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The second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history online

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criminally but also politically responsible to the Diet, since they
might be removed at any time by a two-thirds vote of that body.
The administration was to be carried on through four Commis-
sions (Army, Finance, Police, and Education), acting under the
direction of the King and Council, but elected by and responsible
to the Diet (a rather unfortunate concession to the old fear of
despotism). As regards the legislative power, the chief inno-
vations were these: that the Chamber of Deputies, as the direct
representative of the nation, was given a decided preponderance
over the Senate, which was confined to the advisory and moder-
ating role proper to an appointive Upper House; and, secondly,
that the Lower Chamber, which had hitherto been essentially a
federal congress of ambassadors from the various provinces, re-
ceived an entirely new character through the declaration that
each deputy was the representative of the whole country and
was thus — by implication — not to be bound by imperative
mandates from his local constituents. While a thoroughgoing
social and economic reform would have been at that moment
quite impracticable, the constitution went as far in that direction
as was prudent; and it held up a program, an ideal for the
future. The economic barriers between nobles and bourgeoisie
were broken down; the townsmen recovered their judicial auton-
omy, and received a number of political rights, especially that
of admission to many of the higher offices and magistracies (such
as the four great administrative commissions). Above all, the
gates to the Diet were once more opened — after two centuries —
to the deputies of the Polish cities, although this representation,


unfortunately, was still confined within modest limits. 1 Finally,
the peasantry, so long left without any recourse against the arbi-
trary will of their masters, were now taken under the protection
of the law.

Through the abolition of the most crying political evils of the
old regime, the formation of a strong executive, and the granting
of increased freedom of action to the middle and lower classes, this
constitution marked a great advance upon all previous attempts
at reform in Poland. In its wise conservatism, its adaptation of
foreign norms so far as they were applicable, its refusal to follow
blindly the abstract political theories of the day, it compares
most favorably with the work of the contemporary constitution-
makers at Paris. It was not, indeed, free from serious defects;
the jurist will find in it much to criticize; but it must be remem-
bered that this was a popular work, framed in a crisis to meet
quite peculiar conditions and prejudices, and that on several
points its arrangements were never intended to be final. When
all is said, this constitution did afford the possibility of a new,
sound, and progressive national life. It may have been impolitic
to attempt such great changes at that moment, in view of the
probable attitude of the neighboring Powers; but at any rate,
this heroic breach with the past, this abjuration of the ancient
sins, this renunciation of the idolized ' golden liberty ' throws an
immortal gleam over the last dark years of the Republic.


The revolution of the Third of May essentially altered the
views of the outside world upon the Polish Question. Hitherto
foreign observers had followed the activity of the Four Years'
Diet with skepticism and a certain ironical indifference. The
Poles were regarded as noisy, troublesome, and childish people,
outlandish in their ideas, fickle in temper, and incapable of great
and decisive deeds. The main problem was whether they should

1 The (royal) cities obtained the right of sending 21 (later 24) representatives
to the Diet, as against 204 deputies elected by the szlachla in the Dietines. The
city-deputies might speak on all matters, but vote only on municipal and commercial


live under the tutelage of Russia or Prussia, provided they did
not lose their political existence altogether. But after the Third
of May the world began to take the Poles more seriously. It was
now the general belief that the nation would after all effect its
regeneration, if only it were allowed to work out its destinies
undisturbed. The great question now was whether the neighbor-
ing states would permit a revival, which would in so many ways
alter the old balance of power, and which would cut short so
many long-cherished ambitions. Would they allow the new
constitution to stand ? Of the Powers most concerned Prussia
and Austria were the first to express themselves on this question;
and for quite diverse reasons both pronounced in a sense un-
expectedly favorable to Poland.

The first tidings of the new constitution reached Berlin through
a dispatch from Goltz of April 30. l The ministers at once drew
up a report to the King urging that if Poland were to become an
hereditary monarchy, it could not fail to prove extremely dan-
gerous, and perhaps even destructive to Prussia. Goltz must
therefore be ordered to do all in his power to dissuade the ' well-
intentioned ' party from their plan, if it had not already been
carried out. 2 The King approved, but before the appropriate
instructions could be sent off there arrived the news of the events
of the Third of May, along with a letter from Stanislas Augustus
formally announcing the promulgation of the new constitution.
It was then a case of making bonne mine a mauvais jeu. The
cardinal fact in the situation was that at this moment — and
until the end of May — Frederick William regarded a war with
Russia as quite within the range of possibilities, and hence he
desired not to antagonize the Poles and the Elector of Saxony.
Perhaps the influence of Ewart and Bischoflwerder, who were

1 In the early days of the conspiracy, it was the plan of the Polish leaders to
send the Marshal Potocki to Berlin to secure the secret approval of Prussia in
advance. This plan was not carried out, perhaps because Potocki disliked to
absent himself from Warsaw at so critical a moment.

