He was born to Stanislas Poniatowski the elder, governor of Cracow, and to Konstantia Czartoryski, January 17, 1732. “I was brought up very strictly,” he told Mme. Geoffrin, “by a mother the like of whom you will scarce find anywhere nowadays, while my father only preached to me by his example.”16 At the age of sixteen he began extensive travels. In 1753 he captivated Mme. Geoffrin, her salon, and nearly all Paris by his figure, his manners, and his youth. A few years later, following a fashion of the time, he composed a self-portrait that accorded fairly with the facts:
I should be content with my figure if only I were an inch taller, … and my nose less hooked, and my mouth a little smaller. With these reservations I believe that my face is noble and expressive, my figure not without distinction. … My shortsightedness often makes me look awkward, but only for an instant. Indeed I am rather apt to offend by the opposite extreme—too haughty a demeanor. An excellent education enables me to conceal my mental and bodily defects, so that many people perhaps expect more from me than I can readily give. I have wit enough to take part in any conversation, but not enough to converse long and frequently. However, my natural sympathy and amiability often come to my assistance. I have a natural penchant toward art. … My indolence prevents me from going as far as I should like to go in the arts and sciences. I work either overmuch or not at all. I can judge very well of affairs, … but I am very much in need of good counsel to carry out any plan of my own. I am very impressionable, but far more affected by sorrow than by joy. I am the first to be depressed. … When I love I love too passionately. … I am not vindictive. Though in the first moment of irritation I may long to avenge myself upon my enemies, I am never able to carry out my desire; compassion always comes between.17
To see—and express—himself so well suggests that Poniatowski was born to think and write rather than to plan and do. He had met Montesquieu and read Voltaire; he had acquired the intellectual polish and subtlety of French society along with a degree of that “sensibility” which was finding expression in Rousseau. He was extremely sensitive to women, and felt that what they gave him, in body and soul, was beyond price. Rumor said that in Paris he was arrested for debt, and was released after an hour’s imprisonment upon payment of 100,000 livres by Mme. Geoffrin.18
After five months in Paris, and having learned English, he went to England, attended some sessions of Parliament, and aspired to remold the Polish situation in the image of England as interpreted by Montesquieu. Back from his travels (1754), he was appointed high steward of Lithuania. A year later he accompanied Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams to Russia, with results already noted. He returned home in 1756, but went to St. Petersburg in 1757 as Polish ambassador. He shared in the intrigue against Elizabeth in 1758, and was forced to leave Russia at short notice. Catherine mourned his departure, but when she supported him for the throne of Poland it was not because she still loved him, but because (she said) he had less right than any other candidate, and should therefore be all the more grateful.19 As for himself, he never quite recovered from that exciting liaison; he remembered Catherine before she had been hardened by power, and that fascination survived even when she made him her tool in the subjection of his people.
Two days after his election he sent the news to Mme. Geoffrin:
MY DEAR MAMA: It seems to me that I have greater pleasure in calling you by that name since the day before yesterday. [His own mother was now dead.] In all our history there has never been an election so tranquil and so unanimous. … All the principal ladies of the kingdom were present on the Field of Election amid the squadrons of the nobility.... I had the satisfaction of being proclaimed by the voices of all the women as well as by those of all the men. … Why were you not there? You would have named your son.20
We have seen how “Mama” braved the roads of Europe to visit her “son” in his palace at Warsaw (1766). Having no realistic conception of the gap between French and Polish civilization, she longed to have him pull Poland up a century in a year; her advice became troublesome, and strained Poniatowski’s filial devotion; he was relieved when she left, though he soothed her with compliments and a picture of himself set in diamonds. She kept the picture and sent back the diamonds. Once away, her love for him returned to full fervor, and she wrote to him from Vienna affirming for him “an affection which is a necessity of my life.”21
Stanislas did his best. He gave himself dutifully, in these first years, to the chores of government. He attended daily the deliberations of his ministers, and worked till late at night on problems which he undertook in conscientious detail. He succeeded in good measure in training a civil-service corps of unusual competence and startling integrity.22 He made himself easily accessible, and charmed all by his amiability, not all by his enthusiasm for reform. But his energy was diluted by a sense of his dependence upon Catherine, even upon the Russian troops that she had left in Poland as a guarantee of his security and obedience. Her ambassador, Count Otto von Stackelberg, watched over him lest he forget his Russian strings.
He was surrounded by enemies far and near. The Polish nobility was divided into two factions: one, led by the Potockis, agitated for independence before reform, and wished to check the royal power by keeping the aristocracy strong; the other, under the Czartoryskis, asked for reform first, arguing that in its present disorder Poland was too weak to throw off the Russian protectorate. The Czartoryskis were hesitant in the support of Poniatowski, for they deplored his extravagances and his mistresses. The Diet allowed him 2,200,000 thalers per year, and raised this, by 1786, to 6,143,000 gulden—one third of the government’s revenue. He spent more than this allowance, having borrowed from banks at home and abroad. Twice the state paid his debts; yet in 1790 he still owed 11,500,000 gulden.23 Like Catherine, he aspired to make his reign memorable for fine buildings; he divided himself and his retinue between two costly palaces; he gave expensive entertainments, and lavished gifts upon artists, writers, and women.
His attractiveness was costly. Thirty-two at his accession, handsome, cultured, generous, and unmarried, he gathered about him a swarm of belles eager for his hand and his purse. Several who could not marry him were glad to share his bed, and some Parisian actresses joined in amusing the King. The Czartoryskis protested; he confessed his sins and continued them. Finally one mistress, Pani Grabowska, led him to the altar in a secret marriage. Thereafter his sexual life was under strict surveillance, and he could give more attention to government, literature, and the arts.
