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He Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

Jan Paczkis|Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No single review could possibly do justice to this comprehensive book. For this reason, I focus primarily on matters not developed by other reviewers.

The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution    
Kosciuszko is best known in the USA for his pivotal role in the American Revolution. However, he never got the credit he was entitled to owing to his lack of political skills, and limited facility in the English language. (p. 40). There is no evidence that Kosciuszko and Pulaski ever met in the USA. However, they were both known to Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew who helped finance the American Revolution. (pp. 49-50).

Poland was in the process of being partitioned by three powerful neighbors. Kosciuszko returned to Poland, endeavoring to repeat America's successes against the powerful British forces. Storozynski writes: "As Kosciuszko saw it, the revolution of farmers and citizen-soldiers was a perfect model for his own country. Americans had cut their ties with a distant monarch and were about to govern themselves." (p. 117). Also: "Kosciuszko once again pushed his plan for American-style militias and reserve units that could be called up when needed." (p. 142). There was so much old thinking to overturn in a short time!

Kosciuszko was repulsed by the extremism of the French revolution. He opposed the execution of the traitors at Targowica (these had collaborated with the Russian tsar in order to protect their privileges). While opposing the church's policy of perpetuating serfdom, Kosciuszko retained belief in God and prayer. (p. 273). He also believed that the church could and should become a champion of human rights, and that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches should synchronize their calendars, and take other steps in order to win over the loyalty of the Byelorussian and Ukrainian peasantry to Poland. (p. 126). Despite their vested interest in serfdom, significant portions of the Polish aristocracy and church supported his revolution. (pp. 183-184, 191-192).

Jewish merchant Berek Joselewicz created the first all-Jewish legion since Biblical times. His cavalry fought for Kosciuszko. (p. 201). After Poland's defeat, Joselewicz re-appeared with the Dabrowski legions in Italy, offering to fight again for Poland's freedom. (p. 245).

Kosciuszko believed that the historic May 3, 1791 Constitution did not go far enough in guaranteeing the rights of the people. However, it was praised all over western Europe and the USA, and by the likes of George Washington and Edmund Burke. (p. 150). Prussia and Russia became all the more determined to wipe Poland off the map in order to stamp out this dangerous virus.

The author comments on Kosciuszko's defiant stand: "Just as a group of American farmers had chased the British Army from their land, it looked as if Polish farmers could drive the Russian czarist [tsarist] army out of Poland." (p. 186). Also: "The peasants fought at Raclawice as if they had the least to lose--and the most to gain. In all, 800 Russians had been shot or hacked to death...the Battle at Raclawice cost the Poles between 200 and 250 lives." (p. 186).

Unfortunately, Kosciuszko, notwithstanding several brilliant victories over larger enemy armies, could not stop the inevitable. However, it is untrue that he said FINIS POLONIAE as he fell off his horse in combat. (p. 256).

In exile, Kosciuszko continued to work for the restoration of Poland after the Partitions. He was double-crossed by Napoleon. Returning to the USA, he endeavored to see blacks emancipated. Jefferson believed in the innate intellectual inferiority of blacks; Kosciuszko didn't. (p. 199, 230).
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