2 The ministerial proposals of May 6 are given at some length in Hausser,
Deutsche Geschichte, i, pp. 304 f. It has again and again been stated that these
proposals were made after the news of the completed coup d'etat arrived, but in
fact that news reached Berlin only on the 7th.


still preaching the Federative System, counted for something
here; r perhaps the King's mind was still susceptible to the
charms of posing as the patron of revolutions and the liberator of
nations; at any rate he now declared himself with a cordiality
and effusiveness that surpassed all expectations. In his reply to
Jablonowski, the Polish envoy, in rescripts to his ministers at
Warsaw and St. Petersburg, in letters to Stanislas Augustus and
the Elector of Saxony, Frederick William expressed his satisfac-
tion, approval, and admiration with regard to the new constitu-
tion, which he held to be " indispensable to the happiness of the
Polish nation." The conferring of the crown upon the Saxon
House would, he wrote, " confirm for ages the close friendship
and harmony existing ,: [between Prussia and Poland]. 2 These
declarations were within twelve months to receive a bitterly
ironical commentary.

Although the statement was made at that time 3 and has since
been championed by a great German historian, 4 there is no
evidence to prove that the Court of Vienna was informed in
advance of the plan which was carried out on the Third of May.
Doubtless Austro-Polish relations had improved considerably
since the preceding summer. Leopold's separation from Russia
by the Convention of Reichenbach, his pacific tendencies, the
assurances of his warm goodwill towards the Republic brought
back by all the Poles who visited Vienna, the still half-credited
tale that he had refused a Prussian proposition for a new partition,

1 Cf. Ewart's account of his intervention here, Dropmore Papers, ii, pp. 75 f.

2 Askenazy, op. cit., pp. 126 f., 224 ff.

3 Bulgakov's Vienna correspondent, May 16, 1791: "Si je ne juge pas mal
des choses, le ministere autrichien s'attendoit, a quelque chose de pareil, et je ne
peux meme en douter," M. A., IIojiMiia, III, 63.

4 Sybel. There can be no need to enter here into the controversy so warmly
conducted between Sybel and Herrmann fifty years ago regarding the Polish policy
of Leopold II. The dispute raged chiefly about Sybel's theses: (1) that Leopold
had a hand in preparing the coup d'etat of the third of May; (2) that he then exerted
himself actively to secure the general recognition of the new constitution by the
Powers; (3) that he originated the plan for the permanent union of Poland and
Saxony. It is now clear that Sybel was wrong on the first and third of these points,
but quite right regarding the second. Later researches, especially Beer's, have
deprived the controversy of practical interest.



all this combined to inspire » more confidence in Austria than
had previously been felt at Warsaw. 1 Both Republicans and
Patriots had begun to form some hopes of gaining the Em-
peror's patronage. In February, 1791, Rzewuski, one of the
leading reactionaries, fruitlessly proposed at Vienna to form a
Counter-confederation under Austrian protection 2 very similar
to that which was later organized under Catherine's auspices.
About the same time one of the most active among the Polish
reformers advanced the idea that in view of the untrustworthi-
ness of Prussia the Republic would do well to seek support
rather in the friendship of the Court of Vienna. It was un-
doubtedly proposed to sound Leopold in advance regarding the
plan for a new constitution and a coup d'etat; but apparently
the proposal was not carried out. 3 Down to the Third of May
no real connection existed between the Warsaw reformers and
the Austrian cabinet; and there was still no Austrian party
in Poland.

The news of the coup d'etat was received at Vienna with almost
universal approbation. In the salons people lauded ' the Polish
revolution ' to the skies, by way of showing their horror for
the French one. 4 Kaunitz, too, was extremely well pleased. The
new constitution, he was sure, was directly opposed to all the
interests, plans, and desires of Prussia: hence he highly approved
of it. The old anarchy, the factions, the interregna had offered
a fine field to the intrigues of Berlin; and now, it was to be hoped,
all that was done away with. Under hereditary monarchs and a

1 Kraszewski, op. cit., ii, pp. 363 f.; Goltz's report of April 13, 1701, in Herr-
mann, op. cit., vi, pp. 568 {.; Zaleski, Zywot Czartoryskiego, pp. 258 f.

