William Richard Morfill.

Poland online

. (page 14 of 23)
Online LibraryWilliam Richard MorfillPoland → online text (page 14 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

rumour that the three neighbouring powers would
terminate their jealousies at the expense of the terri-
tories of the Republic ; that the only method of pre-
serving Poland was to establish such a constitution as
would secure its independence ; that with this view,
there had been prepared a plan of a constitution,
founded principally on those of England and the
United States of America, and adapted as much as
possible to the particular circumstances of the coun-
try. In support of the information relative to foreign
powers, the king communicated to the diet some des-
patches received from the ministers of the Republic
at foreign courts, stating how eager those powers were
to oppose all settlement of the constitution, and that
everything seemed to announce their hostile designs
on Poland. The king desired that the plan which he
submitted to them might be read, and an important
debate upon it took place. One person only opposed
it, and was allowed to have perfect freedom in the
utterance of his opinion. The king would not swear
to the new form of government till he had been re-
leased from the pacta conventa which the members of
the diet at once agreed to do. All the representatives
of the palatinates of Volhynia and Podolia declared
themselves against the new constitution. These were
the fruits of the baneful confederation of Targowica,
planned by the traitors to their country. One of the
chief opponents was Suchorzewski, who resisted the
plan that the crown should be made hereditary. He
advanced from his seat and threw himself at the foot


of the throne. We must remember that theatrical
gestures were in vogue at the time, as when Burke
threw the dagger on the floor of the House of Com-
mons. He suppHcated the king to renounce the idea
of hereditary succession, which he declared would
be fatal to the liberty of Poland. Others who
supported him alleged the instructions of their pala-
tinates, which prevented them from supporting the
measure. They urged that at least the proposal
should be taken ad deliberandum as every other new
law was taken ; but a great number of voices dis-
agreed with this. " We must pass the whole measure
this day ; we will not depart from this place till the
whole work is accomplished." To this the opposition
replied, " We will not depart until it is abandoned."
We see by these struggles what perverse elements the
Republic contained, and are again reminded of the
French noblesse at the Revolution. The uncontrolled
license which they enjoyed might well be character-
ised in the wise words of Stanislaus Leszczynski,
Siimma libertas etiain perire volentibus.

The king listened in silence ; at length Zabiello,
the deputy of Livonia, entreated the speaker no
longer to oppose the wishes of the majority, which
exceeded the opposition in the proportion of at least
ten to one ; at the same time nearly all the senators
and deputies quitting their seats, filled the middle of
the hall, and surrounding the throne demanded with
loud voices that the king should take the oath to
the ne>y constitution. Stanislaus then called to him
the Bishop of Cracow, and took the oath at his
hands ; and the better to be seen and heard by the



assembly he mounted on the seat and swore aloud.
A great majority in the diet held up their right hands
and followed his example. The diet had previously
bound itself to decide all questions by a plurality oi
votes. Much as Stanislaus was blameworthy in
other matters in his career, it must be confessed that
on this occasion he acted with true patriotism and

The king then proposed that they should all go to
the cathedral and repeat the oath before God at the
altar. All the bishops, all the senators, with a great


number of the deputies, accompanied the king to
the cathedral, and there again solemnly engaged
before God and their country to maintain the new
government. It was by this time seven o'clock in
the evening. A Te Deum was sung, and the new
constitution was announced to the people by the
discharge of two hundred cannon. There were only
about thirty or forty deputies who did not follow the
king to the cathedral. The diet was now adjourned
to the 5th of May. The opposing deputies, seeing
that all resistance was useless, resolved to protest
against the new constitution by the publication of a


manifesto, after which they quietly retired to their

A great event had,* indeed, taken place on this
important day in the annals of the unfortunate
country. The Poles felt that things must be
mended, and we must always give them credit for
the self-sacrifice which they showed on this occasion.
It was, indeed, a splendid victory c-ver prejudices,
but the remedy came too late. It is said that on the
eve of this memorable day the minister of one of the
foreign powers had endeavoured, by distributing fifty
thousand ducats in bribes, to prevent the enactment
of the new constitution, which, if faithfully adhered
to, might yet have saved Poland, mutilated as she
already was. On the 4th of the same month
eighteen deputies published their manifesto against
the proceedings of the day before, and the deputy,
Suchorzewski, sent back to the king a decoration
which he had once received from him.

