In Defense Of Stanisław, the Last King Of Poland

Marceli Bacciarelli, Portrait of Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in coronation robes

A nation that has allowed itself to be wiped off the map by any­thing oth­er than sheer brute force must con­front the short­com­ings that brought this about if it wished to con­tin­ue to think of itself as a nation […]. But the implic­a­tions of such a con­front­a­tion were so com­plex and so unpleas­ant that it was easi­er to avoid them in favour of an alto­geth­er sim­pler way out of the prob­lem: to blame Stanisław for everything. 1

One of the reas­ons why I’m so fond of Polish his­tory, is because it is spilled with les­sons that so well apply to the times I live in. Endless times I’ve heard an over­sim­pli­fied judge­ment of a per­son­al­ity as com­plex as the times he lived in. Raise thy hand thee who hath bear no guilt of delu­sion. As much as our human mind might nat­ur­ally tend to laze around, we can­not for­get us able to dis­en­tangle com­plex­ity. I argue, we must.

Note: All block quo­ta­tions are from the book “The Last King of Poland”, from Adam Zamoyski, which in fact rep­res­ents most of the inspir­a­tion for this blo­g­post. 2

The present

His abdic­a­tion was an act of no prac­tic­al sig­ni­fic­ance what­so­ever: his refus­al would have made not one jot of dif­fer­ence. But gen­er­a­tions con­demned to cap­tiv­ity can­not see bey­ond the fact that it was he who signed the sen­tence, and in their hearts reproach him for hav­ing been able to live while his coun­try per­ished. The under­ly­ing charge is that he did not die.” 3

Context is often the key, or at the very least a start­ing point. With this in mind, before deal­ing with the demise of Poland, we must answer the ques­tion of when and where did this hap­pen to begin with. The years of the Commonwealth are pain­fully framed in times tur­bu­lent to the entire world: from the begin­ning of the Great Sejm in 1788, to the final par­ti­tion in 1795, it is neces­sary to ana­lyse the intern­al and the inter­na­tion­al state of affairs of the time.

Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia

It’s 1788. Russia, who has been the pro­tect­or of the Polish Status Quo since 1709 —more on this later—, is now severely worn off by its recur­rent con­flicts with The Porte —as the sub­lime cent­ral gov­ern­ment of the Ottoman Empire is called—, plus a second front with the Swedish, hence its army runs entirely away from Poland. In line with the Enlightenment philo­sophy of the time, the Americans had shown France that a rebel­lion based on Enlightenment prin­ciples, includ­ing nat­ur­al rights and equal­ity for all cit­izens, against an author­it­ari­an regime, could suc­ceed, unfold­ing one of the most rel­ev­ant stream of events in his­tory. As the French estab­lish­ment failed again and again, ever more lib­er­al and des­per­ate in its attempts, to get bread to the popu­lace —among a bazil­lion oth­er more severe issues—, sum­mon­ing the Estates-General was the last resort. While Russia is away, a seg­ment of the mag­nates decides to line with Prussia, ruled by Friedrich Wilhelm II, who two years into his reign, risks being the first Prussian ruler not to add new lands to the roy­al estates. Stanisław rightly dis­trusts Friedrich Wilhelm, who simply seeks con­front­a­tion with­in Polish polit­ics: Stanisław argues, the Prussian policy is to socially divide the Commonwealth, and then «Prussia would offer to drop his sup­port for her party in Poland, in return for which a grate­ful Russia would per­mit her to a second par­ti­tion»4. Stanisław here tries to avoid such divi­sion, and decides to align with the rebels, keep­ing the Commonwealth in a united front, des­pite the fact that this new unity aligns with the most viper­ous of her neighbours.

It’s 1789. In April, Washington becomes the first President of the United States. In May, the Estates-General meet in France, in June the National Assembly is con­vened, defy­ing all tra­di­tion­al order; finally, in July, the Bastille is stormed. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is pub­lished —one of the main inspir­a­tions for our con­tem­por­ary United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—, fur­ther unfold­ing the French crisis, which Stanisław was fol­low­ing closely with ini­tial excite­ment. In September, Warsaw appoints a new depu­ta­tion to pre­pare a new con­sti­tu­tion. In December, Friedrich Wilhelm II per­son­ally encour­ages Poland to reform.