2 Rzewuski's plan is to be found among the Vortrdge of 1791 in the Vienna
Archives, accompanied by an undated note from Leopold to Kaunitz, asking his
opinion, and by the Chancellor's reply, dated February 8 — a scathing condem-
nation of so unholy a project.

3 The proposal was made by Piattoli in a Memoire of March 4, 1791 : see Smolka,
" Genezya konstytucyi 3. maja," in Bulletin International de VAcademie des
Sciences de Cracovie, Comptes rendus des seances de I'annee i8gi, pp. 350-354.
Smolka believed that Leopold was really sounded on the subject before the Third
of May, but Dembinski argues convincingly against this view in his above-cited
monograph on Piattoli.

4 Bulgakov's Vienna correspondent, May 14, 18, 28, M. A., Ilojitma, III, 63.


stronger executive, Poland might recover sufficient force to main-
tain her integrity; that was all he required of her; he reflected
that there would always remain enough of the old republican
leaven to prevent this state from becoming dangerous to its
neighbors, and he believed that in the long run a revived Poland
would see that its true interest lay in cleaving to the Imperial
Courts. For the present, the revolution had come very much
a propos to increase the embarrassments of His Prussian Majesty
over the Eastern Question. If Austria and Russia, by taking
the new constitution under their protection, could win over Po-
land and Saxony immediately, that would add the crowning blow
to the discomfiture of Berlin. 1 This was, indeed, only a continua-
tion of the Chancellor's previous policy. Of any new departure,
of any independent and specifically Austrian system towards
Poland apart from or in opposition to Russia, there was at that
time no thought.

Leopold at first judged the events at Warsaw less accurately
than Kaunitz had done. He suspected that the King of Prussia
had had a hand in this affair, and that he was scheming to marry
a Hohenzollern to the ' Infanta,' or else to realize his ambitions
upon Dantzic; he also feared that the revolution might lead to
new disturbances in the Republic. 2 But Kaunitz's report of
May 12, together with a reassuring letter from Frederick William,
soon removed these suspicions; and henceforth the Emperor and
his Chancellor were agreed in approving the salutary change in
Poland. 3

1 These ideas in Kaunitz's dispatches to Cobenzl of May 25, and his report to
the Emperor of May 12, V. A., Exped., Russland, and Vortrdge, 1791.

2 Leopold to Kaunitz, May 20, the first expression of the Emperor's opinion
on the Polish revolution that has come to light (printed in Beer, Joseph II, Leopold
II, und Kaunitz, pp. 404 f.). This, together with his letters to Marie Christine of
June 2 and 9 (Wolf, Leopold II und Marie Christine, pp. 231 ff.) show how un-
expected and perplexing the news was to Leopold.

3 The Emperor's apostil to Kaunitz's report of May 12; Frederick William to
Leopold, May 21, Vivenot, op. tit., i, p. 133; cf. Elgin's reports of May 25 and 26,
F. z. D. G. v, pp. 255 ff.

Sybel's contention that Leopold's suggestion to Elgin on May 9 about a general
guarantee of the Polish constitution related to the new constitution, is quite un-
tenable. The news of the coup d'etat at Warsaw reached Vienna only on the ioth,
and Leopold was then in Florence.



Meanwhile, even before getting Leopold's orders, Kaunitz
had felt sure enough of his sovereign's views to act. Immediately
after the news of the revolution arrived, he hastened to order
de Cache at Warsaw and Hartig at Dresden to express the Em-
peror's complete approval of the new constitution and of the
succession in the Saxon House. 1 This friendly advance encour-
aged the Elector Frederick Augustus to turn to Leopold directly
for advice as to the acceptance of the proffered crown. He was
unable to form a decision, he declared, until the constitution of
the Republic and its relations with the neighboring Powers had
been arranged in such a way as would enable him to fulfil both
the obligations imposed by the crown of Poland and his duties
to his hereditary states. The Emperor replied with a very
friendly letter, approving the Elector's scruples and assuring
him of his own favorable attitude, which he believed he could
state was shared by the other Powers. Kaunitz began to make
a great show of zeal on behalf of the Court of Dresden, but he
did not press it for an immediate decision. It was enough for the
moment to bind Saxony to Austria; the final settlement of
Polish affairs would have to wait until he had arrived at a
thorough understanding with Russia. 2

