Thursday, June 27, 2024

Tadeusz Kościuszko, Romantic Hero

by Kit Hawthorne

Readers of historical fiction—and of history—are familiar with the plight of members of European gentry and nobility who have fallen on hard times. We have all read about poor but worthy gentlemen who earn their bread through military service, church work, or educating the children of the upper classes. Any other form of work was considered a degradation for the gently born. Tutors and governesses were in a particularly sad state, isolated both from the laboring staff of the household and from their employers.

Such was the case with Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the youngest son in a noble Polish family, who ultimately fought on the Patriot side in the American Revolutionary War. Kosciuszko’s family was at the lower economic end of the szlachta, a broad class of Polish nobility. In my last month’s post, I wrote about how his education at a military academy prepared him for a distinguished career in the fledgling United States. Under the guidance of the academy’s superintendent, the Oxford-trained Englishman John Lind, Kosciuszko not only learned the art of war, but was exposed to Enlightenment teaching that emphasized democratic ideals and personal freedom.

While the storm of war rose in the American colonies, Poland was experiencing its own political turmoil, which culminated in the nation’s being carved up by the stronger European powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The Polish people, chafing under this humiliation, found common cause with the colonists in their struggle against British Imperialism. They applauded the brave protests of the Sons of Liberty, whose exploits across the Atlantic were written about in Polish press reports.

But there was another pivotal experience of Kosciuszko’s that set him on the road to the New World, and that one concerned his love life.

Engraving by Josef Grassi

In 1774, after finishing his studies in France, Kosciuszko returned home to find that his older brother’s profligacy had nearly bankrupted the family’s estate. According to Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges, “Kosciuszko’s bleak future seemed to be that of half of Poland’s nearly landless noblemen, who, owning no serfs, plodded into the fields to do the farm labor themselves, often hanging their sword on a tree while plowing and harvesting. As a partitioned Poland fell into a deep slough, only a sense of class superiority based on birth, equestrian skills, and physical bravery remained for such impecunious gentry” (Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull).

Like many an impoverished romantic hero, Kosciuszko took a job as a tutor. His employer was Józef Sylwester Sosnowski, a member of the high-ranking magnate class of Polish-Lithuanian nobility, and the wealthiest man in Poland. Kosciuszko went to work teaching Sosnowski’s daughters…and soon fell in love with one of them.

Portrait by Josef Grassi

Eighteen-year-old Ludwika Sosnowska was no mean scholar herself. While under Kosciuszko’s tutelage, she and her sister made the first ever French-to-Polish translation of La Physiocratie, a comprehensive treatise by Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours on physiocracy, an economic theory that emphasized the role of agricultural production in national prosperity. Ludowika’s father refused Kosciuszko’s request for her hand, telling him that “ringdoves are not for sparrows, and the daughters of magnates are not for the sons of the szlachta.” Undeterred, Kosciuszko and Ludwika planned to elope, but they were found out. Sosnowski had Kosciuszko beaten and driven from his estate under threat of death. Living on borrowed funds, Kosciuszko left Poland in search of a new livelihood.

His travels ultimately led him to the United States, where he enjoyed a brilliant career fighting valiantly on the Patriot side. Later, after the end of the Revolutionary War, he returned to Poland and continued to contend for the cause of liberty in the uprising that bears his name.

Ludwika ultimately married Prince Józef Aleksander Lubomirski, a member of the magnate class, at her father’s behest. In 1788, she used her influence as a Polish princess to try to get Kosciuszko an appointment in the Polish army, but was unsuccessful. (Six years later, he rose to prominence as the leader of Kosciuszko’s Uprising.)

Kosciuszko himself never married. To the end of his days, he carried a lock of Ludwika’s hair and kept it close to his heart.


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    1. Thank you for continuing the story of this man. Obviously, he had an enduring love for Ludwika and perhaps she for him since she tried to intervene on his behalf.