In the sitting of the 5th of May the new form of
constitution was again proposed, and signed unani-
mously by the members present. We give here a
short summary of the chief articles of this important

New Constitution of Poland as established May 3,
1791 : —

1. The Roman Catholic was to be the dominant
religion, but freedom was assured to all other forms
of faith.

2. All prerogatives granted by Casimir the Great
in the statutes of Wislica and elsewhere were re-
newed, confirmed, and declared to be inviolable.


The article then goes on to say : " We acknowledge
the rank of the noble equestrian order in Poland to
be equal to all degrees of nobility ; all persons of
that order to be equal among themselves, not only in
the eligibility to all posts of honour, trust, or emolu-
ment, but in the enjoyment of all privileges and
prerogatives, personal liberty, and security of im-
movable and movable property : nor shall we suffer
the least encroachment on either by the supreme
national power, on which the present form of govern-
ment is established, under any pretext whatsoever ;
consequently we regard the preservation of personal
security and property as by law ascertained to be a
tie of society, and the very essence of civil liberty,
which ought to be considered and respected for

A great deal of the phraseology here is in the
style of constitution writing which was in vogue
in the eighteenth century, including, among other
things, general reflections upon the rights of man.
There is something vague about this article, and it
is difficult to see how, if the nobles were to be
guaranteed in all their privileges, the important
fourth article on the new position of the villages
could be fully carried out.

3. The law made by the diet then sitting with
respect to the burghers, giving them the right of
representation, was to be carried out.

4. The important article on the condition of the
peasants shall be here quoted in full : " The agricul-
tural class, the most numerous in the nation, conse-
quently forming the most considerable part of its force,


we receive under the protection of national law and
government, enacting that, whatever liberties, grants,
and conventions between the proprietors and villagers,
either individually or collectively, may be entered
into authentically in future, such agreements shall
import mutual and reciprocal obligations, binding not
only the present contracting parties, but even their
successors by inheritance or acquisition. Thus,
having secured to the proprietors every advantage to
which they have a right from their villagers ( !), and
willing to encourage most effectually the population
of our country, zve publisJi and proclaim a perfect and
entire liberty to all people, either who may be newly
coming to settle, or those who, having emigrated,
would return to their native country, and we declare
most solemnly that any person coming into Poland
from whatever part of the world, or returning from
abroad, as soon as he sets his foot on the territory of
the Republic becomes free, and at liberty to exercise
his industry, wherever and in whatever manner he
pleases, to settle either in towns or villages, to farm
and rent lands and houses, on tenure and contracts,
for as long a term as may be agreed on ; with liberty
to remain or to remove, after having fulfilled the
obligations he may have voluntarily entered into.'*'

This article is surely somewhat vague ; as no
peasants could possibly leave their masters' estates
without leave, the expression about every man being
free as soon as he returns and sets foot upon Polish
territory, reads like a piece of clap-trap, borrowed
from foreign legislation.

5. Form of government. All power to be derived


from the will of the people. Three distinct powers
to compose the government of the Polish nation :

a. Legislative power in the states assembled.

b. Executive power in the king and council.

c. Judicial power in jurisdictions existing or to be

6. The diet or the legislative power. The diet shall
be divided into two houses : the house of deputies and
the senate, where the king is to preside. The former
being the representative and central point of supreme
authority, shall possess the pre-eminence in the legis-
lature ; therefore all bills were to be decided first in
this house, both general laws affecting constitutional,
civil, and criminal matters, and the right of taxation,
and also particular laws, questions of peace and war,
ratification of treaties, and other matters. The king
was to issue his proposals by means of the circular
letters sent before the sejmiki (petty diets) to every
palatinate for deliberation, and these would come
before the house by means of the posly or deputies.
The latter were to have precedence of all private bills.

