The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795)


By H. Kozlowski

Maps: The New Cambridge Modern  History Atlas, 1970





1. August II


August II

The Polish Commonwealth entered the critical stage and the decline was on the way. Following election was one of the most dismal episodes in Polish parliamentary history. The three principal candidates were king’s Jan III son Jakub, German Elector of Saxony and French Prince – de Conti. Jakub Sobieski was seized by Saxon troops, Prince de Conti was elected but a small group of malcontents 'elected' separately Friedrich Augustus, who marched into Poland at the head of a Saxon army. He was crowned in Krakow as Augustus II of Poland. It was the first time that a deceased monarch's son had not been elected to succeed him; that the rightful candidate had been debarred from the throne by military force; and that the Poles had acquired a German king, which went against a long tradition of keeping German hegemony at arm's length.


The twenty-seven-year-old Augustus was known as Augustus the Strong. He was not a stupid man, and he intended to turn the Commonwealth into a centralized monarchical state. Like Sobieski he saw war as the surest way to gain prestige and a free hand to carry out his plans.


In the pacta conventa he promised to bring Ukraine and Podolia, with the fortress of Kamieniec, back to Poland. Soon after the election he determined upon and prosecuted a war with Turkey as the first step in the seeming fulfillment of his promises. The conflict was not long drawn out, for the Porte, after a series of long and disastrous wars with Sobieski and Austria was exhausted. The allied forces of Poland and Saxony, under Field Hetman Felix Potocki, won a brilliant victory at Podhayce in 1698, which hastened the conclusion of the peace at Karlowice (1699), by the terms of which Austria received Transylvania and Hungary as far as the Save; Azov was ceded to Russia; and Ukraine, and Podolia with Kamieniec came back to Poland. Poland in return, abandoned all claims to Wallachia and Moldavia. This peace marks the end of hostilities between Poland and Turkey.


Now August turn his attention to the north. Together with Peter the Great of Russia, he planned a joint war against Sweden. They signed an agreement with King of Denmark and went to war on Sweden.


The Great Northern War began in 1700 with unexpected Swedish victories over Denmark, and particularly over Peter the Great at the Battle of Narva. After Narva, instead of advancing against Russia he turned against Augustus II, thus giving Peter the Great the necessary time for reforming his army and crushing internal troubles, while in Poland the Swedish invasion created only misery and division. For Charles XII tried to force upon the Poles a king who would be his subservient ally. Though he chose an excellent candidate, Stanislaw Leszczynski, that election in 1704 was obviously illegal. A large part of the Poles, as well as an important faction in Lithuania, remained loyal to Augustus II in spite of his deplorable policy. Finally Charles had the good idea of invading Saxony where he pinned down Augustus and extorted his abdication of the Polish throne. Stanislaw I was king of Poland but after Charles was defeated by the Russians (Poltava 1709), Augustus reascended the Polish throne. He was now little more than the Tsar's client, dependent on his support and protection.


The Seym of 1712 reached deadlock on various reforms put forward by Augustus, whereupon he brought in troops from Saxony. This had the effect of rallying the opposition, which in 1715 formed a Confederation. Conflict between Augustus and the Seym almost ended in civil war in 1717, only prevented by a Russian offer of mediation; 18,000 Russian troops surrounded the chamber where the deputies met, they were denied the right to speak whilst the Russian "mediator" dictated the Russian " solution". This Seym became known as the "Silent Seym" and the Republic became little more than a Russian client state; this was the start of the Russian "Protectorate" in which Poland was forced to reduce her standing army. The fact that over two hundred and fifty years later the whole of Eastern Europe was still infested with these 'friendly protectors' testifies to the brilliance of Tsar Peter's policy. Poland's internal and external affairs were now the business of Russia, and to a lesser extent of Prussia and Austria, since Poland had to be kept isolated. The last part of the reign of Augustus II, until his death in 1733, was for the country a real “dark age.” The growing opposition against the king, this time entirely justified by his desire to establish an absolute form of government and by his intrigues with Poland’s neighbors, made any constructive reform plan impossible.



2. Stanisław Leszczyński


Before the election, at the so-called Convocation Seym, the Poles decided to exclude all foreign candidates and amidst great enthusiasm the primate, on September 12, proclaimed Stanislaw Leszczynski king of Poland. Leszczynski had been able to reach that country by secretly crossing Germany, but his election, signed by about twelve thousand voters, was undoubtedly legal, and expecting French and Swedish assistance through the Baltic he moved to Danzig. Help was indeed badly needed because Russia, supported by Austria and with Prussia s silent approval, decided to enforce the election of Frederick Augustus of Saxony (Augustu’s II son), as King Augustus III, after abandoning the extravagant idea of offering the throne of Poland to the Infante of Portugal. Under the control of the Russian army which occupied Praga, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, no more than a thousand voters signed the fake election of Augustus III. France declared war on Austria and started the War of the Polish Succession. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanislaw Leszczynski was given the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation, and Augustus III ascended the Polish throne.



