Why Sarmatian and Anglosaxon Republicans Disliked Each Other?

Some updates:

  • I’ve made only cosmetic changes along with the migration, so older posts can continue to reflect my older opinions & state of knowledge.
  • There will be Polish, 1:1 translations for every English post. I think keeping these blogs completely parallel, to a sentence, will be most healthy, for reasons I won’t bore you with now. By now Polish-Lithuanian republicanism is a concept somewhat known in Polish academia, but buried for popular conscience. For example, Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz’s Regina libertas (also translated to English) is as useful as it’s hard to get your hands on.
  • I officially returned to historical studies on university. I wasn’t expecting that, but it somehow… happened. Still I regard my other career as the main one.

I did way too much research on early Great Northern War period, ca. 1700-1706, thinking of rewriting the historical exposition for Karwicki. This was truly a fascinating era, and I ommited for example all the marvelous scheming of cardinal Radziejowski. This is unforgivable. But ultimately I’ve left the Karwicki posting as it were. Maybe I’ll return to these matters on another occasion.

I have some ideas for subsequent postings. But I’m not so naive as I once was, and won’t be declaring a schedule! If you want, you can express your wishes and preferences on forums.

Strange adventures of Thadeuz Kosciusko

As a testament to why my efforts could make some useful difference, see the article Thadeuz Kosciusko and the American Legacy in Europe, published recently by “Journal of the American Revolution”.

It is about Tadeusz (Thaddeus) Kościuszko, a Polish (some say Belarussian, I’d say whatever you want) general famous for organizing military engineering in revolutionary America, his role in the Polish-Russian war in defense of the constitution of 1791 and leading people of the Commonwealth in the 1794 insurrection. The gist of the article is that Kościuszko was one of people who brought to Europe a radically new American idea: namely, that you should have a government by the people, including commoners (with emphasis on peasants), instead of exploitative monarchy.

Now. The Great Sejm’s (1788-1792) legislators wouldn’t take well molding their anciently free nation (wolny naród) with “European monarchies”, where all inhabitants were mere serfs to unaccountable tyrants. (In the article I didn’t find any acknowledgment of a slightest difference there.) Saying that in the 18th late century empress Catherine and the subservient local nobility called the shots is, allow me to say, completely off the mark: see the Bar Confederation, fought by nobles against Russians, and how Petersburg ruled the country as protectorate mostly ignoring local opinions.

I suppose many well-to-do American revolutionaries would also object to calling them “peasants”, and indeed weren’t above owning big estates with compulsory labor. Swedish and Finnish free peasants from the Age of Liberty would also disagree in many aspects in which the author generalizes so sweepingly. I’d also say the sentimental faith of the French in good, if almost-savage in their view, American colonists is understated.

Above, Tadeusz Kościuszko in a common-folk outfit, as the leader of 1794 uprising. Below, the insurgents presenting captured Russian cannons in Cracow. Notice peasants dressed like Kościuszko in the lower right.

But the main belief, and the most misguided, is that in all their pro-democratic, anti-monarchical actions in the end of 18th century Europeans were always moved by the American example.

Debate in the Polish Parliament, itself a novelty,

Here–I just don’t know what to say.

pitted advocates for constitutional monarchy against those seeking a republic versus conservative royalists.

There was no such thing as “conservative royalists” in independent, pre-partitions Poland (okay, maybe in the 16th century you would find some people that would somehow qualify). Factions were far from what you’d expect. The conservative vision was an exclusivist, noble republic, with kings still elected and parliament still tightly controlled by the people. The opposing party, called “patriots”, wanted a top-down revolution, heavily inspired by the French Enlightenment, in which the liberty would be protected by strong government and gradually distributed also to non-noble inhabitants. These people wanted a hereditary, if constitutional monarchy, a thought deeply obnoxious to the conservatives and probably most of citizens.

They also succeeded in pushing the Constitution of 3 May 1791. The fact that the Republic received a constitution, predating the French act as one of the first in Europe (earlier such things were considered unnecessary, although there were “Cardinal Laws” of 1768, some consider acts of 1505 and 1572 as having similar import), could be an indication of American influence. But the short-lived Corsican Republic had a constitution as early as 1755.

Conservative republicans were interested mainly in the older Polish political thought, although they communicated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau rather enthusiastically since at least 1770s. The reformists looked towards Great Britain, but even this was viewed through French lens, because of the simple fact that knowledge of French language was reasonably common, and that of English wasn’t.

Reformers often referenced the example of the American Revolution as their ideal, emphasizing the rejection of the old regimes and the establishment of popular democratic independence for the nation.

