GEOGRAPHY, race, religion, and politics were the natural enemies of Poland. The country was as large as France, extending in 1715 from the Oder in the west almost to Smolensk and Kiev in the east; but it had no natural boundary—no mountains or broad river—on either front to protect it from invasion; it was named from pole , a plain. It had only one outlet to the sea—at Danzig; and the Vistula that found its exit there was no defense against adjacent Prussia. The nation had no ethnic unity: the Polish majority of its 6,500,000 souls (1715) was in intermittent strife with German, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Russian minorities; here the Teutons and the Slavs came face to face in spontaneous hostility. There was no religious unity: the Roman Catholic majority ruled and oppressed the “Dissidents”—themselves contentiously divided between Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Jews. There was no political unity, for the jealously sovereign power lay in a Sejm, or Diet, composed exclusively of nobles each of whom had, through the liberum veto , the authority to nullify any proposal of all the rest, and at will bring any session, any elected Diet, to an end. The king was chosen by the Diet, and was subject to “conventions” signed by him as a condition of his election; he could pursue no long-term policy with any assurance of transmitting his crown or receiving steady support. The nobles demanded such limitless power over legislation because each wished to be completely free in ruling his lands and his serfs. But limitation is the essence of liberty, for as soon as liberty is complete it dies in anarchy. The history of Poland after Jan Sobieski was a chronicle of anarchy.
Nearly all the soil was tilled by serfs in a feudal subjection from which there was no appeal. The master was sometimes kind, but he was always absolute. His serfs not only owed him such part of their produce as he might demand; they were required also to give him gratis two or three days of work each week on his manor. Fortunately the well-watered land was fertile, and the peasants had enough to eat, but Coxe described them as “poorer, humbler, and more miserable than any people we have yet observed on our travels.”1 Their local masters were the lower nobility, or gentry (szlachta*), and these squires in turn were subject to some hundred magnates owning or controlling immense areas. The gentry held most of the executive offices in the state, and theoretically they dominated the Sejm; actually Polish politics was a strife of magnates or their families, manipulating szlachta groups by economic influence or direct bribery.2
In Poland the family still retained its primitive priority over the state. The Radziwills, the Potockis, the Czartoryskis were severally united by a sentiment of family solidarity more intense than any national bond; here patriotism was literally reverence for the father, and above all for the oldest father. The family was strong as an institution because it was the unit of economic production and moral discipline; there was no economic individualism scattering the sons over the country; normally the son remained on the patrimonial estate, subject to paternal command as long as the father lived; the family flourished through that same unity of authority whose absence weakened the state. All the wealth of the family was under centralized patriarchal control; in many cases it grew from year to year through the reinvested profits of exploitation and exportation, and in several cases it exceeded the wealth of the king. Twenty Polish families in the eighteenth century spent, each of them, over 200,000 livres per year on their households.3Powerful families called their homes courts, with retainers, private armies, numerous servants, and semiroyal displays; so Prince Karol Radziwill, whose estate was half as large as Ireland, gave in 1789 a feast to four thousand guests at a cost of a million marks.4
The most famous of Polish families—so well-known that it was called “the Family”—was the Czartoryskis. It had held princely rank since the fifteenth century, and was related to the house of Jagiello, which had ruled Poland from 1384 to 1572. Prince Kasimierz Czartoryski (d. 1741), vice-chancellor of Lithuania, married Isabella Morstin, who brought a further infusion of French culture into the family. By her he had three children of note: (1) Fryderyk Michal Czartoryski, who became grand chancellor of Lithuania; (2) Alexander Augustus Czartoryski, who became Prince Palatine of “Red Russia”; and (3) Konstantia, who married Stanislas Poniatowski I, and bore to him Stanislas Poniatowski II, the most tragic figure in Polish history.
It was an added distinction of the Czartoryskis that their liberalism grew with their wealth. They had long been known for their humane treatment of their serfs; “if I had been born a serf,” said a contemporary, “I should wish to be the serf of Prince [Alexander] Augustus Czartoryski.”5 They organized schools for children, supplied them with textbooks, built chapels, hospitals, model cottages. To their estate and mansion in Pulawy (near Lublin) they brought teachers and scholars who trained promising youths, from any class, for the service of the state. Politically the Family opposed the liberum veto as making effective government impossible. Against them were ranged many families which felt that the veto was their sole protection against a centralized autocracy. Strongest of these were the Potockis, led by Prince Felix Potocki, who could ride thirty miles in one direction without leaving his land—three million acres in the Ukraine.
Industry and commerce, which in the sixteenth century had shared in making Poland great and its towns prosperous, had been retarded by the hostility of the landowners and their obedient Diet. Many towns were wholly within the private property of a magnate who, fearing the rise of an independent middle class, favored agriculture against industry. The competition of serf handicrafts on the manors had depressed the artisans of the towns. “The ruin of the cities,” wrote Antoni Potocki in 1744, “is so evident that with the single exception of Warsaw the first ones in the country can well be compared to dens of robbers.”6 Grass grew in the streets of Lvov, some city squares had become open fields, and Cracow, formerly one of the great cultural centers of Europe, had declined to a population of nine thousand, and its famous university to six hundred students.7
The decay of the towns was due in part to the Catholic reconquest of Poland. Many of the displaced Protestants had been merchants or artisans; their diminution in all but western Poland (where many Germans remained) left the Polish scene to the landlords; and these were either Roman Catholics or, in the east, Greek Orthodox or Uniates (Catholics using the Eastern ritual but acknowledging the pope of Rome). The Dissidents—Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Jews, numbering eight per cent of the population—were excluded from public office and the Diet; all suits against them were tried before completely Catholic courts.8 Religious hostility reached the point where, in 1724, in predominantly Protestant Toruń (Thorn), the populace, infuriated by the behavior of a Jesuit student, desecrated the Host and trampled upon an image of the Virgin. Nine of the raiders were put to death. The Protestants of Poland appealed to Prussia, the Greek Orthodox appealed to Russia; Prussia and Russia offered protection, from which they progressed to invasion and partition.
Polish morals resembled the German at table and the French in bed. The peasants were inured to monogamy by care of the soil and their brood, but in the capital it was made difficult by the beauty and the “seductive manners”9 of the women, who did not allow their superior education to interfere with their charm. The ladies of Warsaw, we are told, were sexually as lax as those of Paris.10 Poniatowski assures us that he was a virgin till twenty-two,11 but he adds that such continence was exceptional in his class.—Drunkenness was endemic, and made no class distinctions. Among the peasants it gave periodic amnesia from poverty, hardship, or cold; among the nobles it solaced isolation and ennui; and in all ranks the males looked upon it as not a vice but an accomplishment. Pan Komarczewski was honored because he could empty a bucket of champagne at one draft without losing his head or his feet; Poniatowski was warned that he would never be popular unless he got drunk twice a week.12 Hospitality was universal, but it was judged by the amount of food and drink provided for the guests. Sometimes a magnate mortgaged a town to pay for a banquet.
The literate Poles colored the scene with their dress. The peasant, in summer, made shift with shirt and knee breeches of coarse linen, without stockings or shoes, and in winter he bundled himself up with no care for color and no time for art; but the gentry, numbering some 725,000, wore boots, sword, plumed hat, a colored robe of silk or lace, and, around the waist, a broad sash of patterned fabrics in rich hues. This proudly national garb had come up from Islam through the contact of the Lithuanians with Turks in the Ukraine; it reflected the occasional alliance of Poland with Turkey against Austria or Russia; and perhaps it expressed an Asiatic element in Polish manners and character.
Culturally Poland, from 1697 to 1763, was retarded by the indifference of its Saxon kings to Slavic literature and art, and by two devastating wars. The Catholic Church was not only the chief patron of the arts, it was also the dispenser of education and the main repository of learning and literature. It carefully quarantined Poland from the movement of science and philosophy in the West, but within its limits it spread and cultivated knowledge. Józef Zaluski, bishop of Kiev, gathered 200,000 volumes at Warsaw into one of the greatest libraries of the age; in 1748 he opened it to the public and presented it to the nation; meanwhile he himself lived frugally, and sacrificed himself in the struggle to preserve Poland’s independence.
It was he who turned the eager young priest Stanislas Konarski to the study of history and law. In 1731 Konarski issued the first of four volumes—Volumina legum —which codified Polish legislation from Casimir the Great to his own time. These and other researches revealed to Konarski how tragically Poland had fallen from her Renaissance flowering. Convinced that regeneration could come only from the top, he established in Warsaw (1740) a Collegium Nobilium, where pedigreed youths could receive an education not only in mathematics and the classic languages and literatures (which the Jesuits taught well) but also in the natural sciences and modern languages. It was an heroic task, for he had neither money nor textbooks, neither teachers nor students; yet after fifteen years of labor he had made his College of Nobles a famous and honored institution, one of the sources of the cultural revival under Poniatowski, and of the enlightened constitution of 1791. He appealed for a reform of the Polish language, seeking to rid it of Latin phrases and flowering rhetoric; the nation protested, still it learned. Konarski crowned his work by publishing (1760-63) the most important political treatise of the century in Poland, innocently entitled On the Effective Conduct of Debates ; however containing a blast against the liberum veto . Again there were many protests, but after 1764 no Diet was dissolved by the liberum veto . It was with Konarski’s aid that Poniatowski began the reform of the Polish constitution.
Before that brilliant and fitful resurrection Poland suffered sixty-seven years of disorder, disgrace, and decline under Saxon kings.