The Third Partition
Toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the game changed. Though Enlightenment principles were celebrated in the salons of Europe, the aristocracy and their power structures were too entrenched to torment radical change. It took the revolt by Britain’s thirteen North American colonies, an ocean away from the Empire’s power base in England, to show that governance by Enlightenment ideals was possible. It also took a little over a decade of war and a failed experiment called the Articles of Confederation, before the disciples of the Enlightenment could look upon the countries of the world for a success story. The American Revolution, the adoption of the US Constitution, and the impending inclusion of amendments protecting individual rights sent shock waves throughout the world where small aristocracies still held most of the power. Just the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law was a radical notion that directly resulted in bloody revolution in many countries. America’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” not only inspired the “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” in France, but also the “For Our Freedom and Yours” of Poland. But whereas France’s revolution devolved into an internal bloodbath, Poland’s was relatively peaceful, at least internally.
In the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was ripe for constitutional revolution. The Commonwealth was the only country in Europe who already enjoyed “democracy of the nobility” where all nobles, no matter their wealth and status, were equal in the eyes of the law (if only in theory). Still, it was not beyond the realm of belief to take this concept to the next logical step and apply this equality under the law to all citizens. Furthermore, the super wealthy magnates, and their foreign backers, had sabotaged the political process to the Commonwealth’s detriment, through the abuse of the ”liberum veto”. The abuse was so obvious, and the corruption so blatant, that reform was obviously needed, and desperately desired by the rest of the szlachta (petty nobility), the burghers, merchants, peasants, and clergy. Finally, the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires sensed the weakness, and encroached on Polish territory — partitioning off pieces of the country in 1772. In the Commonwealth, rule by the super wealthy aristocracy and their elected King was obviously not working.
In 1784, after the end of the American Revolution, Continental Army general and godfather of the US Army Engineer Corps, Tadeusz Kościuszko, returned to his Polish homeland. His arrival sparked the action necessary for Commonwealth to pass the Constitution of 1791 — the “world’s second oldest constitution”, and a near mirror of the US Constitution with the Bill of Rights. (Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted in France in 1789, it was not a governing document; the new French Constitution wasn’t passed until September 1791). Unfortunately the autocratic and aristocratic Empires of Austria, Prussia, and Russia could not abide a nation of free men on their borders. They invaded, overwhelmed, and partitioned Poland a second time just a year later. Tadeusz Kościuszko led an uprising against Russia in 1794, and though initially successful, the country was again overwhelmed. The great empires of Eastern and Central Europe were tired of the rebellious Poles. Kościuszko’s rebellion saved the French Revolution by diverting resources from the victorious First Coalition campaign against the French which allowed the French revolutionaries just enough breathing room to reorganize and call the mass levy. The “Polish Question” needed a permanent answer.
On 24 October 1795, the foreign ministers of the three empires assembled in St Petersburg and formally dismembered the remains of the newly formed Commonwealth of Poland. There would be no Polish rump state as there had been for the previous two partitions. Poland was to be wiped from the map of Europe. They found that a Polish rump state served only to inspire revolution and give sanctuary to radicals. Finally, the subversive Polish culture was to be eradicated. The three foreign ministers abolished all Polish institutions, divided up the country, and declared the official suppression of Polish language and culture.
Poland would not exist as a state again until after the First World War, 123 years later.
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