Of course, the American Revolution and the American Republic enjoyed universal sympathy in the Commonwealth (just as even the French Revolution, up to a point) because they confirmed our feeling that we were right all along in our most fundamental collective political choices, as opposed to most of Europe. But the American Revolution did not create the political movements in late 18th-century Poland-Lithuania (maybe it partially did in the case of France, I don’t feel qualified to say). Even the thorny debate on peasants’ status and the need for broader egalitarianism went for some decades already.

It is true that the “plebeian” character of American Revolution didn’t appeal very much to nobility. The actual peasants knew nothing of America; they were aware that Kościuszko and some serious radicals were contemplating giving them (some) land, and that the foreign powers featured oppresive, exploitative governments–in addition to lords they, peasants, already had, and often “heretical” religion. Kościuszko was one of the commanders of army of the Crown of Poland in the war in defense of the Constitution, in 1792. This is what made him later the leader of insurrection of 1794. Let’s also not forget the burghers, especially active in Warsaw during the Sejm and Insurrection, but I don’t want to make this discussion too long.

Courts, not pubs

I’m a big admirer of Kościuszko, even if it has become somewhat unfashionable, and certainly sympathize with the American republican project. (By the way, interesting fact: Kościuszko donated money in his will to free Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, but the aging Jefferson lacked resolve to do it.) The problems I pointed out could be prevented by some casual Wikipedia research. In an ideal reality, all these things would be just common knowledge, because they pertain to how modern world is shaped.

Today, the reasons why “political controversy in early modern Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine” is an obscure subject are rather obvious. Ethnic Poland is nothing that important in the world, and even if it was for some interesting reason, we show little deeper interest in these debates ourselves. No wonder that when someone needs to use a mental picture of 18th century Commonwealth, in its relation to known reality it can be fickle, if not bizarre or amusing. But in the actual 18th century, with all the contempt the Republic was getting as an anarchic Russian protectorate, it was still an immediately noticeable country on the map of Europe, and, as Benedict Wagner-Rundell (to whose paper we’ll get shortly) says, in Poland-Lithuania republicanism of one form or another was the dominant, indeed overwhelming, political orthodoxy (198).

Thus one could expect that there would be some visible, mutual acknowledgment of both Anglosaxon and “Sarmatian” (Polish-Lithuanian) republican thought. Instead, the countries mostly ignored each other and regarded each other’s liberty as more of a joke than a real thing.

(For example, in the Federalist Papers the Commonwealth is mentioned perhaps once as an evidence for a large republican country being possible, and that’s it. Similarly, John Milton in 1650s only remarks that Poland was a happier country before the Sigismund III’s policy of intolerance, supporting his own argument for religious freedom.)

In 1607-1611, young Jakub Sobieski (born 1591, father of the king John III elected in 1674) made some journeys through Europe, visiting Germany, France, Spain, Italy–and also England. We have his diaries on these travels. Interestingly, he visited England with marshal Zygmunt Gonzaga Myszkowski, one of the most hated courtiers of king Sigismund III. For one, he assumed the the title of “count Myszkowski”, very offensive to egalitarian Polish nobility (aristocratic titles were generally banned). Myszkowski also took part in fighting the “rokosz”, or “rebellion” of 1606-1607, named Zebrzydowski’s rokosz or rokosz of Sandomierz. The rebels opposed to king’s scheming against religious and political rights, and were eventually defeated and forced to compromise.

Jakub Sobieski (presumably, after decades of eating boar meat and watching TV). He is here the castellane of Cracow, which meant that he had the first seat in the Senate.

So in such a jolly company Sobieski visited Dover, London and Canterbury in 1610; but first let’s see how he described some other countries that would be considered “free” in nomenclature of the era. First, Venice, the dearest darling of Polish nobility.

O starożytności i rządzie Rzeczypospolitej Weneckiej wielu autorów siła pisało, i ja o niej więcej tu nie napiszę tylko to, że ta sama jest, która się prawdziwą wolnością i prawdziwym rządem pochwalić może przed wszytkimi innymi na świecie państwy, i szczęściem tym, że nigdy nikomu nie hołdowała, ale od małych swoich początków do takiej sławy i potęgi przyszedszy, jako virgo inviolata, tak ona w swojej wolności nienaruszona dotąd słynie. (194-195)
On the antiquity and goverment of the Venetian republic much was written by a lot of authors, and I will not write here more: except that she is the one who enjoys the true liberty, and boats the true government above all the states in the world. She has been also always happy in never depending on someone: but from her small beginnings she came to such fame and power, as an untouched virgin, and is known for her intact liberty to this very day.

