Tadeusz Kościuszko was born on February 4, 1746 in a manor house in Mereczowszczyzna in the Polesie region, then the Nowogród province (presently Belarus). His parents were Ludwik Tadeusz and Tekla, née Ratomska. At the christening ceremony in a church in Kossowo on February 12, he was named Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura. The Kościuszko's of Roch coat of arms were a Polonised Belarusian family.
The dualist, Polish and Lithuanian state was sinking into a decline of the Saxon times. Kościuszko, due to his birth in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was and could consider himself a Lithuanian and not a subject of the Kingdom of Poland, similarly to Adam Mickiewicz some time later; yet at the same time he was the best exemplification of Polish patriotism, which was excellently mixed with all-human, Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, fellowship and happiness. After five years (1755-1760) in the Piarist college in Lubieszów and education at home, a nineteen-year-old Kościuszko was admitted to the newly-created Cadet School (Szkoła Rycerska – Korpus Kadetów) in Warsaw. The founder of the school was Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, the new king. It was a modern school for noble youth, providing education in accordance with the Enlightenment programme and inculcating the spirit of patriotism. A well-known poem by Ignacy Krasicki, entitled “Holy Love of the Beloved Motherland” (“Święta Miłości Kochanej Ojczyzny”), soon became the anthem of young cadets. Kościuszko attracted the attention of the school's commandant, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, who obtained the king's financial assistance for him. In 1769, the young captain was sent to continue his education in France. This was the time when the close relationship of Kościuszko with the Czartoryski family began. He studied military and civil architecture, artillery, military strategy and economics, as well as drawing and painting, for five years at the Royal Academy in Paris, but above all he drank in the Enlightenment atmosphere of the capital of France, which was ripening towards the great revolutionary coup d'état. Kościuszko came back home in 1774, but not being able to find a job in hisprofession and having experienced some bitter failures in personal life, decided to go back to France that very same year, from where he sailed away as a volunteer to America, to fight for independence from the colonial grip of Great Britain. It was a conscious and deeply ideological decision.
During the eight years in America (1776 – 1784), Kościuszko fought for the independence of the United States and as a military engineer he contributed greatly to several successes in this war of liberation. The fortification of Philadelphia and West Point, the fencing the Delaware river, the victorious battle at Saratoga, the army crossing of the Yadkin and Dan rivers in South Carolina, the siege of the fort at Ninety Six, the blockade of Charleston and a number of other events were the successful moments of the struggle, marked by Kościuszko's prominent participation. Apart from wounds and scars he earned the epaulettes of Brigadier General. He was highly esteemed, admired and loved by his American friends, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for his talents, contribution and honest opinions filled with great humanitarianism. Kościuszko was an ardent supporter of abolishing slavery, granting freedom to African-Americans and educating them. After the war, he was admitted to the élite corporation of American officers, the Society of Cincinatus (Cincinatus was a dictator who defended Rome against enemies in the middle of the 5th century B.C. After the military career, Cincinatus came back to his farming occupation; he was the embodiment of all the virtues of a Roman citizen: a soldier and a farmer). Kościuszko also earned a large amount of overdue pay.
Kościuszko came back to Poland in 1784, yet he was not able to obtain a post in the army and decided to devote himself to farming at the family estate – Siechnowice. He reduced the corvée by half and started running into debts. During the session of the Great Diet (Sejm Wielki) (1788 – 1792), he became very interested in its debates. In the course of discussions with a friend who was a Member of Parliament, Kościuszko presented his draft solutions for various social issues, especially serfdom, which he believed to be the greatest evil of the country.
The parliamentary resolution on increasing the military forces passed in 1788 opened the way for Kościuszko to obtain a post in the army. The brigadier general of the American army became a general of the Polish Crown Army. The Constitution of the 3rd of May – the outcome of the works of the Great Diet – which was supposed to save the Republic of Poland, already diminished by the First Partition, caused reaction from the hostile forces within the country and abroad. Enemies of the reformation of the Republic of Poland and traitors of the state launched, under the guardianship of Tsarina Catherine the Great, a confederacy of Targowica. Russian army crossed the borders of Polish and Lithuanian state. A war to protect the Constitution began. In this war Kościuszko aided Prince Józef Poniatowski who was commander-in-chief, and sometimes replaced and relieved him of his duties. He became famous in the victorious battle at Zieleńce, and was the first person to receive the Order of the Virtuti Militari. Kościuszko's fortification solutions at Dubienka contributed to victory during the fiercest battle of this campaign. When the King joined the Confederacy, all military activities were put to an end and the Second Partition of Poland was effected. Embittered by the King's treachery, Kościuszko handed in his resignation from the army, at the same time attempting to obtain advancement and distinctions for his own soldiers. Soon afterwards he emigrated. Nevertheless, the battles at Zieleńce and Dubienka brought him fame as a national hero. These battles constituted the first Polish victories from the time of Sobieski's victory at Vienna. Republican France welcomed him (along with Washington, Pestalozzi, Schiller and others) to the circle of its honorary citizens, including Kościuszko in the élite of humanity.
