Poniatowski had to choose now between Russia and Prussia as his protector and master. He chose Russia, for it was farther away, and only Russia could prevent Frederick from taking Danzig and Thorn. Catherine was anxious to prevent the further aggrandizement of Prussia, whose army was the greatest obstacle to Russian aggrandizement in the West. She ordered her ambassador in Warsaw to help Poniatowski in every way consonant with Russian interests, and she sent to the King the proposals that Panin had drawn up for a more workable Polish constitution. It retained elective monarchy and the liberum veto , but it increased the royal power by establishing, under his presidency and as his executive arm, a Permanent Council of thirty-six members, divided into ministries of police, justice, finance, foreign affairs, and war; and it provided for a regular army of thirty thousand men. The nobles feared that such an army would endanger their domination of the King; they reduced the figure to eighteen thousand; but, with this and some minor exceptions, the Diet of 1775 ratified the new constitution, and Poniatowski could now proceed to restore some health to the nation.
Corruption continued but anarchy diminished, guerrilla bands were overcome, and the national economy grew. Rivers were deepened for large vessels, canals were dug between rivers, and a “Royal Canal,” completed in 1783, connected the Baltic with the Black Sea. Between 1715 and 1773 the population of Poland grew from 6,500,000 to 7,500,000, and the state revenue was doubled. A system of national schools was established, textbooks were prepared and provided, the universities of Cracow and Wilno were reendowed and revitalized, and teachers’ colleges were established and financed by the state. Poniatowski liked to surround himself with poets, journalists, and philosophers. “The King,” reported Coxe, “gives a dinner every Thursday to the men of letters who are most conspicuous for learning and abilities, and his Majesty himself presides at table,”43 leading the discussion of books and ideas. He took three authors to live with him, and quietly added to the income of others.44 Thousands of Poles, while making their courteous obeisance to the Church—even while serving as its priests—read Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, and Rousseau. The foundations were laid of the Polish, or Stanislavian, Enlightenment.
Adam Naruszewicz, a Jesuit, caught the ear of the King by his poems; he was raised to a bishopric, but continued to indite lyrics to nature; his “Hymn to the Sun” and his “Four Seasons” still endear him to those who can read him in the original. His Satires used a popular vocabulary sometimes Rabelaisian or profane. Stanislas asked him to write a readable but scholarly history of Poland; Naruszewicz gave nine years to the task, and in six volumes (1780-86) produced a work remarkable for its discriminate documentation. He lost heart after the second partition, fell into melancholy, and survived the final partition by only a year.45
The outstanding Polish writer of the period was Ignacy Krasicki. In his travels he won the friendship of Voltaire and Diderot.46 He became a priest, ultimately an archbishop, but Stanislas urged him to give rein to his poetic gifts. In a mock-heroic Mousiad (1775) he satirized the wars of his time as battles between rats and mice; in Monomachia (1778) he made fun of monastic disputes—the deadly weapons being theological tomes. Turning to prose, he told, in The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Find-Out (1776), how a young Polish noble, equipped with all fashionable attainments and sentiments, and wrecked on a strange island, discovered how men and women, though in a “state of nature,” could be industrious and virtuous. Having followed the lead of Homer, Swift, and Defoe in these works, Krasicki took up the style of Addison, and produced a series of genre pictures, Pan Podstoli (1778 f.), describing the life of a model gentleman and citizen. In Fables and Parables (1779) he challenged Phaedrus and La Fontaine, and struck with trenchant irony at the dishonesty and brutality that flourished about him. His final advice was Horatian: seek a quiet corner, and let happiness come by stealth.47
Although the influence of the French Enlightenment upon Naruszewicz and Krasicki was sacerdotally subdued, it appeared decisively in Stanislas Trembecki, who never mentioned religion except with hostility. His poetry idolized nature, but not in those pleasant aspects that most often stir sentiment; he liked rather her wilder phases—her mad profusion of plants and animals, her storms and torrents, the strife of life with life, of eaten with eater; his fables took their form from La Fontaine but their spirit from Lucretius. The power, subtlety, and finish of his verse won him a high place in this literary flowering. Poniatowski supported him through all his trials, and when the King was deposed the poet accompanied him into exile, and stayed with him till death.