The senate was to consist of bishops, palatines,
castellans, and ministers, under the presidency of the
king, who was to have but one vote, and the casting
vote in case they were equal, which he might give
either personally or by a message sent to the house.
Every general law that passed formally through the
house of deputies was to be sent immediately to the
senate, and was to be either accepted or suspended
till further public deliberation. If accepted, it
became a law in all its force ; if suspended, it was to
be resumed at the next diet ; and, if it was then


again passed by the house of deputies, the senate
must also pass it. In the case of a particular law, as
soon as it was passed by the house of deputies, and
sent up to the senate, the votes of both houses were
to be taken together, and the majority, if in its
favour, should be taken to constitute the law a de-
cree, and to express the will of the nation in the
matter. Those senators and ministers who, from their
share in the executive power, were accountable to the
Republic, were not to have an active voice in the
diet, but might be present in order to give necessary

The diets were to be summoned every two years,
and the length of session should be determined by
the law concerning diets. These two last enactments
were of great importance : the first as recognising
the responsibility of the public officers, who had dis-
played in Poland on many occasions great political
corruption, and, secondly, as effecting the annihilation
of the liberurn veto, which was further emphasised by
the clause — the majority of votes shall decide every-
thing and everywhere. An extraordinary diet was
to be held every twenty-five years for the revision
of the constitution, and such alterations as might be

7. Having secured to the Polish nation the right of
enacting laws for themselves, the constitution now
proceeded to entrust to the king and his council the
highest power of executing the laws. This council was
to be called Straz. The duty of the executive power
was to see the laws properly carried out ; it could not
make laws, nor interpret them. It was forbidden to


contract public debts ; to declare war, to conclude
a treaty or any diplomatic act ; it was only allowed to
carry on negotiations with foreign courts^-and facili-
tate temporary arrangements, always with reference
to the diet. The Crown of Poland was declared here-
ditary. The dynasty of the future king was to begin
in the person of Frederick Augustus, Elector of
Saxony, with the right of inheritance to the crown to
his male descendants. The eldest son of the reigning
king was to succeed his father. To the nation was
reserved the right of electing to the throne any
other house or family after the extinction of the

The king's person was to be sacred and inviolable ;
as no act could proceed immediately from him, he
could not be in any manner responsible to the nation ;
he was not an absolute monarch, but the father and
head of the people ; his revenues, as fixed by the
pacta conventa, were to be rigidly guaranteed to him.
All public acts and the coin of the realm must bear
his name ; he could pardon criminals condemned to
death, except in the case of offences against the State.
In the time of war he was to have the supreme com-
mand of the national forces. With the consent of
the diet he could appoint military commanders. He
could also regulate the appointments to the executive

8. Judicial power. It was declared that every
citizen ought to know where to seek justice, and
every transgressor where to discern the hand of the
government, a general statement very much in
keeping with the eighteenth -century axioms of


The following courts were therefore
established : —

Primary for each palatinate and district, com-
posed of judges chosen at the sejmiky who were
always to be ready to administer justice. From
these courts appeals lay to the high tribunals,
erected one for each of the three provinces, into
which the kingdom was divided. These changes
were very important as putting an end to the local
tyrants, who had administered justice in their dis-
tricts according to their own ideas and interests.
Separate courts were established for the towns ; each
province was to have a court of referendaries for the
trial of cases relating to the peasantry, who were all
at the same time declared free. Lastly, a committee
was to be formed for making a new civil and criminal
code by the help of persons whom the diet should
elect for the purpose.

We have given in justice to the Poles the main
features of this remarkable constitution at some
length. It is a very interesting document, and the
terms of it are not as well known as they should be.

But how was this constitution received by the
neighbouring powers ?