Less enthusiastic, but still respectful, is Sobieski’s account on Netherlands, which were fighting their war for independence from Spain.

[W Hadze] przy consilium residentia bywała Maurycego hetmana ich … Gdym go nawiedzał, przyjął mnie bardzo ludzko, pytał curiose o królu jmci, naonczas Zygmuncie trzecim. O obsidyjej Smoleńska rozmawiał siła ze mną i o nieboszczyku panie Janie Zamoyskim, kanclerzu koronnym i hetmanie wielkim, chwaląc go i wysławiając go bardzo, mówił szeroko i ze mną i de status Rzeczy Pospolitej naszej, smakując i pochwalając nam wolność naszą. … Prowincyj tych, które królowi hiszpańskiemu rebellizowały, jest status właśnie democraticus, bo tam plebs rządzi. Deputaci z miast, z prowincyj, ci representant faciem consilii. Szlachta tam stara, która jeszcze florebat za książąt tamecznych, kiedy bywały pod jednym panem te siedemnaście prowincyj, tylko retinet nomen nobilitatis, ale rej tam wodzą i rząd wszytki plebeii sami, których z kupiectwa ustawicznego po nowym świecie, po tak wielu insulach i królestwach i w chrześcijaństwie i w pogaństwie, z rzemiosła wybornego wielkie zyski, a z zysków bogactwa, a z bogactw potęga; wiary w nich nie dopuszczają inakszej, tylko kalwińskiej, której jest tam gniazdo prawie. Augustana confessione się brzydzą, a dopieroż nami katolikami, którzy są tam in summa oppressione … (28-30)
Lubo to hetmanem był Holendrów Mauritius, jednak przydawali mu bellicum consilium, pewne osoby ex statibus et ordinibus, lubo plebeios, atoli przecie i za mnie poczęła się jeszcze zmagać potęga domu nassauskiego, jako to Mauryca i brata jego Henryka, który teraz na miejscu jego jest. I tak mądrzy politycy o Holendrach zawsze konjektorowali, że będzie tam zaniedługo ex democratia monarchijej, chociaż się jej strzegli po te wszystkie czasy, a bodaj jeszcze nie przyjść im i na tyrannidem, bo się tak zawzdy od dawnych wieków obracali periodi rerum publicarum. (31)
[In Hague] resided their leader, Maurice … When I was visiting him, he received me very politely, and was asking about our king, then Sigismund III. He spoke with me a lot about the siege of Smoleńsk and of the late Jan Zamoyski, the chancellor of the Crown and grand hetman, lauding him greatly. He spoke with me also about the state of our republic, liking and complimenting our freedom. … The state of these provinces, which rebelled against the king of Spain, in indeed democratic, because the people rule there. Deputies from cities, from provinces lead the councils. Their ancient nobility, which used to flourish under their princes, when the seventeen provinces used to be under one lord, is now a nobility in name only. The government is led only by plebeians. By constant commerce in the new world, in many islands and kingdoms, among Christians and heathens, and from excellent artisanship they get great revenues, and from revenues–wealth, and from wealth–power; they do not allow faith different than Calvinist, which has there almost its nest; they despise the Lutheran faith, and even more so us Catholics, who suffer there the greatest oppression …
Although Maurice was the leader of the Dutch, they instituted a war council to assist him, [which consisted of] some people from provinces and estates, although plebeians. But even during my stay the power of the house of Nassau started to increase, that of Maurice as well as of his brother Henry, who by now has taken his place. And wise politicians always conjectured about the Dutch, that there will be soon a monarchy there instead of democracy, even if they have always bewared it for all the time; and may they not go under a tyranny, because such has always been the development of republics since antiquity.

These predictions turned out to be largely true; the Oranje-Nassau dynasty holds the royal throne of Netherlands to this day, after over 400 years! Now what Sobieski writes about England, looks almost like a revenge for all the vitriol from John Peyton’s 1598 relation, though we know the latter was kept secret.