La Liberté guidant le peuple – Eugène Delacroix
La Liberté guid­ant le peuple – Eugène Delacroix

It’s 1790. In March 1790, Prussia being con­cerned about the recent gains of Austria and Russia against the Ottomans, signs a mil­it­ary defence pact with the Commonwealth, filled with Prussian prom­ises such as recov­er­ing Galicia from the Austrians. Soon enough, in July Prussia hes­it­ates, see­ing no real gains, and so she signs the Convention of Reichenbach with Austria in favour of the Status Quo, leav­ing Poland hav­ing ant­ag­on­ised both Austria and Russia and with noth­ing to offer to Prussia. Also in July, Louis XVI accepts a con­sti­tu­tion­al mon­archy, markedly repub­lic­an. In August, diverse mem­bers of the Sejm pro­pose a new form of gov­ern­ment based on mon­arch­ic­al terms, and write the first draft of the con­sti­tu­tion. Two weeks later, Sweden signs peace with Russia.

Manuscript of the Constitution of the 3rd May 1791
Manuscript of the Constitution of the 3rd May 1791

It’s finally 1791. In March, William Pitt the Younger is alarmed at the Russian expan­sion, and enables an alli­ance with Prussia, the Dutch, Sweden, Turkey, and also Poland, to force Russia into sub­mis­sion, but Russian dip­lomacy holds pub­lic opin­ion in England and Pitt wavers, sav­ing Catherine. Comes May, and on the 3rd, the new Polish con­sti­tu­tion is, finally, suc­cess­fully voted. This was received in places like Britain or the United States with great approv­al, com­par­ing the peace­ful Polish revolu­tion to the rivers of blood of the French one. But while the French con­sti­tu­tion is much more repub­lic­an in essence, the Polish one is more mon­arch­ic­al, cent­ral­ized in a hered­it­ary crown. This crown is to be giv­en to the Saxon house upon Stanisław’s death, but the Saxons delay their answer on the offer, rais­ing con­cerns. In the mean­time, Catherine shrieks: «How dare they alter the form of gov­ern­ment that I guar­an­teed!»5, and makes clear that it will be the Russian Policy to over­throw the new Polish order mer­ci­lessly. In September 1791, the French king swears oath to the new French con­sti­tu­tion, and in January 1792, the Treaty of Jassy ends the Russo-Turkish war. Now Russian troops are fully available.

Arrival of Catherine II in Feodosia, by Ivan Aivazovsky, to com­mem­or­ate the recog­ni­tion of the Russian annex­a­tion of Crimea in the treaty of Jassy — yes, that annex­a­tion again.


The last few years have been a whirl­pool of events, changes, treat­ies, shifts of powers, and revolu­tions. And this way we arrived at the key moment, that which, nor Stanisław, nor the bravest Jan III Sobieski, nor any oth­er great hero, could have ruled. Not to say that the entirety of the Polish soci­ety hasn’t made many decisions far above the allow­ance the very Polish sys­tem gave to their rulers, all of which are not to blame to their ruler but to their cit­izens and their tra­di­tions. But here, in a great­er order, we face a chal­lenge that lies in the hands of noth­ing else than luck, or fate, or the arbit­rar­i­ness of his­tory. The French Revolution.

With an army of well over a hun­dred thou­sand men, hardened and well-trained in years of war, well equipped and pre­pared, and ready for even the most pro­trac­ted war, con­sid­er­ing its infin­ite sup­plies of men and resources, Russia pre­pares to invade. Her army is vastly super­i­or to that of the Poles: amount­ing to a total max­im­um of 65000 men, the army had only been raised in the last two years, and at this point, only two rifle factor­ies have been set up in Poland, one of them by private money from Stanisław him­self. There’s no pos­sib­il­ity to buy arms abroad, as all German factor­ies are over­booked in pre­par­a­tions for the war with France. Barracks and stores are not even built yet, the officer corps rep­res­en­ted less than 5 per cent of the total num­ber of men. Poland’s fate depended on the sup­port it could rally.


