Poland : Constitutional Reform

The Polish Rising of 1794

A.) The Pre-History of the Rebellion

During most of the 18th century, Poland as an elective kingdom with the LIBERUM VETO (too extensive rights of individual members of parliament at the expense of the central authority) was politically almost paralyzed. Few political decisions were implemented at the SEJM (parliament); the magnates (the great noblemen represented in the Sejm) rather pursued their class and family interests than those of the nation; many were bribed by the French, Russian or Austrian ambassador.
In 1772, Austria, Russia and Prussia agreed on the FIRST POLISH PARTITION. At a time when political structures were questioned and reforms were demanded everywhere, Poland was in a special situation as it obviously was ungovernable and militarily weak.
Patriotic Poles willing to implement some reforms, but most of all to give some powers to the Polish central authority (king, parliament) adopted a new, modern CONSTITUTION in 1792 (only the second modern written constitution in the world). Yet a faction of noblemen fearing the loss of their privileges, the CONFEDERATION OF TARGOWICE, invited Empress Catharina to send an army and restore the pre-constitutional situation. She did, and, together with Prussia, pursued with the SECOND POLISH PARTITION (1793).
Poland's neighbours now looked at Poland not only with greed for Polish territory, but also with concern, as they did not want another center of radical political reform (next to revolutionary France) to develop.

B.) The Military Course of Events

THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO, a veteran of the American War of Independence, returned to Poland from Germany in March 1794, took the lead in a rebellion, called the Poles to the arms. Soon he trained and commanded c.7000 men (4500 regular soldiers and 2-3000 volunteers, called Scythmen) and defeated the Russians at RACLAWICE on April 4th. Belarussians (April 24th) and Lithuanians also joined in the uprising - Belarus, for centuries, had formed part of the (Lithuanian) Polish state.
On 6th June 1794 Kosciuszko was defeated at Szczekociny by Russian and Prussian forces. October 10th 1794 Kosciuszko's forces were defeated by Russian forces at MACIEJOWICE; Kosciuszko himself, severely wounded, was taken prisoner.

C.) The Legacy

In 1795, the THIRD POLISH PARTITION wiped Poland off the map. Kosciuszko was set free two years later (1796), after he promised never to return to his native Poland.
The Poles were unhappy with foreign rule; when Napoleon Bonaparte defeated Prussia in 1807, he created the GRAND DUCHY OF WARSAW out of Polish provinces Prussia had gained in the second and third Polish partitions; when he defeated Austria in 1809, he added Austria's gain from the thrird Polish partition to the Grand Duchy. The new Polish state did not cover all of Poland, but there was, again, a Polish state, and the Poles were Napoleon's most devoted supporters outside France.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, A Polish Son of Liberty, A Hero of the American Revolution, from Kosciuszko Foundation
Tadeusz Kosciuszko, from Polisj World
Tadeusz Kosciuszko, from Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912 edition
The Uprising of April 24th 1794, from A Belarus Miscellany
DOCUMENTS Tadeusz Kosciuszko Gallery of Paintings, from Poland in the Classroom
Paper Money of the Kosciuszko Insurrection, from Polish Money Page
Painting : Prayers before the Battle of Raclawice, April 4th 1794, from The History of Poland

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2001, last revised on November 19th 2004

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