Anglia. Jest to królestwo z tej strony od Francyi, dosyć wesołe, z równinami i gajami, częstymi wsiami i miasteczkami, zameczkami. Królował natenczas Jakób, który był pierwej królem szkockim, pan dobrotliwy, i zdał się po onej królowej angielskiej Elizabecie, białejgłowie złej i pysznej, chytrej i przewrotnej, panem dosyć łaskawym, ludzkim i szczyrym … Gdyśmy byli w Anglii z panem marszałkiem, spokojny natenczas był stan Anglii; bo oni rzadko więc próżnują, często się z swymi panami kłócą; częste tam rebelije, częste koniuracyje, jakoż jest naród wielce do tego skłonny, pyszny i obłudny plerumque. … Parlament angielski ma swoją wielką w tem królestwie powagę, i jest, jakoby contra peto jakie maiestatis principis, na który wielce muszą się oglądać królowie angielscy; jako i natenczas oglądał się ten to król Jakub. (15, 17)
England. It is a kingdom on the other side of France, rather merry, with plains and groves frequent, villages and towns, little castles. The king was then James, which was initially the king of Scotland, a benevolent lord, and after the reign of Elizabeth, a woman evil, proud, sly and deceitful, he seemed a ruler merciful enough, polite and honest … When we were in England with the marshal [Myszkowski], the state of England was calm. For they are rarely idle, and fight with their kings often; rebellions are frequent there, as well as plots, for the nation has a great inclination for that, is for the most part proud and insincere. … The English parliament is very much respected in this kingdom, and is something like a voice of objection against the royal majesty. English kings have to pay a great attention to it, and so it was paid by this king James.

Sobieski could have had in mind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Paris, he witnessed the assassination of Henry IV in 1610, and as I mentioned years 1606-1607 saw the rokosz in Poland and Lithuania. Tumultuous times.

A ball on Henry IV’s court, late 1500s. The king would be assassinated in 1610 by François Ravaillac, a Catholic fanatic who opposed the policy of limited toleration towards Protestants.

It is clear that, for Sobieski, England was something of a poorer, even more remote version of France. In fact he spent most of the time in Paris and in Rome, as these were the most cultured places at the time. But predictably, he had to adjust; he was no longer a citizen of the Commonwealth, and entered a “generic European noble subject” mode. As such, assisting Polish-Lithuanian diplomats, young Sobieski was able to hang out on the French (and English) royal court. There, he had some conversations with the French king Henry IV himself, along with Myszkowski and Janusz Radziwiłł. The latter recently led the rokoszans in Lithuania. Radziwiłł had had to apologize for this and ask for Sigismund III’s forgiveness. King Henry conversed with Poles, among others, about the battle of Guzów, where the rokosz was defeated. Sobieski remarks that as a man who once dared to oppose a monarch, Radziwiłł was treated visibly much less favorable on the court than marshal Myszkowski, although Henry recognized that the Lithuanian did receive Sigismund’s forgiveness (11).

We could try to infer from Sobieski’s diary two obvious reasons (one of many, for sure) for the lack of political understanding between Poland and England.

  • The religious difference. We can see that Sobieski was inclined more towards Catholic Venice than any of the Protestant nations, especially since he saw there his faith oppressed. In England, there was an array of laws effectively denying Catholics any sort of normal life, which started to crumble only in the late 18th century. In the Republic, the Warsaw Confederation of 1573 guaranteed the right to confess anything you like while retaining equal rights, but in the middle 17th century the most radical Protestants (Nontrinitarians) were excluded and expelled (as long as they were noblemen, immigrant peasants seem to be left in relative peace), and in the early 18th century all the Protestants were denied the right to be elected to offices; at the same time, England instituted new Popery Act of 1698, which enforced denial for Catholics of even holding any property. All these very bright laws merely reflect what was happening in people’s heads. Oliver Cromwell was said to fervently hate the Commonwealth, the Polish-Lithuanian that is, for these religious reasons.
  • The monarchical paradigm in Europe. This means that all countries were considered “kingdoms” by default, and diplomacy generally happened among the royalty, between courts. There was less effort involved in considering all the foreign countries, especially those of little political interest, as more or less the same. (Ask yourself, political systems of how many countries you can describe in reasonable detail, from the top of your head. I suspect most people could hardly do this even with their own.) Sobieski had no time for over-analyzing English politics; England is so far away that he doesn’t care that much, it could be as well just a run-of-the-mill kingdom with seditious inhabitants up to no good. He and Myszkowski seemed to be mostly interested in socializing with local ladies of the court and some unnamed princess Stuart. The same happened in reverse (well, if you discount deep Peytonian spymastery).

Later in the history of Poland we would observe, for example, limited effectiveness of French spies. They tended to operate on the assumption than you just bribe “people in power” in the given “kingdom”; which on the scale of tens of thousands of such people, such as on the election of 1698, was very impractical and ineffective to say the least. The oligarchy of the Commonwealth was powerful, but far from omnipotent, and poorer noblemen were capable of occasionally derailing their agreed upon schemes. Only the neighboring powers took the effort to understand better the Polish political process: the knowledge exploited for their own purposes. Regardless, there was an obvious international solidarity of royalty, which tended to think of their subjects as interchangable tax sources and/or annoyances.