Portrait of Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, by Giovanni Battista Lampi the Elder
Portrait of Feliks Potocki, by Lampi the Elder

In May 1792, in the little town of Targowica, Feliks Potocki, Seweryn Rzewuski, Ksawery Branicki, and a bunch of oth­er mag­nates, pro­claim a con­fed­er­a­tion and invoke Russian aid. Stanisław and the Sejm almost unan­im­ously decide to fight, and work hard on rais­ing the army’s cap­ab­il­it­ies, while seek­ing the needed sup­port. But Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia declines to fol­low the alli­ance with Poland he him­self archi­tec­ted, in the grounds of the state of affairs being entirely dif­fer­ent to that of the days the alli­ance was sign: just like Stanisław sus­pec­ted, Prussia made up an alli­ance, encour­aged reform, and then promptly dropped their sup­port. The French would not sup­port any­thing but the most rad­ic­al Republicanism, but the British and the Prussian would react to any slight Jacobinism in Poland. And Austria was entirely dragged by their con­flicts with Jacobin France. In this con­text, deser­tion among the Polish troops skyrock­eted, so as much as high pro­file fig­ures seek­ing Russian favour before­hand and reveal­ing mil­it­ary secrets.

It is in this con­text were Stanisław sum­mons an extraordin­ary coun­cil on the 23rd of July, with the attend­ance of the Primate Michał Jerzy Poniatowski, Marshalls Michał Jerzy Mniszech and Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław Sołtan, Ludwik Tyszkiewicz, Antoni Dziekoński, Tomasz Ostrowski, Chancellor Jacek Małachowski, Vice-Chancellor Hugo Kołłątaj and Joachim Chreptowicz, Marshall of the Sejm Stanisław Małachowski and Kazimierz Sapieha, and prince Kazimierz Poniatowski. It was this coun­cil that agreed, by a vote of 7‑to‑5, and with the strong sup­port of the near-Jacobin and very well respec­ted Kołłątaj, to sur­render to Catherine’s request to uncon­di­tion­ally drop the con­sti­tu­tion and join the Confederation of Targowica.

Ultimately, it was the tra­di­tion who kept the army small and unpre­pared. It was the mag­nates who legit­im­ise Russian’s inter­ven­tion. It was the French Revolution who already dis­rup­ted all the dip­lomacy and bal­ance of powers of Europe. And it was a coun­cil of roy­al­ists, repub­lic­ans, Jacobins, bish­ops, and sol­diers, who agreed to surrender.

The Past

Some his­tor­i­ans have traced the root of Poland’s down­fall to the Jagiellonian kinds of the fif­teen and six­teenth cen­tury, oth­ers to the Cossack and Swedish wars of the sev­en­teenth, but to the major­ity of Poles the most obvi­ous crit­ic­al moment is the reign of Stanisław Augustus, and the quest for the decis­ive cause of dis­aster inev­it­ably centres on his per­son. There is a wide­spread con­vic­tion that if he had done one thing or left undone anoth­er, then everything would some­how have been all right.”6

But one more ques­tion arises once this has been dis­puted: how did this whole states of affairs come to be?! Was it pos­sible to be avoided, was it pos­sible to cut it at the roots? Here I always liked to present one argu­ment, at least by how pro­voc­at­ive it is: that Polish sov­er­eignty was already lost long before Stanisław was even born.

Wind back almost a cen­tury. It’s 1697, and the glor­i­ous Jan III Sobieski dies. Poland runs elec­tions, and the Prince de Conti, from the House of Bourbon, is elec­ted. But before he arrives to Poland to take his crown, August of Saxony, second run­ner in the elec­tion, rushes into Poland with a Saxon Army and secures a coron­a­tion by the pro­clam­a­tion of the Bishop of Kujawy, with the pure inten­tion to turn the Commonwealth into an abso­lut­ist and hered­it­ary mon­archy, like that of his own in Saxony. A sac­red elec­tion has been rigged, 35 years before Stanisław was even born.