The King of Prussia sent a letter complimentary,
but at the same time full of duplicity, congratulating
Stanislaus upon the new constitution. The old
enemy of the Republic, Frederick the Great, had
died in 1786, and had been succeeded by his nephew,
Frederick William IL, a much weaker man, who
allowed his policy to be directed by unscrupulous
and incompetent ministers. The Russians openly


protested against the constitution, and moved troops
into Polish territory. The convention of Targowica
was already beginning to exercise its baneful effects.
On June 8, 1792, the King of Prussia wrote again to
Stanislaus, letting it be seen very clearly that he was
prepared to assist Catherine. In their perplexity the
Poles now appealed to the German Emperor, the
weak Francis II., but received an evasive and un-
favourable answer. The enemies of the Republic
were now pressing upon the country from all
quarters, assisted by the traitors within her own
borders. In consequence of the measures taken by
the confederates of Targowica, the king was obliged
to annul the new constitution, which promised so
much for the country, and agree to the re-establish-
ment of that which had previously existed. He was
even obliged to order the army under Prince
Poniatowski, his nephew, to be delivered up to the
Russian general, Branicki, a renegade Pole ! When
we remember all these difficulties we may perhaps be
led to form a more merciful opinion of the character
of the unfortunate Stanislaus.

Many people, however, of influence in the country
refused to have matters arbitrarily changed in this
way. Malachowski, Potocki, Sapieha, Solticki, and
others, would not consent to a restitution of the old
vicious system of government, and rather than accept
such terms, resolved to throw the king overboard.
The Prussians, however, now brought active inter-
ference to bear upon the Poles ; a declaration was
issued by them, in which they complained that the
Poles had changed their mode of government, with-


out the knoivledge or participation of the neigJiboiiring
friendly powers. A body of troops was now sent
into the country under General Mollendorf. The
Prussian troops entered Thorn on January 24, 1793,
and Danzig soon after became completely a Prussian
town. The Government of Poland hereupon (Feb-
ruary 3rd) issued a protest at Grodno, signed by
Stanislaus, Felix Potocki, and Alexander Sapieha.
Before the final appeal to arms, there was to be one
more constitutional struggle at the diet of Grodno,
which terminated on November 24, 1793, at nine
o'clock in the morning. In the same year the second
treaty of partition was signed between Prussia and
Russia. The former power acquired the remainder
of Great Poland, and the Russian boundary was
advanced to the centre of Lithuania and Volhynia.
By this second partition Austria received nothing.
She was fully occupied with France, and the division,
as the German historian says, took place as it were
behind her back.

The people, maddened by the national dishonour
and the great losses of their territory, now rose under
the celebrated Thaddeus Kosciuszko, by birth a
Lithuanian, a noble-minded patriot and excellent
general. Kosciuszko marched upon Warsaw, which
was invested by the Prussian troops, and compelled
them to raise the siege. Unfortunately, however,
some massacres were committed by the popular
party there, as also at Wilno ; which caused some
Poles, including many of the clergy, to stand aloof
from the insurgents ; Stanislaus was such a cypher
that he was neglected by all parties. Suvorov, the

VU 01«/x^yi.6k



Russian general, now entered tlie country, and
Kosciuszko was defeated and taken prisoner at the
battle of Macieiowice, near Warsaw, on October i,
1794 ; there is no truth, however, in the assertion that
he exclaimed on that occasion, ''Finis Polonicc ;''
this he denied to the day of his death. We have an
interesting account of this battle in the " Notes of my
Captivity in Russia," of the poet Niemcewicz. He
writes as follows : " On the eve of the most unlucky
day in my life, a day in which 1 lost my liberty, and
witnessed with the greatest pain the events which
precipitated the total ruin of my native country, I was
calm and even merry. The house, #here we were,
had been plundered and laid waste, as were all others
which the Russians had passed. It belonged
formerly to the family of Macieiowski, and after-
wards to that of Zamojski. In the drawing-room on
the first floor were to be seen family portraits of
primates, chancellors, generals, bishops, and others.
All these gentlemen had their eyes put out and
their faces cut with swords, and mangled by the
Cossacks." He then goes on to say how the en-
gagement began early on the following morning:
** General Kosciuszko, apprehending at the beginning
of the battle that the enemy would lodge themselves
in the village, which covered our left wing, gave orders
to set it on fire. As soon as the red balls were thrown,
flames and curling clouds of smoke rose to the skies ;
these flames and this smoke, and the poor peasants
of the village, with their wives and children in tears,
rushing to the wood in the attempt to save themselves,
recall to my mind the most cruel scene I have ever