This largely creeps in even to our contemporary perceptions, which are shaped more by “monarchist” than “republican” (of course, there were many shades of these) accounts of that period. For example, in our Kościuszko article, for the author “Poland” is personified by king Stanisław [August Poniatowski]. Perhaps he’s not aware that the real power in the Commonwealth belonged to Sejm, that a large portion of nobility considered Poniatowski an illegal fraud and sought to depose him by semi-legal means etc. Not to mention that the man derived his title only from an election, even if the outcome was forced by Russian army. We just know that in ye old times European countries had kings, kings who ruled them. Cardinal Richelieu would be proud of such view!

How many chosen ones there can be?

It’s not that the issue lacks literature. I will refer to an article that suggests something I probably wouldn’t think of. It’s Liberty, Virtue And The Chosen People: British And Polish Republicanism In The Early Eighteenth Century by Benedict Wagner-Rundell, published in 2008.

The most obvious difference between the countries was the closure of Polish-Lithuanian nobility, which at least officially (and to a big extent in practice) didn’t allow outsiders to join. The rest of society was devoid of civic and political rights which noblemen enjoyed. Britain, on the other hand, was dominated by elite of the propertied and especially landed, as the author call them, but many personal, non-political rights were asserted for all men, as long as they were loyal to the Anglican Church and the royal government.

But in (republican) political thought in both the Republic and Great Britain a striking similarity (quote) can be seen. This includes weight given to political participation of citizens, the concept of virtue as the foundation of liberty, and disagreement between theorists who required a coalition of “good people” and those who believed more in new “good laws” that need to be instituted.

Slightly confusing is the fact that there was many, indeed vocal and influential anti-republicans in Britain. So this paper, for example, doesn’t make a comparison (if I understand correctly) between Polish-Lithuanian and British political literature in general, just between the Sarmatian mainstream and a minority fraction of Britons. English republicans stemmed from the Revolutionary times in 1640-1650s, the political writings of John Milton and James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana, but were shunned as extremists, and went through the 18th century as fringe radicals without any real influence on the government. (Thomas Paine did manage to co-incite a revolution in American colonies.) Both (mainstream) Whigs and Tories seemed to be monarchists more or less constitutional, and the latter represented, as (quoted) Richard Butterwick puts it, doctrines of divine indefeasible hereditary right, non-resistance and passive obedience.

Wagner-Rundell describes the mutual aversion of British and Polish-Lithuanian authors–we will read more below of the latter, for now let’s say that Britons didn’t see a “properly free” country in the Commonwealth. The reason was, as Bernard Connor (who published hugely influential History of Poland in 1698) wrote, the Power of the Gentry, and Slavery of the Commonality. Republican Cato’s Letters from 1720s therefore state than in Poland-Lithuania, commoners live as slaves … subject to the mere mercy of the great lords, as to life and death and property.

Personally, I’m as much against dependence of people upon nobility as I am against dependence upon kings and such, and sympathize with (not that many) plebeian movements that happened in the Commonwealth. But since modern sensibilities are way too susceptible to these kinds of arguments just thrown around, and in fact they often go unchallenged, I shall play a devil’s advocate.

An anonymous noble author, complaining about Cossack uprising in 1648, stated that Ruthenians hated Poles so much that Ruthenia would prefer (and I am talking here about peasants) suffering the Turkish yoke or some other tyrant over living happily and peacefully in so free a Republic (wolałaby Ruś (mówię o chłopstwie […]) iugum pati Turcarum albo innego tyrana niżeli in tam libera Republica tranquille et beate vivere(1)). Many people would scoff at this, but the man wasn’t infinitely dumb. He makes the case that living as a non-citizen in a free commonwealth governed by law, instituted by the people, is still better than being subject to one tyrant, his hierarchy of henchmen and arbitrary law from which there’s no recourse. Whether it’s true, is up for debate, but it isn’t obviously false. As someone who reads many resolutions of local sejmiks, I can assure you that nobles channeled woes of cities and demanded various things from the Commonwealth on behalf of peasants. They thought they politically, as the “knightly order”, represent all inhabitants. Which is hard to think of as legitimate, but indicates that commoners were persons and not “tools” or “property”.