Carlos II of Spain, the Bewitched, by Juan Carreño
Carlos II of Spain, the Bewitched, by Juan Carreño

It’s 1700, and Spain just entered its war of Succession, upon the death of Charles II “El Hechizado” — I had to study that one a lot in high school. Louis XIV, the sun-king, fought to put his fam­ily on the Spanish throne, at the expense of the fin­ances of his coun­try, which assumed debts it would carry for the rest of the cen­tury, up to the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. At the same time, a young Peter of Russia seeks to recov­er access to the Baltic Sea, attack­ing the Swedish power­house with the alli­ance of Denmark, Prussia, and Saxony — Augustus has entered the war as the king of Saxony alone, but then forced the Commonwealth into battle by his own per­sona. Charles XII of Sweden promptly smashes all of it rivals, and pur­sues Peter into deep Russia. Augustus, iron­ic­ally, act­ively seeks defeat in order to weak­en Poland and pro­ceed with his mon­arch­ic­al plans.

The Battle of Poltava, by Pierre-Denis Martin

It’s 1709, and Charles XII is decis­ively defeated in Poltava and flees to the Ottoman Empire. Prussia offers a bet­ter deal to Peter than that of Augustus: par­ti­tion Poland, between Russia and Prussia. «Es sei nicht prak­tika­bel»7, Peter refuses, at the time Russia is not ready to con­quer the new land, but instead seeks to weak­en the Commonwealth. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia will state in his test­a­ment his will to pro­ceed with the annex­a­tion of Polish ter­rit­ory. A par­ti­tion has been just planned, the seed has been planted. 21 years before Stanisław was even born.

It’s 1717, and Peter is the sole vic­tor of the Great Northern War. Augustus seeks to take con­trol of the Commonwealth, and the nobles con­fed­er­ate and request assist­ance to Peter. Peter accepts, but on his own terms: the Russian army invades, for­cibly paci­fies the coun­try, and sum­mons a con­fed­er­ated Sejm, which runs under strict con­trol of Russian Troops. Known as the Silent Sejm (Sejm Niemy), because only the mar­shal and a few selec­ted oth­er depu­ties were allowed a voice, «with Russian sol­diers “guard­ing” the pro­ceed­ings»8. This Sejm enacts laws favour­able to Poland againts Augustus, like the remov­al of Saxon troops from the Commonwealth, and dis­al­lowed the king to grant any office to for­eign­ers, but oth­ers severely weak­en the Polish State: the army was to be reduced to some­where between 20 to 30 thou­sand sol­diers —while Russia had above 300 thou­sand—, to be fin­anced by crown estates —effect­ively ren­der­ing an army 12000 strong only, due to lim­ited budget—, and estab­lish­ing a fixed State income and expendit­ure —lim­it­ing cent­ral­ised decisions on eco­nomy—, and pro­tect­ing the Liberum Veto. All while Russia would be the power that would guar­an­tee the set­tle­ment9. Poland has just unof­fi­cially become a Russian pro­tect­or­ate, 15 years before Stanisław was even born.

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia, by Lampi the Elder
Portrait of Catherine II of Russia, by Lampi the Elder

It’s the year 1762, and the Seven Years War —which Leon and I like to call, jok­ingly, “World War Zero”— is near­ing its end. So it’s Prussia, exhausted and sur­roun­ded, and just about to be invaded, when Elizabeth of Russia dies, and Peter III suc­ceeds to the Russian throne. Peter III, being a near-psy­cho­path, and fer­vently pro-Prussian, with­draws all Russian troops from the war. Prussia has been just saved in what is known as the —second— Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. The Russian mil­it­ary is enraged, and so is Peter’s wife, Catherine, who plot a coup d’état. Catherine imme­di­ately decides for Stanisław to be the next king of Poland. Another elec­tion has been rigged, two years before Stanisław’s coron­a­tion. Whether he would agree or not made no dif­fer­ence, as Catherine would have simply placed any­one else. The only option was to play along and try to take advant­age of the protection.

Historians like nowadays Adam Zamoyski and Norman Davies, or of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions like Walerian Kalinka and Emanuel Rostworowski, argued in favour of the inev­it­ab­il­ity of the events. I’d add here some­thing that my moth­er used to tell me as a kid, and I sup­pose any oth­er moth­er told to their kids: it’s just too easy to blame someone else, it takes a lot of wis­dom to see one’s own faults.