He took a personal interest in the works and the lives of the artists and authors of the time. Like Catherine, he collected pictures, statuary, and books, built a gallery and a library, and gave prominence, in the latter, to a statue of Voltaire. He found work for native artists, and brought in others from France, Italy, and Germany. Piranesi and Canova could not come, but they executed works for him in Italy. He transformed half the royal palace into a school of art, and provided funds to enable promising young artists to study abroad. He established near Warsaw a porcelain industry whose products ranked with those of Meissen and Sèvres. He inspired well-to-do Poles—Adam Czartoryski, Elizabeth Lubomirska, Helen Radziwill, and others—to collect art, to commission artists, and, in building and decorating their palaces, to replace the rococo of the Saxon period with variations of the neoclassical style. He himself favored a mixture of baroque and classical; in this style Domenico Merlini designed the Lazienki Palace on the outskirts of Warsaw. Meanwhile foreign painters were training a new generation of Polish artists, who came to maturity after Polish liberty had disappeared.
The first moves toward that catastrophe were the obstacles placed by Frederick the Great in the path of Poland’s self-reform. Thus far (1767) Catherine seems to have had no intention to dismember a Poland so obviously subject to Russian influence; partition would enlarge Prussia into a much more formidable barrier than Slavic Poland could be to Russian participation in the affairs and culture of Western Europe. She was content to demand the admission of the Dissidents to full civil rights. But Frederick wanted more. He could never reconcile himself to the fact that West Prussia, predominantly German and Protestant, was subject to Polish and Catholic rule. Hence some partition of Poland was with him an unforgettable objective. Any strengthening of Poland, political or military, would hinder his aims; therefore his agents supported the liberum veto , opposed the formation of a Polish national army, and welcomed the quarrels of Catholics and Dissidents as offering a ground for invasion.
The intolerance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy co-operated with Frederick’s schemes. It resisted every attempt to admit the Dissidents to civil rights. In “White Russia”—which was then a part of Poland, and included Minsk—the Roman Catholic authorities took two hundred churches from their Greek Orthodox congregations and gave them to the Uniates; the Orthodox communities were forbidden to repair their old churches and to build new ones. In many cases children were separated from their parents to be brought up in the Roman obedience. Orthodox priests were ill-treated, and some were put to death.24 Poniatowski, child of the philosophes , favored toleration,25 but he knew that the Diet would fight, with force if necessary, any move to admit non-Roman Catholics to its membership; and he felt that such proposals should be deferred until some modification of the liberum veto could strengthen his hand. Frederick and Catherine replied that they were asking no more of Poland than they themselves were granting to their own religious minorities. To the Diet that met in October and November, 1766, Prussia, Russia, Denmark, and Great Britain presented a petition that their coreligionists in Poland should receive full civil rights.
Aroused by the eloquence of Bishop Kajetan Soltyk of Cracow, the deputies rose to their feet in anger and demanded not only the rejection of the petition, but the prosecution of its Polish supporters as traitors to Poland and God.26 A member who tried to defend the petition narrowly escaped death.27 Poniatowski sought to quiet the assembly by issuing (November, 1766) a pamphlet called Considerations of a Good Citizen , calling upon all Poles for national unity, and warning them that a divided nation invited conquest. At the same time he begged the Polish ambassador at St. Petersburg to detach Russia from the petitioning powers. “If this [petition] be persisted in,” he wrote, “I can see nothing but a St. Bartholomew’s Eve [Massacre] for the Dissidents, and a harvest of Ravaillacs [assassins] for myself. … The Empress would make of my royal mantle a robe of Nessus. I shall have to choose between renouncing her friendship and being an enemy to my country.” Catherine answered, through Nikolai Repnin, her ambassador at Warsaw: “I cannot conceive how the King can fancy himself a traitor to his country by simply supporting the demands of equity.”28 She was too far from Poland, in space and education, to feel the consuming heat of Polish passion and pride. When a group of Protestant nobles formed a confederacy at Thorn, and a Czartoryski faction formed a confederacy at Radom, Catherine bade Repnin offer them the protection of Russia. Under this pretext he brought eighty thousand Russian troops to the Polish border, and some of them into Warsaw itself.
The Diet reconvened in October, 1767. Bishops Zaluski and Soltyk exhorted the deputies to stand firm against any change in the constitution. Going over Poniatowski’s head, Repnin arrested the bishops and two laymen on the charge of having insulted the Empress, and had them transported to Kaluga, ninety miles southwest of Moscow. The Diet protested; Repnin announced that if further opposed he would deport not four but forty magnates. On February 24, 1768, the Diet surrendered to threats of war and signed with Russia a treaty accepting all of Catherine’s demands: full freedom of religious worship, and eligibility to the Diet and public office, were granted to the Dissidents; suits between Catholics and Dissidents were to be tried before mixed courts. The Diet, Catherine, and Frederick were pleased that the treaty confirmed the liberum veto , with some exceptions for economic legislation. The Diet humbly accepted Catherine as the protectress of this new constitution. In return she guaranteed the territorial integrity of Poland so long as this entente continued. She rejoiced that she had not only given Poland a greater degree of religious liberty than even England enjoyed, but had foiled Frederick’s plan for partition. Poniatowski received the congratulations of the philosophers and the scorn of his people.