witnessed." Niemcewicz was himself wounded and
taken prisoner. " Between four and five o'clock in
the evening, we saw a detachment of soldiers ap-
proaching •head-quarters, and carrying upon a hand-
barrow, hastily constructed, a man half-dead. This
was General Kosciuszko. His head and body,
cov^ered with blood, contrasted in a dreadful manner
with the livid paleness of his face. He had on his
head a large wound from a sword, and three on his
back above the loins, from the thrusts of a pike. He
could scarcely breathe." Niemcewicz and Kosciuszko
were carried captives to St. Petersburg, and remained
in prison till the death of Catherine. On the
accession of Paul they were both released, and
allowed to leave the country. Niemcewicz has
described with great minuteness their interview with
Paul, and winds up with the following tribute to the
character of that eccentric man, of whom we so often
hear nothing but abuse : " He said himself, and I have
no doubt sincerely, that if he had reigned at the time,
far from co-operating in the partition of Poland, he
would have been strongly opposed to it."

As this is the last occasion on which Kosciuszko
will be mentioned in our history, it may be as well to
give the chief facts in the life of this illustrious man.
He was sprung from a noble but poor Lithuanian
family, and was born on February i6, 1746, at
Mereczow Szczyzna, in the palatinate of Novvogrodek,
near the birth-place of the poet Mickiewicz. After
he had finished his studies, carried on both at Warsaw
and Paris in the corps of cadets, he entered the
service as an officer of engineers. But owing to an



unfortunate attachment, in which the friends of the
lady refused to recognise his suit, he left his native
country again for France about the time when the
war between England and her North American
colonies broke out. Kosciuszko sailed for Phila-
delphia, and on his arrival joined the American
army as a volunteer, and was conspicuous for his
bravery at the battles of Saratoga and Yellowsprings.
Washington made him a brigadier, and afterwards
Governor of West Point on the Hudson,

When peace was signed in 1783 between Great
Britain and the United States, Kosciuszko returned
to Poland, and led a retired life till the time when the
conclusion of an alliance with Russia, in 1790, seemed
to give a hope of the restoration of something like its
old dignity to his country, which for some time had
been overrun by foreign troops. Kosciuszko was then
named brigadier-general, and when the confederates
of Targowica had enabled the Russians to invade the
country again, he distinguished himself at Zielence
and Dubienka (1792). But the fatal weakness of King
Stanislaus neutralised all his efforts, and in conjunc-
tion with some others of the most promising Polish
officers, he was obliged to quit his native country for
fear of the vengeance of the Russians, who were
now triumphant. This occurred in August, 1792 ;
Kosciuszko betook himself to France again, where
the National Assembly accorded him the title of
French citizen. After this time we find him residing
at Leipzig and Dresden. But in 1794 he returned to
his native country, then in the agonies of her dis-
solution. He was now chosen head of the national


army, but, as previously mentioned, was taken pri-
soner by the Russians at Macieiowice. We have
already spoken of his release by Paul, together with
many other Polish prisoners. The Tsar even offered
him a high military position in Russia. But
Kosciuszko refused all his gifts and repaired to the
United States. Here he remained eighteen months,
and then returned to Europe. The first country he
visited in the old continent was France, in the hope
that there he would be able to do something for the
restoration of the independence of Poland. The
government, however, of France would do nothing
for him, but the people generally received him with
cordiality. He was invited to a great banquet at

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryWilliam Richard MorfillPoland → online text (page 14 of 23)