The Future

The anni­hil­a­tion of Poland and the Napoleonic wars bred gen­er­a­tions of pat­ri­ots ded­ic­ated to act­ive struggle. As they formed their legions and pre­pared their upris­ings, each as ill-starred as that of 1794, they were in no mood for reflec­tion on the real causes of Poland’s down­fall.”10

In the after­math of the Targowica Confederation and the Second Partition, Stanisław was severely humi­li­ated. Catherine would prom­ise pro­tec­tion of the Polish lands, to then gib­ber ideas of Russian pro­tec­tion to Polish Freedoms —The Golden Freedoms, bene­fit­ing a pri­ori mostly mag­nates— and the need for pun­ish­ment to the rebels — the Constitutionals. She would prom­ise pro­tec­tion of the import­ant fig­ures, only to later dis­mantle the army and impris­on leaders.

The ori­gin­al plan of the Council of July 23rd was to sub­mit to Russian dom­in­ance and take over the Targowica Confederation by sheer num­bers — the ori­gin­al con­fed­er­ates were in dis­ar­ray, and here a group of twelve widely respec­ted men have just joined it. Kołłątaj him­self signed his own acces­sion to Targowica, but by December, it became clear to him that col­lab­or­a­tion with Russia would be unfeas­ible «[…] for, as I presently per­ceive, all the courts are now inter­ested solely in unit­ing against the French, and as a reward for all their costs they intend a divi­sion of Poland»11, as he wrote to Małachowski.

They reas­sessed their plan: they were to dis­so­ci­ate from the King and the policy they’ve just agreed. They now blamed him, cir­cu­lated pamph­lets across the coun­try that it was all Stanisław’s mach­in­a­tions alone, the Polish army was well sup­plied and ready to fight. Books cir­cu­lated blam­ing Stanisław for treas­on and indif­fer­ence: «sam stał się oboięt­num tilko świadkiem tego, co seym równie dla niego, iak dla nar­odu, przed­siębrał» 12. They were writ­ten by Kołłątaj.

The plan was­n’t to insult Stanisław, but to build the plat­form for a new policy. In order to carry on the struggle, they had to show that vic­tory was pos­sible. In order to per­suade people of that, they had first to per­suade them that vic­tory had been with­in reach in 1792, and that the Polish nation was only robbed of it by a num­ber of cir­cum­stances, the most import­ant being the king’s betray­al.13

The Scapegoat

The ori­gin­al Targowican had dis­ap­peared from the stage, and the new-join­ers from the Council have just leave as well, blam­ing Stanisław for everything. And Stanisław was there, alone, in the hands of the Russian min­is­ter Bulgakov. All over Europe, dip­lo­mats knew that Stanisław had just became the scapegoat.

Execution of Louis XVI – copperplate engraving from 1794
Execution of Louis XVI – cop­per­plate engrav­ing 1793

During the Kościuszko upris­ing, Stanisław tried to step in, if only to paci­fy the European courts that feared Poland might become the next France. European polit­ics were rad­ic­al­ised: have no king and you’re a Jacobine to be smashed by the Ancient Order, put a king and nobody will trust you as a revolu­tion­ary. There was no middle-ground, and hardly any­body would find an equilibrium.

Tadeusz Kościuszko falling wounded in the battle of Maciejowice, by Jan Bogumił Plersz
Tadeusz Kościuszko fall­ing wounded in the battle of Maciejowice, by Jan Bogumił Plersz

The upris­ing failed, as it was doomed to do, and Catherine was determ­ined to cleanse the “Jacobin dis­ease”, incar­cer­at­ing all of those who had taken part in the Uprising. Stanisław begged Suvorov —one of the greatest mil­it­ary com­mand­ers of all times— mercy for the wounded, tried to stop the loot­ing of the Polish insignia, and even tried to recycle the Cadet Corps into a high school, to pre­serve its exist­ence — all to no avail.