There was much religious poetry, for religion was the ultimate consolation of the Poles in their personal and national misfortunes. Franciszek Karpiński’s “Morning Song,” “Evening Song,” and “Christ Is Being Born” are literature as well as piety. Franciszek Kniaznin passed readily between those ancient enemies, religion and sex: on the verge of ordination he discovered Anacreon and love; he published Erotica (1770), pursued worldly happiness, returned to religion, and died insane. The attempt to reconcile opposites may lead to madness as well as to philosophy.
In the drama the dominant figure was Wojciecz Boguslawski, whom his countrymen honor as “the father of the Polish theater”; we might call him the Garrick of Poland, but the Poles would call Garrick the Boguslawski of England. He was apparently the first Pole who gave his entire career to the stage—as actor, dramatist, and producer, as director of permanent theaters in Warsaw and Lvov, and as manager of companies that spread an appreciation of the drama throughout the provinces and over the frontiers. He presented Shakespeare and Sheridan in translation, and himself wrote comedies some of which still hold the Polish stage. The best play of this period was The Deputy’s Return , by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, himself a deputy; here the two sides of the political crisis were dramatically pictured in the devotion of a reform deputy to a girl whose parents defend the privileges of the magnates and the ways of the past.
Last and greatest of the Polish illuminés was Hugo Kollontaj. His education infected him with the ideas of the philosophes , but he concealed his heresies sufficiently to secure a comfortable canonry at Cracow. Poniatowski appointed him (1773) to an Education Committee, for which Kollontaj, aged twenty-three, drew up a program of educational reform quite up to the best of its time. At twenty-seven he was entrusted with the reorganization of Cracow University; he carried this through in a few years, and then remained as rector. In Letters of an Anonymous Writer to the President of the Diet (1788-89), and in The Political Law of the Polish Nation (1790), he offered proposals which became the basis of the constitution of 1791.
Prodded by its poets and publicists, Poland struggled to transform itself into an effective and defensible state. An opportunity came when, to the “Four Years’ Diet” of 1788-92, Frederick II’s successor, Frederick William II, offered an alliance that pledged protection by the powerful Prussian army against any foreign interference. Russia was busy with war against both Turkey and Sweden; now Poland might deliver itself from its long subservience to Catherine, and from such depredations as Russian soldiers had committed on Polish soil during the last twenty-five years. Over Poniatowski’s protests the Diet dissolved his Permanent Council, voted to raise, subject to the Diet, an army of 100,000 men, and ordered Russian troops to leave Poland at once (May, 1789). Catherine, needing all her forces elsewhere, made no resistance, but vowed revenge. On March 29, 1790, the Diet signed alliance with Prussia.
By this time Poniatowski too was intoxicated with the air of freedom. Throwing off his allegiance to Catherine, he took the lead in drafting a new constitution. Its terms made the monarchy hereditary, but assured the succession, after the childless Poniatowski’s death, to the house of Saxony. The executive powers of the Crown were to be enlarged by giving the king a suspensive veto—i.e., the right to prevent a measure passed by one Diet from becoming law until reaffirmed by the next. The king was to appoint his ministers and the bishops, and to have command of the army. A small number of burghers and other townsmen were to be elected as deputies. The Diet was to consist of two chambers: a House of Deputies, which alone could originate laws; and a Senate—composed of bishops, provincial governors, and the king’s ministers—whose consent was to be necessary to any law. The liberum veto was to be replaced by majority rule. Roman Catholicism was to be recognized as the prevailing religion of the nation, and apostasy from it was made a crime; but otherwise freedom of worship was guaranteed to all. Serfdom remained, but peasants might now appeal from the patrimonial to a provincial or national court. The influence of the constitution adopted by the United States of America (1787-88) was evident in these recommendations; Poles who had fought for the American colonies had prepared the mind of Poniatowski, and he had not forgotten his reading of Locke, Montesquieu, and the philosophes .
To ensure the ratification of his proposals Poniatowski resorted to a ruse. Many members of the Diet went home for the Easter holy days of 1791; the King summoned it to reconvene on May 3, too soon to let distant members return to Warsaw for the reopening; those nearby deputies who arrived on time were mostly liberals who could be depended upon to support the new constitution. It was offered to them in the royal palace as soon as they convened; it was received with wild acclaim, and was ratified by a large majority. That day, May 3, 1791, was proudly remembered by patriotic Poles, and was celebrated in Polish literature, art, and song.