The author I mentioned lists grievances that Cossacks and peasants would have, mentioning numerous abuses and exploitative measures, and observes that the scale of this was reflected in cruelties suffered by local noblemen and officials captured by insurgents. He concludes that they [rebels] could seek redress by other means inside the Republic (although nowadays it is difficult, not to say impossible) instead of promptly descending to tumults and bloody arms (mogli inakszym sposobem dochodzić tego apud Rempublicam (acz tych czasów i to trudna, że nie rzekę — niepodobna), a nie zaraz ad tumultus et cruenta arma descendere (2)). Apparently he was too honest to resist temptation to destroy his own arguments (he advocated an overall hawkish position).

By most sources, such as plebeian literature or directions of trans-border migrations, it is difficult to establish a picture of Commonwealth as a country worse for commoners than its neighbors. So maybe foreign travellers, the ones who were on the whole unsympathetic towards the country, described Poland they wanted to see. (Imagine they wrote that Poles elect their kings and institute their law themselves and they turn out mostly okay, that would be horrible!) We should at least allow this possibility.

But the main point of Wagner-Rundell is that both Britain and the Republic produced their theories of exceptionalism, which were incompatible (but similar at the same time). There was some imagined ideal of ancient freedom in all Europe, which the British associated with “Gothic” times, and Poles and Lithuanians with ancient “Sarmatians”, fighting with the Roman Empire over Eastern Europe. Then, all the countries were gradually stripped of their rights by kings; except, of course, for one chosen country, which succeeded in retaining the ancient liberty. This gift was given to it by God only because of soundly rejecting “heresy” or “popery”, depending on whom you ask.

Republicans in both Britain and Poland-Lithuania, therefore, were constructing similar narratives of ancient liberty, claiming in both countries that all countries had once lived in freedom, but that over time moderns had progressively eroded the liberty of nation after nation. In each country, republicans believed that their nation had, as a result of special Divine favour that they had earned through strict adherence to the true faith, retained its liberty. This providential explanation for both Britain and Poland-Lithuania’s success in maintaining their freedom is one feature that makes the republicanism of these two countries so strikingly similar, yet this is paradoxically a similarity whose implications render the republican narratives of the two countries incompatible with each other.
For logically there can only be one Chosen People. (212)

Appearances indeed were often similar. Above, Władysław IV with Senate (1638), below Anne of England with House of Lords (around 1710).

Above, British House of Commons in 1743, below Polish-Lithuanian Sejm in 1791. Notice the presence of spectators on galleries.

“There is no freedom in England”

The period around the Great Sejm (1788-1792) is traditionally seen as times when the Commonwealth came closer to the rest of Europe in terms of political thinking. If I had far greater knowledge of the matter and five hundred pages to spare, I still wouldn’t dare to try to properly discuss this claim. Let’s just take it for granted here. Did it make Poles and Lithuanians more sympathetic towards Anglosaxons? Partially, yes, there were known Anglophiles, such as Tadeusz Morski. These were people who liked the sociopolitical system of Britain, the rights it guaranteed and the wealth it produced by commerce.

On the other hand, if you want some splendid anti-British rhetoric, that can be arranged.

For example, both bourgeois radical Stanisław Staszic (/stasheetz/) and noble republican conservative Adam Wawrzyniec Rzewuski were very critical of the British system. The former (in Admonitions for Poland, Przestrogi dla Polski, 1790) at least acknowledges “England and Switzerland” as the only free nations in Europe, and would borrow some British solutions, but warns:

Kiedy wspominam tak często Anglią, niechaj nikt nie sądzi, iż życzę Polsce rządu angielskiego, gdyż jestem mu zupełnie przeciwny. Wiem, że z takim rządem miałaby Polska w lat kilka despotyzm.
While I mention England so often, let no one think that I wish an English-like government for Poland, because I am completely opposed to it. I know that Poland with such government would have despotism in a few years.

Staszic, of course to the left, Rzewuski, of course, to the right.

Staszic recognizes “internal” freedom of Britain, but as many writers of the Commonwealth, cannot pass up an opportunity to go bash some colonialism:

Lecz taż Anglia przez swój despotyzm nad milionami ludów w Indiach, po wyspach, przez swoją tyranią nad Murzynami, przez swoje jednodzierstwo nad morzami, przez swój despotyzm kupczarski nad handlem, nad przemysłem, nad pracą, nad korzyścią wszystkich innych ludów zmusza wszystkie narody końcem odpierania jej gwałtu zmożniać u siebie despotyzm, zwiększać podatki, tworzyć coraz ogromniejsze wojsko.
But the same England through her despotism over the millions of people in India, on various islands, through her tyranny over blacks, through domination on seas, and her commercial despotism over trade, industry and labor, over profits of all other people–[England] forces all nations, for pushing back against her violence, to build up their despotism at home, increase taxes, raise larger and larger military.