In his dispatches to Louis Cobenzl of May 24 and 25, the
Austrian Chancellor made the first of what was destined to be a
long series of efforts to win Catherine's approval for the new con-
stitution of Poland. With great expenditure of cleverly chosen
arguments he labored to prove that the strengthening of the
Republic was now as much to the advantage of Russia as its
weakening might formerly have been; that the maintenance of
the old anarchy could serve only the insidious schemes of the
Court of Berlin; that even under the new regime Russia could

1 Instructions to de Cache of May 14, repeated the 25; instructions to Hartig,
May 11, V. A., Exped., Polen and Sachsen, 1791.

2 Frederick Augustus to Leopold, May 27, and the Emperor's reply, June 11,
Vivenot, op. cit., i, pp. 147, 166 f.; Kaunitz to Hartig, June 4. This seems to have
been the first correspondence between the two sovereigns with regard to the
Polish crown. The document printed in Vivenot, op. cit., i, p. 106 — ostensibly a
letter from Leopold to the Elector of March 24, 1791 — is the draft of a letter which
in all probability was never sent.


always exercise as much influence in Poland as she needed ; while
if she found it necessary to make some small changes in the con-
stitution, means and opportunities would assuredly not be lacking
before the new order of things had had time to get thoroughly
established. The great thing at present was to outbid Prussia at
Warsaw and Dresden. It would be a capital stroke if the Imperial
Courts could confront the would-be dictators of Europe with a
quadruple alliance of Russia, Austria, Saxony, and Poland. 1 It
was a program in Kaunitz's best style, clear, logical, compre-
hensive, imposing. Nothing could be more adapted to the cardi-
nal principle of the Austrian policy of the past fifty years, for
what more formidable barrier could be reared against Prussian
ambition than a reinvigorated Poland backed by all the might of
Austria and Russia ? It was the last of Kaunitz's great combina-
tions against Prussia, and like so many of his choicest creations it
had one very serious defect. He was badly in error regarding the
real sentiments that reigned on the Neva.

When the news of the Third of May first reached St. Peters-
burg, Cobenzl found the Empress, Potemkin, and all the minis-
ters filled with anger and alarm. There was talk of a concert of
the three neighboring Powers to undo this work of revolution, of
a Counter-confederation, of a new partition. 2 After the first

1 The dispatches of May 24-25 are printed in Vivenot, op. cit., i, pp. 138-145.

2 Cobenzl's report of May 13, V. A., Russland, Berichte, 1701.

Cobenzl wrote: " J'ai trouve l'lmperatrice, le Prince Potemkin et le Comte
Ostermann . . . fort affectes de l'ldee que la Pologne pourroit prendre une Con-
sistence reelle, tandis qu'on regarde ici comme l'lnteret de toutes les Puissances
voisines, qu'Elle reste dans son Etat de Nullite. S. M. me fit la grace de me dire,
qu'il est essentiel de se concerter avec Nous a cet egard. J'ai assure cette Princesse,
que Nous etions toujours prets sur tous les objets possibles. Mais, me dit l'lmpera-
trice, puis-je compter sur vous ? J'ai repondu a S. M. que des que Nous aurons le
moyen, l'Empereur ne connoissoit aucuns bornes a desirer de l'employer pour la
cause de la Russie; a quoi S. M. a repondu, il me faut dans ce moment-ci quelque
chose de plus positif. . . ." Vorontsov believed " que si la chose s'est faite contre
le gr6 du Cabinet de Potsdam, il en sera d'autant plus dispose a. un nouveau Traite
de Partage, qui mettroit fin a tout, bien entendu que les deux Cours Imp£riales
agissent en cela comme en tout d'un parfait concert. . . ." " On ne seroit pas
fach6 s'il resultoit de ce que le Roi de Pologne a entrepris, une scission dans la
Nation Polonoise et des Troubles. Le Prince Potemkin est assez port6 pour l'id6e
de former une Confederation dans les Provinces Polonoises, qui avoisinent la
Russie, et on m'assure que tout le Monde y est disposeV'


