#1Jun 20th, 2009
A Two-Country Freedom Fighter
When the great African-American educator and *human-rights pioneer Booker T. Washington visited Krakow, Poland, in 1910, he made a *special point of paying tribute to a dead white male with the nigh-unpronounceable name of *Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko.
“I knew from my school *history what Kosciuszko had done for America in its early struggle for independence,” Washington would later write. “I did not know, however, until my attention was called to it in Krakow, what Kosciuszko had done for the freedom and *education of my own people. . . . When I visited the tomb of *Kosciuszko, I placed a rose on it in the name of my race.”
In his views on race, as in so many other matters, Tadeusz (Thaddeus in English) *Kosciuszko (1746-1811) was a man ahead of his time. A *freedom fighter on two continents, he did not hesitate to denounce the evils of slavery while *playing a crucial role as chief engineer in America’s fledgling Continental Army. In his native Poland, he appealed to the *patriotism of the privileged classes as he championed full civil rights for the dis*enfranchised majority of *Poland’s peasants, Jews and city-dwelling commoners. But he also upheld the rule of law and opposed mob violence. He was, in the words of French historian Jules Michelet, “the last knight, but the first citizen in Slavic lands with a modern understanding of brotherhood and equality.”
Despite his heroic efforts, Kosciuszko’s fatherland had to wait a century after his death before regaining independence from Russia. The world would have to wait even longer for an accessible, soundly researched, English-language biography. With “The Peasant Prince,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Storozynski has filled the void.
The Peasant Prince
By Alex Storozynski
And what a tale he has to tell. A melodramatic, foiled elopement deprived the young Kosciuszko of the love of his life and led him to cross the Atlantic and sign up with George Washington’s ragtag rebel army. The Polish émigré engineered the network of fortifications around West Point that *Benedict Arnold unsuccessfully tried to betray to the British and that helped keep the main British army bottled up in New York City. Kosciuszko also played a key role in the wilderness campaigns that ended in the crucial American victory at Saratoga. And he made a triumphal return to his native Poland in time to lead a doomed but heroic national struggle against Russia and overwhelming odds.
All this and a supporting cast that amounts to a Who’s Who of 18th-century American and European history. In America, those who knew Kosciuszko included Benjamin Franklin (who helped recruit him); George Washington (who had trouble getting Kosciuszko’s name right but hailed him as a military “engineer of *eminence”); Thomas Jefferson (who called him “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known”); and Thomas Paine (who, like Kosciuszko, was granted honorary French *citizenship by the revolutionary regime but spoke out against its brutal excesses). In Europe, Kosciuszko’s acquaintances included Napoleon Bonaparte (who tried—and failed—to use him as a pawn in European power politics) and Catherine the Great (who, after ruthlessly suppressing the Polish insurrection, kept Kosciuszko a political prisoner in Russia
Last edited by china; Jun 20th, 2009 at 08:18 AM..