3. August III


August III, Poland's new monarch, was obese, indolent, virtually incapable of thought and drunkard as his father was. He reigned for thirty years, but spent only twenty-four month of that time in Poland, since he felt more at home in Saxony. The only redeeming feature of Augustus III was a love for beauty inherited from his father, who had made Dresden one of the artistic centers of Europe. Augustus II had entertained great ideas for rebuilding Warsaw and brought architects from Dresden to draw up plans. Augustus III had realized some of those plans, but still Poland had become the Sick Man of Europe, a laughing stock to foreigners who believed strongly in progress and efficient government. It had lost the will as well as the ability to conduct a policy or to defend itself. August III died in 1763.



4. Stanislaw August Poniatowski


Stanislaw Poniatowski

In 1764, Stanislaw Antoni Poniatowski, supported by Russia, was elected King of Poland taking the name of Stanislaw II Augustus. He was fascinated by England and its politics. He spent some time in Paris and St.Petersburg , where he became the official lover of future Russian Empress Catherine. With this election a new era dawned in Poland. Fiscal and military commissions were established. A national customs tariff was introduced and the project for municipal reform was commissioned. In addition, the king founded "College of Chivalry", the first entirely secular academy for the training of military and administrative cadres.


When the project for constitutional reform was laid before the Seym, which included the abolition of the veto, Russia and Prussia threatened war if it were not withdrawn and if the Seym were not dissolved. Alarmed at the renewal taking place in Poland, Catherine and Frederick (Prussian king) decided to start a hare which would embarrass Poland internationally, revive the conservative anarchist elements, and generally foul up the political scene. The king and his supporters had little room for maneuver. The Seym assembled in a capital full of Russian troops. The only course was to bow to Russian demands, which included the acceptance by the Seym of five principles which Catherine then solemnly vowed to'protect' in the name of Poland liberties. These principles (free election; absolute rule of the veto; the right to renounce allegiance to the king; the szlachta's right exclusively to hold office and land; the landowner's power of life and death over his peasants) were effective barricade against any possibility of reform. Polish society had awoken from the pacifist slumber of the Saxon era, and many refused to follow the 'reasonable' course favored by the king.




5. Bar Confederation


In 1768 a Confederation was formed in city Bar. It lacked leadership of serious caliber and its program consisted of windy phrases about the faith and national freedom. The Russians put pressure on the king to declare himself against the Confederation. France intervened by sending money to the Confederates and encouraging Turkey to declare war on Russia. The king, who had been trying at all costs to avoid civil war, was left with no choice. The forces of the crown joined the Russian troops and defeated the Confederates. The magnates who had joined the Confederation went into exile, but over 5,000 captured szlachta were sent to Siberia.



6. The First Partition of Poland 1772


Russia wanted to keep Poland docile, but Prussia was interested in 'eating up' various Polish provinces. Frederick the Great (king of Prussia) had already worked out a plan for weaning Austria away from France and for binding her to Russia and Prussia - by dragging her into a tripartite despoliation of Poland. On August 5-th, 1772 the first partition of Poland was agreed. Prussia took 36,000 square km with 580,000 inhabitants; Austria 83,000 square km with 2,650,000 inhabitants; and Russia 92,000 square km with 1,300,000 inhabitants.


The three Powers determined to carry out some window-dressing, and insisted that the Polish Seym ratify the partition treaties. Prearranged deputies were elected, protected by foreign troops. Even so, many delegates raised havoc in the Seym, refusing to allow the ratification to proceed. Russia and Prussia threatened to seize even more territory, so the Seym had no alternative but to ratify the treaties of partition on 30 September 1773.


The loss of territory would been a fair price to pay if it had bought freedom of action. But the five 'eternal principles' dictated to the Seym by Russia excluded all possibility of constitutional reform. Nevertheless, the next twenty years were to see a complete transformation. The country was ruled by a Permanent Council, in effect the first proper ministerial government in Poland. The war on obscurantism declared by a relatively small group of people appointed by the king to the Commission for National Education, in effect a ministry of education, the first of its kind in Europe. In the 1780s a handful of people turned into a national movement. By then two generations had passed through the reformed schools, giving rise to a new phenomenon in Polish life, the intelligentsia. This term, only coined later, is used to describe an identifiable group which transcended class barriers and was united by a common educational background and political vision, which might differ in details but accepted the service of society as its fundamental moral obligation. By the late 1780s there was a widespread feeling that the time had come to shrug off the protection and restrictions imposed by Russia, and to follow a more independent policy of reform.



