This 4th of July it seems appropriate to look at one of the great contributors to American Independence. Polish-born General Tadeusz Kościuszko is no stranger to history buffs, but to many Americans today his contribution to our freedom is little known.
Monuments to his service to America dot the country. There is a statue of him in Washington, D.C. in Lafayette Park in front of the White House as well as Kościuszko memorials at the Boston Public Gardens in Massachusetts, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, at West Point and at Saratoga. One can also still visit the Philadelphia home where he lived for a year. A bridge has been named after him in New York City as well several roads in the Northeast. There is even a town in Texas named after him—Kościuszko, Texas. So who was this man?
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko (1746-1817) was born into a gentry-class family, although his father was not wealthy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Kościuszko’s father was not willing to treat the serfs who worked his farms like slaves. He believed that they were entitled to some autonomy, freedom and happiness. This philosophy was absorbed easily by the younger Kościuszko, and as he grew, he lived it in word and deed.
For his education, Kościuszko went to a cadet school and spent many years studying in France. Later he joined the new elite Polish military school in Warsaw established by King Stanislaw Augustine’s brother.
Forced to leave Poland with a broken heart after a failed elopement (the girl’s influential father threatened to have him killed), Kościuszko made his way to the American colonies a month after the Declaration of Independence was signed. He showed up at Benjamin Franklin’s door with no customary references, but Franklin was quickly convinced of his revolutionary spirit and engineering capabilities.
Despite the struggle to pronounce his name (George Washington spelled it no fewer than 11 ways in his letters and papers), he quickly became known as an engineering genius who was also amiable and effective – in contrast to some of his French colleagues whose sense of entitlement did little to serve the Continental Army. He was a vital key in the American Revolution, serving as the engineer for the decisive battle of Saratoga, the defense of West Point, and later for the entire southern army.
Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, Kościuszko sought out Thomas Jefferson and became a regular visitor to Monticello – Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was shocked to learn that, despite Jefferson’s commitment to human rights, the author of the Declaration was a slave owner. Seeing that slaves in America were treated worse than the serfs in his own country, Kościuszko was very vocal about giving them freedom, even to Thomas Jefferson. He said, "By nature, we are all equals – virtue, riches and knowledge constitute the only difference." Despite their disagreement over slavery, Kościuszko and Jefferson remained lifelong friends. After his departure from America at the war’s end, Jefferson wrote to Kościuszko: "[Accept] my warmest [effusions of friendship] toward you which no time will alter. Your principles and dispositions were made to be honored, revered and loved. True to a single object, the freedom and happiness of man, they have not veered about with the changelings and apostates of our acquaintance...."
After the war, having been influenced by the great minds of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Kościuszko returned to his native land to fight another war. Kościuszko formed the Polish Army composed largely of peasant farmers, burghers and Jews that would clash for years against Russian and Prussian armies in an effort to liberate Poland and Lithuania after the Second Partitioning of Poland. In 1794, after many victories, he became commander-in-chief and set up a provisional government of free Poland. He then led the uprising that bears his name against Russian troops. The Polish Army was eventually overcome by superior numbers at Maciejowice on October 10, 1794. General Kościuszko was shot from his horse and captured by the Russians. Although the uprising failed, the ideas and the man behind it would continue on in the hearts of Poles living under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule.
Kościuszko was imprisoned by the Russians until 1796, and upon his release he went to France and then America. He returned to Europe and died in a horseback riding accident in Switzerland on October 15, 1817. He was buried in crypt of Wawel Castle in Krakow, while his heart remained in Rapperswill, Switzerland, until Poland was reunited as a free country (it too is now at Wawel).
The inscription of the Kościuszko monument at the White House sums up a collective sentiment about his death: “And freedom shrieked as Kościuszko fell”. In his will, Kościuszko left his estate to purchase, free and education of Black slaves in the American South.
In Krakow, he is remembered at the Kościuszko Mound that overlooks the city. It started as a small enterprise by Poles wanting to honor the memory of Kościuszko and the ideals for which he poured out his life. Handfuls of dirt and rocks where brought from all over Poland to the Krakow suburb of Zwierzyniec. Eventually, the grassroots efforts lead to a city resolution on July 19, 1820, establishing the site as an official memorial. Thirty years later, a citadel fort and chapel was built, funded by people from all backgrounds and social classes, uniting the Poles who lived as a separated nation.
On July 4, 1926, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an American delegation (including Polish historian Erik P. Kelly) added earth from the battlefields of Yorktown and Saratoga to the Kościuszko Mound.
Kościuszko’s memory also inspired the founding of the Kościuszko Foundation in New York. Szczepan Mizwa wanted to establish a living memorial to Kościuszko in honor of the 150th anniversary of his arrival in America. He set up the ambitious goal of raising $1 million endowment for future generations of Poles to study in the United States and for Americans to study in Poland. Overcoming much derision (out of 800 Polish pastors contacted by Mizwa, only one thought it was “a good idea”), Mizwa was able to raise the money.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyła visited the Kościuszko Foundation on Sept. 4, 1976, two years before becoming pope. He told the members that the foundation’s work is "particularly important at this time. We realize that culture creates a national identity, and in the end creates the nation itself." Later, as Pope, John Paul II said of the Kościuszko Foundation: “We must be grateful to everyone who has contributed to these efforts, and to those who are continuing to work towards these goals. This work is one of the greatest components of our national identity."
The United States and Poland are forever linked through Kościuszko. This friendship is noted in the gift bestowed upon him after his great service to the American Revolution. General Washington presented him two pistols and a sword with the Latin engraving on the front: America cum Vashington, suo Amico T. Kosciuconi, America and Washington to our friend T. Kościuszko, and on the back, Mater Dei ora pro nobis, Mother of God, pray for us – a surprising choice for the protestant Washington.
Further Reading: Alex Storozynski brings Kościuszko alive in the familiar context of the American Revolution in The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kościuszko and the Age of Revolution.
This story originally appeared at the Register on July 4, 2016.