When the last par­ti­tion was signed, Kraków looted by the Prussians before giv­ing her to the Austrians, and so Warsaw looted by the Russians before giv­ing her to the Prussians, Stanisław was held in Grodno. He exchange cor­res­pond­ence with all the fig­ures of Europe, try­ing to assert some influ­ence in help­ing the people of Poland. Eventually, when things seem to have cooled down, Catherine agreed to free him, though nev­er to live in Austria, but in Italy. But in the last moment, Catherine deman­ded he be moved to Moscow. Stanisław knew that this meant he’d be incar­cer­ated in Russia for the rest of his days. The French were vic­tori­ous against the Prussians and Austrians, and General Bonaparte was sweep­ing through Italy: «Catherine would not dream of allow­ing the king of Poland, that potent sym­bol of the injustice of the three mon­arch­ies, to go wan­der­ing in Europe». Stanisław was a host­age in Russia, again because of the French Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole, by Horace Vernet.
Napoleon Bonaparte lead­ing his troops over the bridge of Arcole, by Horace Vernet.

When Catherine died, Tsar Paul changed Russian policy towards Poland for a much softer one. Tsar Paul him­self seem to have told to Stanisław that he believed Stanisław was his fath­er, but this makes no sense, Paul was born before Stanisław and Catherine even met for the first time.

As the tri­part­ite con­ven­tion has agreed to remove the name of Poland from all dip­lo­mat­ic doc­u­ments, and the Prussians took over the remain­ders of Stanisław’s prop­erty back in Poland, Stanisław suffered a stroke, and died unex­pec­tedly on the 12th of February, 1798. He was bur­ied, on orders of Paul, on the Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg.

The romantic move­ment and the Napoleonic Wars that fol­lowed did more harm than good to his repu­ta­tion, for enlightened Stanisław was scarcely good mater­i­al for romantic poets inter­ested in intu­ition and emo­tion rather than ration­al­ism and realpolitik.

Adam Mickiewicz (daguer­rotype, 1842)

Polish poets of the Romantic peri­od inher­ited only fail­ure, and they did their utmost to give it mean­ing. Mickiewicz used the sym­bol­ism of the Crucifixion to exalt Poland, which he rep­res­en­ted as the Christ of nations, whose suf­fer­ing was not only glor­i­ous but redempt­ive as well. As a res­ult, the Poles began to elev­ate such bloody fias­cos as the Confederation of Bar into expres­sions of tri­umph. Suffering or a grim death on some for­got­ten bat­tle­field became ends in them­selves. And Stanisław had not suffered and he had not died in battle.14

The Present, again

Polish his­tory is ter­ribly unknown to the world. In high school back in Spain, I saw the his­tory of the world as the his­tory of the big play­ers, were Poland was not event remotely in the list. The edu­ca­tion cur­ricula of most coun­tries barely men­tions Poland as “the place where a lot of bad stuff happened in WWII”, which is ter­ribly sad to say the least. But again, the ques­tion that needs to be asked is when and where did this hap­pen, and how did it come to be. And play­ing the blam­ing game leads nowhere, the very Polish his­tory is a les­son of this.

The philo­soph­er Immanuel Kant defined enlight­en­ment as the lib­er­a­tion of man from his self-induced con­di­tion of defi­ciency or self-abase­ment. Polish soci­ety has been in such a con­di­tion since the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, fight­ing a los­ing emo­tion­al and spir­itu­al battle against real­ity. It is only when that struggle is over that the Poles will be able to look at their his­tory with dis­pas­sion­ate reas­on. That day has yet to come. History is still, for most of them, a mor­al­ity play. 15

  1. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p 453–454
  2. The Last King of Poland, ISBN 0−224−03548−7
  3. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 459
  4. The Last King of Poland, The Great Seym, p. 311.
  5. The Last King of Poland, The Nation with the King, p. 347,
  6. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 459.
  10. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 454.
  11. The Last King of Poland, Nemesis, p. 393. Itself a quote from a let­ter to Małachowski, 13 XII 92. See also Konfeferacya Targowicka, Smoleński Władysław, p. 377, for example here
  12. The Establishment and Fall of the Polish Constitution of the 3rd May, chapter 4. Archive in Polish avail­able here.
  13. The Last King of Poland, Nemesis, p. 394.
  14. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 461.
  15. The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 462

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