7. Great Seym (1788-1792) and 3rd May Constitution


The Seym assembled in 1788 took matters into its own hands. It voted an increase of the army and vested control of it in a Seym Commission. It placed the conduct of foreign policy in the hands of another Seym Commission and imposed a tax on income from lands the first direct taxation. The opposition was split between Russian toadies and chauvinistic reactionaries. Neither could voice any coherent argument and both were taken aback by events. They were also unsettled by the ferment taking place in France, whose heady emanations could be felt in Poland. Debate on the question of reform had grown progressively more radical and the Seym had appointed a Commission to prepare a written constitution for the Polish Commonwealth. King Stanislaw Augustus, emerged from the isolation and started drawing up the new constitution. The ground for voting was prepared carefully, the allegiance of the Warsaw populace was assured, and date was chosen when many reactionary deputies were absent. 3 May 1791 the proposed constitution passed overwhelmingly and became the law. It was the first written constitution in Europe. The opening clauses were purposely anodyne. Catholicism was enshrined as the religion of the state, although every citizen was free to practice another without prejudice; the szlachta was declared to be the backbone of the nation; the peasantry was piously acknowledged as its lifeblood. The Seym became the chief legislative and executive power and voting was to be conducted by strict majority. The veto was abolished. The government of the country was vested in the King and a Royal Council. The king could direct policy, but nothing could leave his hands without the signature of at least one of the ministers, and the whole Council was answerable directly to the Seym. It was hardly revolutionary in itself; it was the commissions and other organs it set up which were to carry through the real reforms. The events in Poland were hailed all over the world.



8. Polish –Russian War and the Second Partition of Poland


In 1792, Catherine of Russia sought out a number of her old placemen in Poland, and made them set up a Confederation in the town of Targowica, under the slogan of defense of Polish 'golden freedoms' against the monarchical and democratic revolution. The confederates crossed the border at the head of 97,000 Russian troops. Against these seasoned veterans of the Turkish wars, Poland could field only 37,000 untried recruits. The Polish forces went into action alone and acquitted themselves valiantly. One corps, under the king's nephew Jozef Poniatowski won a battle, another under the American revolutionary general Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought a fine rearguard action. But there could be no hope for victory. A second partition of Poland was agreed between Russia and Prussia, and signed in Petersburg in 1793. Catherine helped herself to 250,000, and Frederick of Prussia to 58,000. The Polish Commonwealth now consisted of no more than 212,000


The king returned to Warsaw where he technically ruled. In fact, the Russian embassy was the source of all policy and a large Russian garrison policed the country. There was no possibility for action by patriots and most of them went into voluntary exile.



9. Kosciuszko’s Insurrection and The Third Partition of Poland


Kosciuszko in Krakow

In 1794 in Krakow, Tadeusz Kościuszko took command of what was left of Polish army and proclaimed the Act of Insurrection. He assumed dictatorial powers and granted freedom to all peasants and ownership of land to all who fought in the mass levy. From Krakow Kościuszko marched north. At Raclawice he defeated a Russian army with a force of 4,000 regulars and 2,000 peasants armed with scythes, than arrived to already liberated Warsaw. When the Russian troops retreated from the capital, the punch-drank mob which dragged out and hanged the handful of traitors never thought of raising a hand against the king. Some magnates joined the Insurrection and the king supported it, but majority of the szlachta were cautious. On the other hand, the Jewish community formed up and equipped a special regiment of its own, the first military formation since Biblical times. Unfortunately Kościuszko was outnumbered and defeated by the Prussians who entered Krakow. Then a combined Russo-Prussian army of 40,000 besieged Warsaw but after two months they withdrew. Fighting against overwhelming odds, Kosciuszko was wounded at the Battle of Maciejowice and taken prisoner. Praga (the right-bank district of Warsaw) was then taken by Suvorov and its population exterminated. Terrorized by the carnage, Warsaw surrendered. A new treaty of partition was signed in 1795, wiping what was left of Poland off the map. Prussia seized Mazovia with Warsaw, as well as the lands all the way to the Niemen River; Austria took the lands between the Pilica, Wisla [Vistula] and Bug Rivers; while Russia took the territory between the Bug and Niemen Rivers. The king was forced to abdicate, bundled into a carriage and sent off to Petersburg, he died in 1798, and the foreign diplomats accredited to the Polish court were told to leave.



Back to the History of Poland                         Forward to the Political System of Polish-Lith. Commonwealth