After a brief sojourn in Galicia (Sieniawa, Lviv, Cracow), Kościuszko, who was kept under Austrian surveillance, left for Saxony (through Wrocław). Dresden and Leipzig were the two cities in which Polish political emigrants assembled. They were looking for a solution for the remains of Polish statehood. Plans were devised to start an upraising against the partitioners, and attempts were made to secure the success of the future uprising by means of diplomatic involvement of France. It was with this objective that Kościuszko travelled to Paris (though apart from declarations of friendship he was not able to obtain much help from the ever-changing authorities of revolutionary Paris). Kościuszko was perceived as the leader of the uprising. A network of secret military conspiracy was developed in the country. The uprising, also known as the Insurrection, taking its name from Kościuszko, commenced in Cracow on the morning of March 24, 1794. What was it that really happened on this sunny forenoon of March 24, 1794? This date is still being carved anew in our collective memory. Kościuszko swore a brief, but significant oath as the Commander-in-Chief of the National Armed Forces using the words: “I will not use the entrusted power for anybody's private oppression, but only for the protection of the entire borders, recovery of the national self-rule and for establishing general liberty.” The oath was sworn on the Cracovian Market Square in broad daylight in the presence of the army, common people, mothers with children and youth – in the presence of Polish people, who were the symbolic source of all power, and not, as the conspirators initially planned, in the crypt of the Wawel Cathedral, in front of a small circle of people. The form of this oath would later be transposed into poetry by Adam Mickiewicz, who described the Soplicowo manor in Pan Tadeusz, seen through the eyes of the young hero Tadeusz:
And the same portraits hung upon the wall, There in Cracovian coat Kościuszko stands, Eyes raised to heaven, a sword in his two hands; Thus at the altar steps he pledged his word To drive the powers from Poland with that sword, or fall on it.
This is how Kościuszko, “the last defender of the Motherland”, became imprinted in the memory of future generations. After the oath sworn by the Leader, the Act of Insurrection was announced. At that moment the Cracovian Market Square became the focal point of the world. The act of protest was announced against the treason of Targowica and violent proceedings of hostile neighbours. The act morally annihilated Targowica and the Second Partition of Poland. People decided to fight with all determination and rather “die and become buried in the ruins of their own country or set free the Motherland” than give up. “To die or liberate the Motherland” became the banner of the Insurrection. Amor Patriae – the holy love of Motherland became the causative force of the Insurrection. The Act of Insurrection was an act of solidarity of the nation against the violence exerted against its laws; it was a statement of will of life in liberty. It was directed at all the nations of the civilised world, especially France and the United States of America, where “liberty was esteemed higher than other values.” Liberty, Equality and Independence of the Republic of Poland became the holy target of the Insurrection. The Act inaugurating the Insurrection is characterised by spiritual link with such documents as Declaration of Independence of the United States of America of July 4, 1776 and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of August 26, 1789. On the day of the oath the Leader spoke with the members of the Wawel Cathedral Chapter, the Senate of the Academy of Cracow and the elders of the Jewish community in the Synagogue at Kazimierz in Cracow. The date and the Act of Insurrection along with the oath taken by the Leader belong to the most precious tokens of Polish history. On April 1, 1794, the Leader and his army left Cracow. In Luborzyca they were joined by the unit of general Madaliński, who started a lawless march towards Cracow from Ostrołęka as early as March 12, 1794. This was a proper sign for the commencement of the Insurrection. On April 4, 1794, in the battle of Racławice the army of Kościuszko gained victory, radiant with fame and legend.