This is a surprisingly clear description of what would be later called “imperialism”. But let’s see Rzewuski On Form of Republican Government (O formie rządu republikańskiego, 1789) launching his frontal attack on Britain:

Ja mówię, i mówię śmiało: nie masz wolności w Anglii, nie masz niczego, na co by król nie mógł się tam odważyć, nie masz niczego, czego by król dopiąć nie mógł, lub czego już nie dopiął. Czemu przecież cała Europa, czemu każdy niemal Anglik ma siebie za wolnego, czemu? Ja ci zaraz odpowiadam. Likurg, ów bóg i prawodawca Spartanów, mówi tak do Lacedemończyków: “Złoto i bogactwo najdzielniejszym jest ludzi omamieniem, jest to ten zręczny i niedościgły czarownik, który ludzi wolnych i cnotliwych, w ciemnych i głuchych przemienia niewolników”. … Za młodych lat swoich po rozległych kołysząc się morzach, myśli tylko raczej, jak ciemnych oszukać Indian, jak siebie wzbogacić, niż jak znać, jak kochać, jak służyć ojczyźnie. Powraca do kraju ze znacznymi zbiorami, znudzony i skołatany tyloma niebezpieczeństwami, tyloma i tak nagłymi zmianami losu swego i fortuny. Myśli raczej, jakby spokojnie mógł zebranych bogactw kosztować, jak swemu zyskowi dogadzać, nie ażeby na nowe wystawiał się trudy, koszty i niebezpieczeństwa dla obrony lub zasilenia ojczyzny swojej. U kogo złoto jest wszystkim, u tego cnota jest niczym. … Są prawda w tym narodzie, ani bynajmniej przeczyć myślę, dusze prawdziwie bohaterskie, dusze godne wieku Scypionów, wieku Arystydesów, ale gdzie zdanie i kreski izby niższej kupić można obiadem, gdzie lordowie mają tyle do spodziewania się, a więcej jeszcze do lękania, gdzie mogą stracić za szczególną wolą królewską posiadany stopień i urząd, już tam nie masz wolności, nie masz narodu, ale jest król, jest ministerium. … Była choć jedna okoliczność, choć jeden spór, gdzie by dwór zamiarów swoich nie dopiął, i gdzie by trzech części przeciw czwartej nie miał zawsze za sobą? (157)
I say, and say this resolutely: there is no freedom in England, there is nothing king would not dare to do, there is nothing he could not manage to do, if he have not already managed. But why the whole Europe, why almost every Englishman thinks he is free, why? I am telling you readily. Lycurgus, the god and lawgiver of Spartans, says so to Lacedaemonians: “Gold and riches is the greatest delusion of people, it is this crafty and unparalleled sorcerer, who turns free and virtuous people into deaf and oblivious slaves.” … The young [Englishman] lives on immense seas, he thinks rather how to cheat oblivious Indians, how to enrich himself, than how to know, love and serve his fatherland. He returns to the country with ample profits, bored and worn down by all the dangers, all the sudden changes of his fates and fortune. He would rather enjoy his amassed riches in peace, serve his own revenue, than risk new travails, costs and dangers for defense or strengthening of his country. For whom gold is everything, virtue is nothing. …
It is true (which I would not think to deny) that there are truly heroic souls in that nation, souls worthy of age of Scipio or Aristides, but where opinion and votes of the lower house can be bought for a dinner, where lords have so many [royal rewards] to count for, and even more to fear, where they can be deposed by a special king’s will, [in such a place] there is no freedom and no nation, but there is a king and there is a cabinet. … Was there any circumstance, even one controversy, where the court did not succeed with its aims, where it did not rail three parts [of the parliament] against the fourth?

Let’s stop for a second and think what is the main argument here against British system: that in practice nothing can happen against the will of king and government. They have more than enough means to coerce and bribe the parliament into whatever they want. The will of the people can never subvert the will of the few who seized control of (allegedly) free institutions. Rzewuski even suggests some failures of government in instilling its decisions and fancies as a litmus test for a genuine political liberty.

I think that we can distinguish two sentiments in (broadly understood) republican thinking and say that one kind was dominant in Anglosaxon countries, and the other in the Republic. I would call them parliamentarian and popularist. Again, by these labels I’m describing sentiments, and not strictly English Parliamentarians of the Civil War, or Polish Popularists (popularyści) led by Zamoyski in late 16th century. There were Anglosaxon popularists, as I think Paine or Jefferson, whom parliamentarians mostly deprived of influence, and there were Polish parliamentarians, who politically won in 1791 but were quickly crashed by history. But in general we can think of Britain and the US, as shaped by the federalist Constitution, as parliamentarian cultures, and of the Commonwealth (as perhaps Switzerland) as a popularist one.