flush of anger was over, however, Ostermann began to alter his
tone. After all, he declared, the revolution offered many advan-
tages to the Imperial Courts, especially the chance to form an
alliance with Poland and Saxony, which would be a stinging blow
to Prussia. He was very curious to know what the Court of
Vienna thought of this change, and prodigal of assurances that
Russia would take no action in the matter except in closest agree-
ment with Austria. 1 When Kaunitz's dispatches arrived, the
Vice- Chancellor affirmed that they accorded perfectly with what
he himself had already proposed to the Empress; but he could
not yet say what Her Majesty's final decision would be. Potem-
kin also declared that he agreed entirely with Kaunitz. 2 Other
questions at this time seemed to absorb the attention of the
Russian ministry, which was then in the throes of the final
negotiation with England and Prussia. It was only in the middle
of July that Cobenzl received a half-way definite answer on
Polish affairs, which was to the effect that the Empress would
postpone a decision regarding the new constitution until the
close of the Turkish war, and would then concert her future
course of action with Austria. 3 With that the matter rested.
Both Cobenzl and Kaunitz remained for some time in the com-
fortable conviction that on the Polish question the Russian point
of view was not far removed from the Austrian. What the
Empress' real intentions were, we shall have occasion to see
later. Meanwhile it is necessary to take up the long-dropped
thread of the negotiation for the Austro-Prussian alliance.


Since Bischoffwerder's return from the Austrian capital in
March, the plan which had formed the object of his journey had
been at a standstill. The pretence of negotiating about it had
been kept up through a fitful exchange of memorials and opinions
between Berlin and Vienna; but the great question of the admis-
sion of Russia to the proposed union seemed to offer an insur-

1 Cobenzl's reports of May 17 and June 4, V. A., loc. cit.

2 Cobenzl's report of June 27, ibid.

3 Cobenzl's report of July 19, ibid.


mountable obstacle, and at least on the Austrian side there was
little eagerness to carry the matter further ac present. Kaunitz
was still eloquently opposed to the project; and the Emperor was
well content to delay the affair, as long as there was danger of a
war between his present and his prospective allies. What first
gave a new impetus to the plan was the mission of Lord Elgin to
Leopold, already mentioned in connection with England's back-
down on the Eastern Question. During May and June this
irrepressible young gentleman pursued the Emperor around Italy,
persecuting him with offers for an alliance with England and
Prussia, and with appeals for aid in bringing the Tsarina to
reason. Leopold was not inclined to exert himself overmuch
merely in order to save Pitt's imperiled bark from shipwreck; he
made no binding promises; but he did not mind giving pleasant
assurances of a general character, which kept Elgin in high hopes
and led him to send the most optimistic bulletins to London and
Berlin. From one of these reports, communicated by Ewart, the
Prussian government was informed of the Emperor's wish to have
a confidential agent sent to him by the King, and of his particular
desire to see " the excellent Colonel Bischoffwerder " again. 1

Frederick William at once determined to comply with so
flattering a suggestion. At this time — near the end of May —
the King still believed in the possibility of war with Russia; and
he was encouraged by Elgin's reports to hope that Leopold could
be drawn over to the side of the Triple Alliance, or at least in-
duced to promise his neutrality. Besides, he did not mean to let
England be the first to conclude an alliance with the Emperor;
the principal role belonged to himself, since he had originally
taken the initiative in this matter. In the lengthy instructions
drawn up by the Prussian ministers, Bischoffwerder was ordered
first of all to make sure that Leopold would actively support the
new terms of peace proposed by the Triple Alliance at St. Peters-
burg, and also that he would immediately put a stop to the
chicaneries by which Kaunitz was insidiously protracting the
Austro-Turkish peace congress at Sistova. Once assured on
these points, the envoy was authorized to conclude a treaty of

1 See Appendix VI, 1.


alliance, preferably one between Austria and Prussia alone, to
which England might later be invited to accede. Under no cir-
cumstances was Russia to be admitted to the new union; Leopold
must promise to remain neutral in case of war between the King
and the Empress; and in fact the whole tenor of the instructions
shows clearly that opposition to Russia was intended to be the
cardinal principle of the Austro-Prussian alliance. It was quite in
accordance with that tendency that Bischoffwerder was ordered
to stop en route at Dresden and urge the Elector to accept the
Polish crown immediately, contenting himself with the approval

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 22 of 59)