeks, but four whole years. After the first two years, the number of deputies was doubled and, most important of all, a fundamental reform of the state and social system voted. Energetic propaganda in regional diets held in 1788 and 1790 caused an unusually large number of supporters of state reform to be elected to the Seym. Both in the first and second period the Great Seym debated as a Confederation, thanks to which the session could not be broken by the Liberum veto.  The Patriotic Party in the Seym, opposed to the Magnate controlled party of opponents of reforms, grew in strength as the session progressed and attained real political power. Father Hugo Kollataj (1750-1812), the statesman, scholar and writer, one of the most interesting figures in Polish history, was the head and ideological leader of the Reform Party.

In the crowning achievement of the Great Seym was the Constitution voted on the 3rd of May 1791, which established a hereditary monarchy thereby eliminating the anarchy of the interregnums and the influence exerted by foreign powers on the election of the king. The Constitution restricted the king’s executive power and at the same time strengthened the powers of the central government responsible to the Seym, reformed the administration, restricted the influence of the magnates on regional authorities, abolished the liberum veto, admitted townsmen to a share in government and declared legal protection over the peasants.