For parliamentarians, sovereignty of the people can and should be transferred and/or leased to some other entity, like a parliament or a dynasty. Once this transfer is done, you aren’t allowed to complain, as long as pre-established forms of exerting power are preserved. For popularists, sovereignty of the people cannot be meaningfully “transferred”; institutions of the state, like kings and parliaments, are only crutches. They cannot trusted too seriously and have an evident tendency to degenerate into tyranny. Therefore, constant interventions, activity and supervision by the people are needed to protect freedom.

Parliamentarians saw in the popularist vision just an anarchic, ungovernable mess; popularists saw in the parliamentarian vision little more than a delusion of liberty, and in fact a fig leaf for oppresive government. These characterizations seem to predict correctly what a parliamentarian country (England) would think of a popularist one (the Republic), and vice versa.

Whoever is so inclined, can speculate all day that maybe the parliamentarian feeling was Protestant, and popularist–Catholic, that maybe one was more “continental” and the other conspicuously Anglosaxon. I think such correlations may be very well spurious. I just posit that religious, geographical and social circumstances, already widening the rift between the English and the Sarmatian, were magnified by something far more profound and ideological. Otherwise, there would come to be, I believe, some mutual acknowledgment–at least as relatives faraway and exotic.

Political calendars of 18th century, which described for curious readers current affairs of Poland and various countries, featured a category for “foreign commonwealths” (rzeczypospolite cudzoziemskie), that is, “free nations”, relatives of our own. Predictably, these included Genoa, Venice, Switzerland and Netherlands. Since 1764, under king Stanisław August Poniatowski–a fierce Francophile parliamentarian–this was eliminated from officially approved calendars. But for 1792 (after political changes in Poland and France), readers got an outline of four “constitutions of free nations”, with this introduction:

Cztery przednieysze konstytucye narodow wolnych.
Trudno nie przyznać, że dopiero od trzeciego Maja, zaczęła mieć Polska porządną Konstytucyą. O iey dobroci, kto chce grutownie sądzić, niech sądzi z porównania. Stosowanie Konstytucyi naszey do rządu Aten, Sparty, Rzymu, do rządów dzisieyszych Genui, i innych drobnych Rzeczypospolitych, byłoby bardzo mylne: bo inny iest rząd dla iednego Miasta, inny dla Wielkiego Narodu. Stosuymy tedy Rządową Ustawę naszą, do rządu Wielkich a Wolnych Narodow. Tym końcem kładą się tu cztery Konstytucye: Angielska, ktora za wzor inszym służyła, Amerykańska, ktora się z niey uformowała, Polska, która z obudwu korzystała, nakoniec Francuzka, ktora razem te trzy wzory przed sobą miała.
Four prominent constitutions of free nations.
It is hard to deny that only since the Third of May did Poland begin to have a proper Constitution. Let them who would want to judge its merit, judge from comparison. Comparing our Constitution to governments of Athens, Sparta, Rome, to present day government of Genoa and other minor Republics would be very mistaken. For there is a different [mode of] government for one City, and a different one for a Major Nation. Let us therefore relate our Government Statute to governments of Major and Free Nations. To this end, there are included here four Constitutions: the English, which was imitated by others, the American, which formed itself on that foundation, the Polish, which utilized both, and finally the French, which had all three as guiding examples.

We can see how different was the frame of reference, the “club” of constitutional states where the Commonwealth saw herself. (Before someone rushes to nitpick, the calendar outlines the political system of Britain, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t established by one separate act, just as it was the case with Poland before 1791).

The year 1792 would see the war, in which army of the Commonwealth was often defeating Russians, but was pushed farther and farther into the country; but then also the accession of king Stanisław to pro-Russian Targowica Confederation. So ended the short career of Anglosaxon-parliamentarian Poland-Lithuania.

(1) Pisma polityczne za czasów panowania Jana Kazimierza Wazy 1648-1668, ed. Stefania Ochmann-Staniszewska, Wrocław 1989: 5.

(2) Pisma polityczne…: 7.

Sobieski: Jakub Sobieski, Peregrynacja po Europie (1607-1613). Droga do Baden (1638), Wrocław 1991.

Rzewuski: Adam Wawrzyniec Rzewuski, O formie rządu republikańskiego, Kraków 2008.

Staszic: Przestrogi dla Polski, digital edition.

Political calendars: 1738, 1792. —

/-/ Popiel.

Start the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *