Other pages13 have told how the Polish Diet passed over the son of the great Sobieski to give the crown of Poland to Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who embraced Catholicism overnight to become Augustus II (the “Strong”) of Poland; how Charles XII of Sweden replaced him with Stanislas Leszczyński (1704), and how the defeat of Charles at Poltawa (1709) allowed Augustus to regain his throne. He enjoyed few of the legislative powers of an eighteenth-century monarch, but all the sexual privileges of royalty. Failing to rule Poland, he turned his love back to Saxony, beautified Dresden, filled himself with beer, and depleted himself with mistresses; he added insult to injury by taking only one of these from the Polish belles. Toward the end of his reign he planned to partition Poland among Austria, Prussia, and Saxony, but he died (February 1, 1733) before effecting this deviltry. On his deathbed he said, “My whole life was one ceaseless sin.”14 In morte veritas.
In the interregnum that ensued during the assembling of an electoral Diet, French emissaries lavished livres to win deputies to the restoration of Leszczyński. Since his deposition Stanislas had lived in peace and hope in Alsace. In 1725 his daughter Marie had become queen of France by marrying Louis XV; now Louis expected his father-in-law, if enthroned, to follow the French policy of aligning Poland with Prussia and Turkey in a cordon around Austria. Feeling that such an alliance would weaken Russia in her inevitable conflicts with Turkey and Prussia, the Russian government dispatched rubles to Warsaw to prevent the election of Leszczyński. The livres outweighed the rubles, and on September 10, 1733, Leszczyński became King Stanislas I of Poland.
A minority refused to recognize his election, and put themselves under the protection of a Russian army that advanced to the Vistula and proclaimed the Saxon Elector as King Augustus III of Poland (October 6). So began the War of the Polish Succession, and the first decisive interference of Russia in Polish affairs. Stanislas looked for a Polish army to defend him; none existed except on paper; he fled to Danzig and appealed to France for aid. The French government was then led by Cardinal Fleury, who had no stomach for a war with distant Russia; he sent a detachment of 2,400 soldiers; the Russians, with twelve thousand men, overwhelmed it. Stanislas escaped from Danzig and retired to Lorraine. In January, 1736, he signed his abdication; in July Augustus III was acknowledged king.
But he was no more fit than Leszczyński to guide a nation which had chaos built into its constitution. For a time he co-operated with the Czartoryskis in attempts to end the liberum veto ; the Potocki repeatedly used the veto to preserve it; Augustus gave up, comforted himself in Dresden, and rarely visited Poland. Corruption continued and flourished; unable to stop it, the King shared in it, selling offices to the highest bidder. Magnates controlled the courts and the armed forces; they negotiated directly with foreign powers, and received subsidies from them.15 France, Austria, Prussia, Russia maneuvered to see which could profit most from the imminent dissolution of the Polish state.
Before and after the death of Augustus III (October 5, 1763), the competition to name and rule his successor ran through every device of diplomacy to the brink of war. The Potockis pleaded for a standing army of 100,000 to protect Poland from foreign domination. The Czartoryskis resigned them selves to a Russian protectorate, and negotiated with Catherine II. Russia claimed the right to protect the Greek Orthodox minority in Poland, and stretched its memory to recall that the eastern Polish provinces had been taken from Russia by St. Vladimir (956?-1015) eight hundred years before. France favored the son of Augustus III to succeed him; if Russia mastered Poland the whole structure of French foreign policy in the East would collapse. Frederick the Great, who had just concluded seven years of bitter war against France and Austria, needed the friendship of Catherine, by whose permission he had escaped disaster; he agreed to support her candidate for the Polish crown; moreover, he signed with her (April n, 1764) a treaty secretly binding both of them to oppose any changes in the constitution of either Poland or Sweden, lest an increase in the royal power should make one or both of these countries dangerously strong; they proposed to defend chaos in the name of liberty. The Czartoryskis were appeased by Catherine’s promise to curtail the liberum veto after stability had been restored, and by her choice of a Czartoryski protégé as her candidate for the throne. On September 7, 1764, by the unanimous vote of a Diet convinced by rubles and a Russian army only three miles away, Stanislas Poniatowski was chosen king.