The Insurrection seized the entire Crown and Lithuania. It lasted less than eight months. It is difficult to outline its proceedings, yet it was marked by a series of significant facts and illustrious heroes. It is enough to mention the victorious battle at Racławice, where fighting Polish peasants called “kosynierzy” – scythe bearers gained universal recognition. Bartosz Głowacki and Kasper Świstacki still remain the symbols of this event. One cannot forget about the camp at Połaniec and the Połaniec Manifesto; the battle at Szczekociny; the revolutionary impulse of the people of Warsaw led by Jan Kiliński, a cobbler; the revolutionary impulse of the people of Vilnius led by Jakub Jasiński and Tadeusz Korsak; the outbreak of upraising in Wielkopolska, and the cavalry unit assembled by the Polish Jews with Berek Joselewicz as the leader. All the states, all the national elements focused on the person of Kościuszko, just as they were focused on the glare of the royal crown before. Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski sent Kościuszko a number of silver and gold Virtuti Militari crosses. Nevertheless, the Leader sent them back as precious metal to the mint and instead, he distributed silver rings with an inscription “From the Motherland to its Defender” among the distinguished. Finally, the insurgents suffered defeat in the battle at Maciejowice on October 10, 1794. It was followed by the imprisonment of the Leader and his soldiers. Warsaw surrendered after a massacre of the suburb of Praga, which took place on November 4 – 5, 1794. On November 14, the insurgents were forced to surrender at Radoszyce. The consequence was the Third Partition of Poland.
However, it was not Finis Poloniae, as the partitioners willed, because, as Kościuszko said, “fighting, we may die and even be defeated, but Poland is eternal”. During the eight months of the Insurrection, the Polish nation regained its spiritual sovereignty and self-reliance. The elements and social forces concentrated around Kościuszko constituted the budding of a modern and solidary nation, revived by a new, democratic awareness.
A great number of resolutions and legal acts of the Kościuszko Insurrection, even though moderately radical, left the decisions of the Constitution of 3rd of May far behind. The entire social and political programme of the Insurrection went beyond the horizons of the Great Diet. The whole legislation of the Insurrection projects Poland as a republican, democratic and tolerant country; it includes a vision of a nation which is able to integrate politically the entire population of multi-ethnic and multi-denominational Polish and Lithuanian state. Due to these reasons, its historical significance is of great value.
The Insurrection failed – it did not save the country, because it was impossible to save it in the face of superiority and violence of its hostile neighbours. Nevertheless, the Insurrection saved the nation, it saved its dignity. It constituted a political testament of the First Republic of Poland for a long line of subsequent generations.
There are Pyrrhic victories in history, i.e. victories which are a foreboding of imminent failure. There are also defeats which in the end turn out to be victories. Even the ancient Romans knew about it and they used to say: Gloria Victis (“Glory to the Defeated”). After the fall of the First Republic of Poland, Stanisław Staszic said: “Even a great nation can be defeated, however only a villainous nation can be destroyed.” After a difficult century of captivity Józef Piłsudski said: “To win and to rest on one's laurels is a failure, but to be defeated and not surrender is a victory”. The defeated nation did not surrender - it remembered the Insurrection, the ideas of Kościuszko and his programme.
The Leader, wounded at Maciejowice, was taken prisoner. After two years of imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, he was freed by the new Tsar Paul (1796). Kościuszko, then, accompanied by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, his aide-de-camp, reached Sweden. They travelled through Finland in winter, crossed the Bothnian Bay on sledges and later sailed in a boat through ice floe. Following a brief sojourn in Stockholm, where the king of Sweden sought to meet him, and a few months' waiting in Göteborg for favourable weather, Kościuszko sailed away to Great Britain. Shortly afterwards, he left from Bristol for his second Motherland, the United States. In Philadelphia, he was greeted triumphantly as a national hero. This time Kościuszko's stay in America was short, it lasted from August 1797 to May 5, 1798. Upon departure, he composed his last will, in which he donated all the money from the American military pay (which he did not touch for a number of years) to buy out African-Americans from captivity, which he deemed a disgrace to humanity. Some funds were also allocated for their education. The executor of the last will was his friend Thomas Jefferson, at that time the Vice-President of the United States.
After returning from America to France he resided initially in Paris and later in the forested neighbourhood of Berville, close to Fontainebleau. He spoke twice to Napoleon, but he did not believe in the sincerity of his intentions towards the Polish people. Kościuszko claimed that Polish people alone, equipped with their own weapons and accompanied by free and educated peasants would be able to win their independence. These ideas were presented in his pamphlet, published in Paris in 1800 under the name of his secretary, Józef Pawlikowski. Its title was “Can Polish People Win Independence.” By 1843, the pamphlet had been reissued seven times. It constitutes Kościuszko's personal and political testament. He also gave his blessing to the Legions of Jan Henryk Dąbrowski. The last verse of Mazurek Dąbrowski, the immortal Song of the Polish Legions, which pronounced the Partition treaties invalid and expressed the will to regain independence, it also includes a reference to Kościuszko and the scythes of the battle of Racławice.
Kościuszko led a private life in France and officially he was not engaged in politics. He wrote a military manual in English, entitled Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery (O obrotach artylerii konnej), which was published in New York in 1808 and used at the West Point Military Academy until the second half of the 19th century. In 1814, Kościuszko met with Tsar Alexander I in Paris and gave him the money he had received from Tsar Paul in 1796, which he always considered a loan. He conducted animated correspondence with the most illustrious personages of his time. During the time of the Vienna Congress in 1815, Kościuszko went to Vienna in order to second the proceedings and attempt to influence decisions which regarded Polish issues. He was interested in the social reform and education for common people. The last two years of his life he spent with the befriended Zeltner family in Switzerland. Kościuszko died in their home in Soler on October 15 (approximately around 10 p.m.), 1817. He was seventy-one years' old.
Kościuszko was a man of multiple talents: drawing, music, architecture, horticulture, military engineering along with military strategy, political and social philosophy, these are only examples of his wide range of interests and occupations. He was a paragon of courage and honesty and at the same time a man of immense goodness and modesty. There was no discrepancy between his ideals, beliefs and practice. He was a real defender of fundamental, natural rights of the nation and the individual. Before his death he composed his last will in which he emancipated his serfs in Siechnowice, but the tsarist authorities prevented the execution of the document. He donated all remaining money to the local poor, who paid their last respects to him by carrying the coffin during the ceremonious funeral procession with his embalmed body to the crypt of the cathedral church in Soler. His grave at Zuchville cemetery became an object of pilgrimage for Polish - emigrants throughout the entire 19th century. Kościuszko's heart was placed in an urn brought to Warsaw in 1927, only after Poland regained independence. In Soler, he left the common and persistent memory of a good man.
The news about the death of this defender of freedom and a friend of people immersed the whole civilised world in mourning, and especially Poland. His death was commemorated in the United States Congress, in Great Britain and in France. General La Fayette, participant in the fight for freedom and independence of the United States and a friend of Polish people, during the funeral service for Kościuszko's soul in Paris called him “a friend of humanity” and said that “his virtues are the possession of entire humanity.
In Cracow, following the initiative of Kościuszko's brothers-in-arms of 1792 and 1794, a memorial service was celebrated at the Capuchin Church. A magnificent ceremony took place at the Wawel Castle. A memorial service was also celebrated in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. All the lands of the Crown and Lithuania became subject to a wave of memorial services for the last defender of Motherland. Masses were said and sermons delivered in churches, as everybody remembered Kościuszko's virtues. In the midst of this great mourning for the Hero, the feeling of national unity was gathering strength and the national awareness of Polish people in captivity was hardening.
It was decided that the body of the Polish national Hero should be brought to the country. On April 11, 1818, Kościuszko's coffin was brought to Saint Florian Church at Kleparz in Cracow, and two months later a ceremonious funeral followed. In the evening of June 22, the coffin was taken from the Saint Florian Church and brought to the Wawel Cathedral in a ceremonious funeral procession, accompanied by ringing bells, including the Sigismund Bell, and firing cannons. In the Cathedral, the coffin was placed on a monumental catafalque in front of Saint Stanislaus' confession. On the next day, i.e. June 23, 1818, the proper funeral service took place. Kościuszko was buried in the vault of the Royal Cathedral, among the Batory and the Sobieski families.
People of true greatness, illustrious by their deeds and examples of their lives, do not fade away. Their lives, in an exceptionally expressive manner, do not end with death. They live in the collective memory in a number of ways. They resist oblivion and transitoriness. They become a fixed element, not only of history, but also of the spiritual culture of nations. Kościuszko belongs to people such as these, in both Polish and international culture.
Kościuszko did not die in the hearts of the people. His legend remains powerful, not only to the Poles, but also on an international scale. The swift current of Kościuszko's story forcefully testifies to his historical merits in a variety of ways. Even if we are sometimes tempted to surmise that the legend surpasses the actual person, we should always remember that the legend never adopts mediocre people of events, but only truly great individuals.